More than 160 years ago, Salado founding fathers proudly dubbed their nascent town the “Athens of Texas” because of its focus on education. Although the ruins of the first coeducational college in Texas on the south side of town can’t compare to the Acropolis, thanks to the dedication and hard work of volunteers, an important piece of Texas history has been preserved.
The Salado Museum and adjacent ruins of Salado College together form a unique experience. Indoors or outside, visitors are sure to be surprised by stories of the women and men who have left their mark on Salado and the world.
After a challenging year in which the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the museum for weeks and attendance fell significantly, the Salado Museum and College Park is celebrating 62 years. Workers last week put the finishing touches on a $26,000 restoration project: a new flagstone and concrete entry and rebuilt balcony that overlooks downtown and the historic Stagecoach Inn across the street.
Former museum secretary Bev Turnbo calls the college ruins Salado’s “pièce de résistance.” She says the museum and ruins provide an enlightening experience to locals and visitors alike.
“If somebody really wants to know about this village, the museum is the place where they can go and get that information, whether it’s a tourist, someone who lives here, someone who wants to do research, we have all kinds of information,” Turnbo said. “Learning about the past can impact and change the way we think about the present. That’s why that museum is so important.”
The museum is also home to the Wee Scots Shop, which places special emphasis on early contributions of Scottish immigrants. There you will find bright plaid sashes and kilts, clan decals and stickers, and Scottish history books.
Museum executive director David Swarthout says with a laugh that “People often come in here and ask, ‘What’s all this Scottish stuff doing here? And we tell them.”
And for anyone who’s ever lost a necklace or bracelet or earing frolicking in Salado Creek, it may be in the museum. Relics such as a Civil War era pistol, century-old coins, arrowheads and jewelry have been recovered by noted treasure hunter Cody Drake and are on display.
An upcoming exhibit, “Women In Aviation,” will be on hand from July 5 through August 26. The exhibit pays homage to the Women Airforce Service Pilots who flew domestic missions in World War II. This is especially relevant to one former Salado resident — Grace Jones, who flew planes for the WASPs. After the war she enjoyed a celebrated career as a New York fashion model and owner of the high-end dress shop, Grace Jones of Salado.
As testament to the focus on women’s education, a framed diploma from Salado College is on display. The faded letters are 150 years old, but still legible. Sarah Elizabeth Mabry earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Salado College in 1871.
For people who don’t have time for a deep dive into Salado history, an illustrated timeline speeds you through almost two centuries of progress and change. A father and son duo set the tone for an emphasis on education in the mid-19th century. But the college building burned three times, later shuttering and falling into disrepair. Then, later in the 20th century, up from the ashes, the ruins are restored and deemed an historic site.
And those weathered limestone walls, standing proud against a Texas sky, are only a few steps from the museum, sitting atop College Hill. Thanks to a small army of dedicated volunteers and a $28,000 grant from Texas Park and Wildlife, visitors can walk a crushed granite trail that circles the ruins. Colorful benches, a butterfly garden and native plant beds lend to a pastoral setting. Kiosks illuminate and expand on the history told in the museum. Enrollment jumped from 74 students in 1860 to 307 in 1865. But the college closed from a lack of money in 1877, reopening later as a public high school.
The “Girl From Salado,” Liz Carpenter, is also honored on College Hill. Carpenter’s great-grandfather, E.S.C. Robertson, donated the ten acres where the college was built and another 100 acres to be sold for cash to finance building the school. Carpenter lived a productive life as a journalist. In Washington D.C., she worked on Lyndon Johnson’s staff when he was vice president and wrote Johnson’s speech that helped sooth a nation hours after President Kennedy was assassinated. Later, she was Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary, wrote five books, traveled as a speaker, humorist and advocate for women’s rights. In 2010, her ashes were scattered on College Hill.
Museum president Sterling Ambrose (descendant of the college’s founder E.S.C. Robertson) said the historical significance of Salado College can’t be overemphasized.
“It was the first college where men and women were educated. That’s a huge step out ... just the fact that they allowed women in that college. Now, you don’t think anything about it, but back then, that was a historical step in Texas history.”
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. College Hill is open dawn to dark. Admission is free. The museum is located at 423 S. Main St. in Salado. For more information visit saladomuseum.org.