Thirty years later, Plainview's museum sill entertaining guests; new features on tap

PLAINVIEW – There’s not much Rodney Watson doesn’t know about the Museum of the Llano Estacado. After all, keeping up with the region’s historical repository is his job.

Located on the campus of Wayland Baptist University, the museum has been Watson’s daytime home for the past two years after being named director, trading in the corporate banking world for a less hectic pace and a creative place.

But Watson had a relationship with the museum long before taking the reins in 2004 from retiring curator Eddie Guffee. As a young, self-proclaimed “starving artist” in the early 1980s, Watson worked for the museum in its early years, helping to build and paint scenery for many of the exhibits that are still part of the regional history exhibits.

The museum celebrates 30 years this summer, built in 1976 as one of many bicentennial projects across the United States and a joint effort of the university, the City of Plainview, Hale County and the Plainview Independent School District. Designed to resemble the mud lean-to that was a familiar home to the area’s pioneers, the museum has seen changes over the years, thanks to local partners.

“Over 30 years, lots of time and money has been donated to build up what we have now,” Watson said. “Ramona Roberts has made it her lifelong goal to build the archives of the museum and she has. The Hale County Historical Association has worked closely with the museum as well and has donated much to help with our projects.”

Watson said the museum attendance continues to grow, reaching the 6,000 mark this past year. About a third of those visitors are area school children, another third are out-of-town guests and the final third are local residents, a number Watson would like to see increase.

Armed with creativity and a lifelong love for the place, Watson has dreams for expanding not only the physical property but also in growing the exhibits and reconnecting the museum with Plainview and the region.

The most noticeable project currently underway is a Plainview Hall of Fame exhibit, with plans to honor some of the city’s more notable former residents. Watson has already built and wired new cases for the exhibit, which will be located near the beginning of the regional exhibit.

Watson’s already collected memorabilia and stories for many of the Hall of Fame personalities, including singer and sausage seller Jimmy Dean, former Miss Texas Leah Kay Lyle Gabriel, opera singer Terry Cook, famed girls’ basketball coach Harley Redin, Jo Carroll Dennison, the 1942 Miss America and Hale Center native, and Texas politician Pete Laney and wife Nelda Laney

He’s still tracking down information and items for others on the exhibit list, including Jim Clark, founder of Netscape; Sunset Carson, “B” Western movie star; The Stringalongs, a local band who had the #1 hit in several other countries in “Wheels;” Laverne Roach, a professional boxer; Lawrence McCutcheon, former NFL running back; Jerry Sizemore, a former NFL offensive tackle; and Emily Jones, a national sports broadcaster. The James and Eva Mayer Foundation has provided funding for the exhibit.

“We hope that exhibit will draw the locals back in and show our school kids that even from ‘small-town Texas USA’ you can dream big and those dreams can happen,” Watson said.

His dreams for the completed exhibit include a listening station where visitors can tune in to Gabriel playing piano music for her Miss Texas talent, Terry Cook performing an opera solo, Jimmy Dean’s “Big John” and songs by the Stringalongs.

To make room for the new exhibit, Watson moved the photographic gallery into the old store space and removed a few divider walls. But space is truly at a premium in the exhibit hall of the facility, which means Watson will have to be creative when it comes to his second major project.

“My big vision is to do an expansion with a dedicated hall to our Hale County veterans, and that will take a lot of video and extra work,” Watson said.

Preliminary work is underway on that project, including videotaping of oral histories of several veterans around the city already done and many more lined up to come. Some memorabilia has been collected, but much more is out there to uncover, Watson said. A questionnaire developed a few years back has helped collect valuable written histories and photos from many veterans as well.

“My dream is that the finished product will begin with World War I, including memorabilia, photos and period clothing from that era, then have some listening stations for music from the era as well,” Watson said. “There will be similar areas for World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars and Iraq.”

With a heart for preserving valuable historical information, Watson hopes to also create a library with written histories on file for future generations to look at. Along those lines, he’s also been scanning photos from the historical archives as a backup, and will soon begin working on building exhibits and collecting memorabilia for Wayland’s centennial celebration in 2008-09.

Most of Watson’s projects take more time than financial resources, but a large part of his dream for the museum requires significant funding. Adding some current technology to the facility’s current exhibits – in the form of listening stations, sound effects with motion detection and touch-screen stations for video clips and additional information – will be quite costly. Watson also feels strongly that the facility needs a video security system, another expensive venture.

The museum auditorium, used frequently for meetings from groups all over the area, is also in dire need of some technological advances including a projector and computer set-up for showing PowerPoint presentations and videos. Watson predicts around $30,000 for that project alone, but he knows the facility will be more useful for community groups with the new equipment.

Other minor projects include adding some beautification efforts and signage for the museum both outside the facility and on Quincy Street at the nearest major intersection.

For more information on the museum, call Watson at (806) 291-3660.