Hank the Cowdog has jumped off the pages of John R. Erickson’s highly successful book series and found a new home in Lubbock on a half-acre site at the National Ranching Heritage Center (NRHC) at Texas Tech University.
“As a museum that has focused for five decades on the history of ranching, we are broadening our mission to help connect our visitors with modern ranching and contemporary ranching issues,” explained NRHC Executive Director Jim Bret Campbell.
The center will open to the public its new $8.2 million Cash Family Ranch Life Learning Center with a week-long grand opening celebration starting Friday, Oct. 13. The opening will follow an already sold-out concert by book author John R. Erickson and special guests, Kris and Mark Erickson.
“Telling our story with Hank the Cowdog allows us to grab hold of young people and give them at least a rudimentary understanding of how ranching works,” said Clay Cash, whose family foundation made the largest single gift in the history of the NRHC. The $3.5 million gift combined with gifts from 86 other donors to develop the new learning center and forge a new emphasis in its mission.
The new indoor/outdoor educational facility is free to the public and will include interactive exhibits to teach all ages about today’s ranching and how it impacts us daily and contributes to the care of livestock and land.
“The world has changed significantly since the 1960s when the ranching heritage museum was first envisioned,” Campbell said. “Most Americans had some tie or at least a frame of reference to production agriculture. Today the vast majority has little knowledge about where our food comes from, so part of our job moving forward will include helping the public understand the connection between ranching today and the beef they consume.”
Using the well-known characters and stories from the popular Hank the Cowdog series, the new center will use the humor of Erickson’s characters and the places familiar to the author’s readers to educate visitors of all ages.
“When visitors enter the center, they’ll start at the orientation theater and see a large open book on the wall,” said Julie Hodges, NRHC Helen DeVitt Jones Endowed Director of Education. “The book will come to life when a hologram of John Erickson jumps off the open pages onto the wall and talks with visitors about what they are about to experience.”
The orientation theater has benches and small round ottomans that look like hay bales to accommodate an entire classroom at one time.
The visitor’s overall learning experience will combine the latest in high-tech exhibit technology—holograms, video projection and simulation tables—with authentic hands-on ranching exploration that includes activities with cowboy gear, water resources and livestock feeding.
The NRHC hosts more than 8,000 elementary students a year. Children can stand at a simulation table and be given 7,500 acres and a million dollars to make decisions that will reveal if they can “make it” for a year as a rancher. Or they may be given a mystery to solve while they are roaming through the exhibits. Hank, for example, has been accused of murdering a chicken, but he did not murder it. He just ate it. Will footprints solve the mystery of ranch predators?
The outdoor learning center places a heavy emphasis on the importance of water as a resource for the ranching industry. The outdoor area replicates the M Cross Ranch, which is the ranch where Hank lives in the book series. Because Wolf Creek runs through Hank’s ranch, the CFRLLC also has Wolf Creek and a triangle area that includes a windmill, hand water pumps and a solar pump. How does a windmill work and how much water a day does one cow need?
The replicated M Cross Ranch also has Sally May & Loper’s ranch house, a machine shed/horse barn and a cake house. Inside each structure are educational tools and exhibits to explain aspects of modern ranching. The outdoor learning center even has Hank’s “Unchanted” Forest with 45 newly planted trees, an amphitheater to seat 50 to 70 guests, a horse pasture with native grass and a giant-size log to cross Wolf Creek.
Because the caprock runs across the edge of Hank’s ranch in the book series, mural artist Malcomb Beyers of Amarillo painted a 160-foot mural of the caprock on the west wall of the learning center.
“Our challenge was how to bring Hank’s world and mix it with a real ranch to keep learning fun, factual and true to what a real ranch is,” said Hodges. “We never wanted to build a Hank playground. We wanted to build a place that answered the question, ‘What is a ranch?’ And we wanted to partner with Hank the Cowdog to do that and talk to children. They are the next generation of consumers and policymakers. That’s really the ‘why’ behind it.”