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Big Country: Experience Abilene’s Frontier Spirit & Authentic Charm

April 22, 2024 Texas, Texas History, Member Spotlight

Abilene, Texas has evolved over the years from a Wild West outpost to the Storybook Capital of America while maintaining its frontier spirit and authentic charm.

The juxtaposition of gunslingers and children’s literature is part of Abilene’s unique history with colorful characters calling it home since Doyle Brunson, two-time World Series of Poker champion, Randall “Tex” Cobb, heavyweight boxer and actor, and Fess Parker, actor best known for the Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone TV series.

“In its early years, Abilene was a rough-and-tumble frontier town, with cowboys, gunfighters, and saloon brawls all part of everyday life. Despite its Wild West reputation, Abilene also had a thriving arts scene, with many talented musicians and artists making their home in the city,” explains the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Today Abilene has become the commercial, retail, medical, educational, and transportation hub of a sprawling area of West-Central Texas that covers some 22 counties and is known as “The Big Country.”

“Today, Abilene is a vibrant and thriving city, with a rich history and a bright future. The city's unique blend of Western heritage, cultural experiences, and innovation make it a truly special place to visit and call home,” says the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Abilene’s Rough-and-Tumble Beginnings

Today Abilene is just under 3 hours from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex on I-20, but the city had its beginnings in the 19th century as a railroad frontier town.

The area was home only to local Indian tribes, buffalo hunters, ranchers, and U.S. military personnel until the Texas and Pacific railroad arrived in 1881. A town -- named for Abilene, Kansas of the famed Chisholm Trail -- was laid out and in two days, buyers gobbled up 300 lots.

Just two years later Abilene was incorporated as a city and became the Taylor County seat.

“In slightly more than 100 years Abilene developed from an almost entirely agricultural economy to a diversified economy based on oil, agriculture, commerce, light manufacturing, and service,” says the Texas State Historical Association. “World War II was the watershed for the city's growth and economic development.”

Dyess Air Force Base was established outside Abilene in 1952 and in the next decade, the town’s population doubled from 45,570 to 90,638 residents. Today, Abilene has a population of just over 125,000 with a metro population of just over 175,000.

The air force base continues to be one of the area’s largest employers, and Abilene is home to three Christian universities: Abilene Christian University (founded 1906), McMurry University (founded 1923), and Hardin–Simmons University (founded 1891) and a total student population of over 10,000 for its educational facilities.

Abilene has not forgotten its railroad past with the city divided by tracks, the historic downtown area on the north side, and the growing South of Downtown Abilene (SODA) district on the south side.

Abilene: The Storybook Capital of America

So, how does a Wild West frontier town become the Storybook Capital of America?

The Abilene, TX Storybook Capital of America website explains the progression:

  • Once upon a time, there was a city called Abilene, Texas, that dedicated itself to showcasing the wonders of children’s literature.

  • The city built a museum that was the first of its kind in the nation called the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature.

  • Then came Storybook Sculptures of characters from children’s books populating downtown Abilene.

  • The city started an annual event called the Children’s Art + Literacy Festival that grows each year.

  • In 2015, the 84th Legislature of the State of Texas designated Abilene as the official Storybook Capital of Texas for its efforts to celebrate literary works for children.

“Our historic Downtown Cultural District invites you to explore educational museums, relax in urban parks, and marvel at our unique collection of storybook sculptures—a testament to our title as the Storybook Capital of America,” says Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Here, genuine charm isn't just a catchphrase – it's our way of life.”

Things to Do in Abilene on a Getaway

Abilene has a rich list of things to do for those making a getaway or extended stay in the Big Country area, starting with Abilene’s walkable historic district.

“Abilene’s walkable Downtown Cultural District is home to live music venues, museums, performing arts centers, a historic theater, shopping, dining, and the largest collection of storybook sculptures in the world,” says the visitor’s bureau.

Here are some Abilene things to put on a must-visit list besides the National Center for Children’s Literature and Storybook Capital of America sculptures:

  • Abilene Zoo: Built in 1966 on an open field land in the old Fair Park (now Rose Park). It has grown into a family favorite attraction with more than 1,000 animals representing 250 species including lions, black rhinos, monkeys, bears, reptiles, birds, and amphibians. Ride the Safari Train Express, paddle around Zoo Lake in a swan boat, hand-feed the herd at Giraffe Safari, and more!

  • Frontier Texas! Located in historic downtown Abilene, Frontier Texas is a western heritage center that brings the Old West to life with the help of state-of-the-art technology. Frontier Texas also serves as the official visitor center for Abilene and the Texas Forts Trail Region. Don’t miss the life-sized holographic figures at this fun museum.

  • Center for Contemporary Arts: This center, founded in 1989, has its roots in an artists’ collective that was called The Artists League of Texas. Today, the center is home to more than 70 artist members and 10 working studios with five galleries featuring local, regional, and nationally renowned photographers and contemporary artists working in a variety of media.

  • Paramount Theatre: Designed and built in 1930, the landmark Paramount Theatre has a rich and significant history. A beautiful example of the nostalgic “atmospheric” movie theatre. The theatre’s main auditorium space was designed to re-create a Spanish / Moorish courtyard at night, complete with projected clouds passing over a neon-lit night sky fitted with twinkling stars. The Paramount, restored in 1987 and renovated to accommodate live theatre, is now the home to a myriad of events, including film, ballet, opera, and concerts.

  • 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum: This museum dedicated to the experiences of World War II includes three floors of artifacts, photographs, oral histories, weapons, uniforms, vehicles, dioramas, and a Holocaust memorial. Don’t forget the Hellcat PX gift shop for cool t-shirts and collectibles.

  • Dyess AFB Memorial Museum and Linear Air Park: This museum features artifacts from the life of Lt. Col. Dyess and the history of Dyess Air Force Base and Abilene Army Airfield. The Air Park has 34 US Air Force and Army Air Corps historic aircraft on display including bombers and fighters.

  • Swenson House Historical Society: The Swenson House was built in 1910 by W.G. and Shirley Swenson on 58 acres. Today the grounds cover a two-acre city block. In 1928, the Swenson’s completed a major remodeling of the home, adding brick veneer, a grape arbor, and many Spanish Colonial Revival architectural features.

  • The Grace Museum: The Grace Museum, located in the original 1909-built Hotel Grace building, is a place for all ages to explore art, history, and creativity. Since 1992, The Grace Museum has been a cornerstone of Abilene’s downtown revival. Changing exhibits feature the best of Texas art, past and present, within the context of American art. The Children’s Museum offers hands-on learning activities.

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