Thursday, March 18, 2010

Austin’s Underappreciated Attraction

With all the things to see and do in Austin, Texas, it is understandable that some attractions are a little more popular than others. The Texas State Capitol Building, Sixth Street, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Zilker Park, and Barton Springs Pool are but just a few of the many sites representative of the city. These great sites, along with hundreds of wonderful places to eat, command the attention of both visitors and locals alike all year long. There is one attraction however, which never seems to show up on any “Top 10 Things to See and Do in Austin” list. And, that’s unfortunate, because it truly is one of Austin’s best kept secrets.

One day last week, I headed over to one of the oldest active military facilities in Texas, Camp Mabry, to see the BG John C.L. Scribner Texas Military Forces Museum. The camp was established in Austin in the 1890’s, and named for Brigadier General Woodford Mabry, who was then the Adjutant General of Texas. Soon after the camp was established, he left his post as Adjutant General, to fight in the Spanish-American War. And, although he died in Cuba in 1899, the camp he established in Austin, and the one which bears his name, is still an active military post, and remains the headquarters for the Texas Military Forces. These forces include the Texas Air National Guard, Texas Army National Guard, and Texas State Guard.

Upon arriving at Camp Mabry, visitors have to stop at the gate and present some form of photo identification to get in, and, in addition, they must consent to having the trunk of their automobile searched. All in all, the security stop at the gate only takes a minute or two, and is not much of an inconvenience, especially given the fact that there is no charge to enter the museum.

I have to admit that I really wasn’t expecting to be very impressed with the museum. I figured there must be a good reason for the relative lack of publicity and visitors it receives. But, I was very wrong. What I found, instead, was something that Austin should be proud of publicizing a little more than it does.

The museum itself consists of both indoor and outdoor displays. The museum was first opened in 1992, after years of careful planning. The museum exhibits thousands of military artifacts, and provides an interpretation of the history of the military forces of Texas. From the Texas War of Independence from Mexico, through a host of other wars throughout this country’s history, the military forces of Texas have played a prominent and important role. This historical role is proudly reflected in every part of the museum. The museum is named for Brigadier General John C.L. Scribner, who served in the Texas Military Forces, and was instrumental in making the museum a reality following his retirement.

The indoor portion of the museum is housed in a large building constructed in 1918, and which served as Camp Mabry’s mess hall for many years. The friendly volunteer docents told me that the mess hall, at one time, used steam in the kitchen. Apparently, at some point there was a steam related death, and, ever since, a ghost has been seen in and around the building, or, so the story goes.

As you would expect, the museum building is filled with uniforms, guns, maps, flags, and battle dioramas. However, since the old mess hall is so large, it also contains cavalry wagons, cannons, airplanes, helicopters, jeeps, tanks, armored vehicles, and communication vans. It even contains relatively obscure displays, like the immersion heater, which ensured that the mess kits of common foot soldiers were kept bacteria free. Additionally, there are numerous handouts which provide information on the military displays at the museum, important Texas battles, Texas Military Forces in World War II, wartime recipes, and a walking tour of the historic sites of Camp Mabry. There is also a small gift store, with books, postcards, and other small items you can purchase to both support the museum and to help remember your visit.

Outside, the military displays are impressive. There are several areas to visit: Armor Row, Artillery Park, and the Static Displays. Armor Row consists of tanks, self-propelled howitzers, armored personnel carriers, bulldozers, mortar carriers, tow vehicles, and many other armored vehicles. Artillery Park consists of American, French, German, and Soviet artillery pieces. The Static displays include both American fighter jets and helicopters. The outdoor display of military firepower and aircraft covers quite an area, so make sure you are wearing your walking shoes.

Sad to say, but the day and time I visited the museum, I was the only visitor there. The good news was, I had the whole place to myself. The bad news was, I had the whole place to myself. The volunteer docents were very accommodating, and eager to show me around. Given that I was the only visitor at the time, they asked me if I enjoyed the museum, and, if so, would I tell others to come visit? Given my positive experience, I told them I would definitely tell others, and, it is a pleasure to do so.

Why more people, both visitors and locals, don’t visit the museum is a mystery to me. Perhaps, it is because it does not fit in with the slogan which Austin brands itself with, that slogan being, “Keep Austin Weird.” There is certainly nothing "weird" about the many thousands of Texans who have served in the military forces of Texas from the 1830's to this present day. And, while the museum highlighting their service may be underappreciated, the historical service of these brave members of the Texas Military Forces is very much appreciated.

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