The town that moved
Plantation Ranch, Texas
THE trucks moved out in a line over the pine-shrouded east Texas highway, lumbering under the weight of their curious cargo: a one-room schoolhouse here, part of a saloon there, a barbershop, a tenant's house, the weatherbeaten overhang of a barn. Twenty-three buildings in all, it was a convoy of history, a wagon train of life as it used to be. For a week last October, the wooden structures, part of the first Anglo settlement in Texas, lumbered from Plantation Ranch to Waco, some 200 miles northwest, where they will become part of Baylor University's museum complex and museum studies curriculum.
According to the American Association of Museums, it was the largest move of a single village ever undertaken in the United States.
``More often than not, what's saved of the past are the elaborate, more grandiose buildings,'' said Calvin Smith, director of Baylor's museum studies program and of its Strecker Museum. As he stood in the village's grassy Main Street two months ago watching workmen prepare buildings for the move, he added, ``This is more a representation of the common people. It's like preserving an old set of work clothes.''
Plantation Ranch, or Pleasant Lawn, as it was originally named by Gen. Sam Houston, was founded on the banks of the Trinity River in 1818. It thrived for more than a century as the social and commercial center of a plantation that first grew cotton, then lumber, before moving on to cattle ranching. Up until World War II, it was a working village of 300 people, the majority of whom were black.
The village was donated to Baylor by the William Daniels, a prominent southeast Texas family whose forebears were among the first Anglo settlers in what was then Mexican territory.
Asked why he gave the village to a university, the family patriarch, Gov. Bill Daniel -- so called since serving as governor of the US territory of Guam in the early 1960s -- says Baylor will guarantee the village's preservation in a useful, educational setting.
``Pursue, preserve, and perpetuate: I feel that's what God wants us to do,'' says the colorful, white-haired and blue-eyed Mr. Daniel. Recalling fondly several visits to the plantation's village during his youth, Daniel bought the expansive property in 1948. He then set about restoring the village buildings, spending more than $2 million in the process. Over the past decades the village has become known as a center of goodwill, where everyone from handicapped children, homeless boys, and even Russian cosmonauts has been entertained.
``But now it's time to perpetuate what we've done,'' says Daniel. Noting that his family has given Baylor more than 8,000 artifacts from the village along with its buildings, he adds, ``I feel the preservers of history are just as heroic as the makers of history.'' Why is history so important? As he was surveying a dozen workers cutting and jacking up the buildings he so carefully restored, ``Governor Bill'' commented, ``In order for the young people to gain a sense of who they are, and why they're here, they really need to know where they came from.''
That view is echoed by Ted Hollingsworth, who will be the village museum's curator. ``A village like this will give us a window into the values and ethics of that time,'' he says. ``And by looking through that window, we're hoping people will look more closely at the values of the late 20th century, and how we've changed.''
Mr. Hollingsworth says he finds it appropriate that Baylor, a school with a strong religious affiliation -- it is a Baptist university -- should ``provide such a format for looking at what we are today.''
Baylor officials say they expect the new ``living museum'' to open on a site overlooking the Brazos River within two years. In the meantime, the plantation known to eight generations of one Texas family will continue as a working cattle ranch.