Salado Museum and College Park packs an impressive amount of history into a relatively small space. It’s a perfect fit for Salado, a small village also brimming with history and culture.
The museum is located on Main Street, just south of Salado Creek. Even the building it inhabits is historic; the original portion of the two-story stone structure was built in 1860, around the same time the village was founded.
“It started out as a general store, and then there was a silversmith that was in here,” said executive director Dave Swarthout. “And then in 1959, Lucile Robertson founded what was then the Central Texas Area Museum in just the original building.”
In the 1970s, an addition was put on the building, creating the structure as it appears today. When viewing the building from the front, the new portion can be distinguished from the old by a seam that runs down the wall, and a slight difference in the color of the stones on either side.
Swarthout said the plan at the time was to grow and expand the museum, but eventually the money ran out.
“And there’s so much of it that never got finished, and to this day is not finished,” he said.
Swarthout became director of the museum May 1, and has been charged with its overall operation, as well as renovation of the entire building. He said the museum is also kicking off its capital campaign to raise funds to finish Lucile Robertson’s dream. He said he still has the original blueprints depicting what she was hoping to see.
In 2017, a merger with the Robertson Colony-Salado College Foundation gave the museum its new name: Salado Museum and College Park. Around the same time, interior renovations created office space to include the Salado Chamber of Commerce, tourism office and Visitor’s Center. Swarthout said the idea was to provide a one-stop location for visitors.
“So at the time I was chairman at the Chamber of Commerce, and through my initiative we got everything moved here,” he said.
The building itself is 8,000 square feet, making it one of the larger buildings in Salado. Inside the museum, most of the artifacts are currently on display in one exhibit room.
“One of the problems when it was the Central Texas Area Museum, they tried to encompass all of Central Texas, if not all of Texas,” Swarthout said. “Consequently, it’s not big enough with just this room, so we accumulated a lot of stuff that is not really relevant to Salado.”
He said they are in the process of going through everything, with plans to donate anything not pertinent to Salado to other museums, or return items to surviving family members.
In July, treasure hunter Cody Drake gave a presentation at the museum to show the abundance of items he discovered in Salado Creek. Drake donated the artifacts to the museum, and Swarthout said they are rearranging things to make room for the “Salado Creek Treasures” exhibit.
Some of the artifacts include an early 1900s bicycle wheel, more than 300 Civil War era pistol balls, horse shoes, a small caliber pistol, broken gears from old mills along the creek, lost jewelry and much more. The oldest artifacts include four native projectile points; a large Paleo-Indian point, dated around 10,000 B.C., and three Archaic and Neo-Indian points, dated between 7,000 B.C. and 500 A.D.
Next to the exhibit room is the Hall of Clans. Swarthout said until recently the room was virtually unused, except for the Scottish Gathering and Highland Games held in Salado every November.
“Now, we’re starting to have more events here,” he said. “We have traveling exhibits that will be coming. We have ‘Cartoon Texas’ – it’s 100 years of cartoon art in the Lone Star State, and that’ll be here through the month of August.”
In September, the Salado Museum will celebrate its 60th anniversary by renaming the Hall of Clans the Lucile Robertson Hall.
The museum is also home to the Wee Scotts Shop, which offers souvenir-type items, books and ties decked with the tartan of each Scottish clan.
“When I first took over I didn’t really have the appreciation of the influence that the Scottish had here,” Swarthout said. “Now I’m learning ,and it is quite significant because those are the founders, the pioneers of Salado.”
The second floor of the museum is still being organized for more displays and local artwork.
“We’re blessed with so many nationally-known artists right here in Salado, and most of them do have their own gallery, but it’s fun to take it outside the gallery and display it so the public and just walk freely and not feel like they have to purchase something,” Swarthout said. “So we’ll be doing more of that.”
The upstairs room above the original museum building has been made available for community use. Swarthout said they recently hosted a wedding reception there. When it was over, he said the couple realized it was the first event held in that room in more than 100 years.
“So that really gave the whole reception much more significance to them, and they were just overwhelmed with having it here,” he said.
Swarthout said the museum is entirely funded by private donations and any events they host.
“And if we make a profit from the Scottish Games, that’s really considered the major fundraiser for the overall operation of the museum,” he said.
The Scottish Gathering and Highland Games is the oldest and one of the largest Scottish festivals in Texas. This year the 58th Scottish gathering will take place Nov. 8-10 in the area around the Salado Civic Center. The festival has been moved around Salado over the years, and Swarthout said a committee is looking into the possibility of creating a park on an undeveloped part of College Hill with the purpose of having a permanent home for the Scottish Gathering.
On a hill just south of the museum stands what used to be Salado College, one of the first co-ed schools in Texas.
“It’s just the ruins now, but we preserve all of that,” Swarthout said. “We’ve got walking trails that go up through there.”
College Park consists of walking trails lined with plaques explaining the various stages of the school’s history. The structure actually burned down three times, and after the third fire it was left in ruins.
Swarthout said the park’s popularity is increasing almost every day.
“We get a lot of people that just want to come up and take photos, and it’s open to the public, so we don’t object to that,” he said. “But we’re having a hard time keeping them off climbing on the ruins, so we as politely as we can tried to put out the word, ‘please don’t climb on the ruins.’”
To drive the point home, several signs are posted around the property asking visitors not to climb on the Salado College ruins.
The Salado Museum is located across the street from the historic Stagecoach Inn and near businesses like Barrow Brewing Company, Chupacabra Craft Beer & Salado Lone Star Winery, as well as art galleries and shops. Swarthout said the location has brought a noticeable uptick of people coming into the museum and stopping by the Visitor’s Center to get information about the village, which was the goal all along.
“The Visitor’s Center and the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism used to be located at the north end of town,” he said. “And there was very little foot traffic through the Visitor’s Center. Since moving here, like this morning… we probably had close to 15 people that had come through just this morning.”
He said visitors to the museum will meet “the friendliest staff you’ll ever find anywhere in the state of Texas.”