The National Ranching Heritage Center, on a site of some 14½ acres adjacent to the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, is an outdoor museum comprising restorations relative to the history of ranching in the Southwest—architectural exhibits of historic ranch structures, furnishings, and accoutrements. The structures have been moved from diverse locations and depict a wide range of history. They have been accurately restored and furnished to present original appearances that represent for the visitor various events in ranch life and history. The Center was originally called the Ranch Headquarters and is administered by the director of the Museum of Texas Tech University as an adjunct to the Museum. The concept of the Ranching Heritage Center originated in 1966, when Grover E. Murray, president of Texas Tech University, appointed a planning committee to investigate the feasibility of developing for the university an outdoor museum with a focus on ranching. Subsequently the university administration authorized the development of such a museum on university land. To provide essential support, the Ranch Headquarters Association (later the Ranching Heritage Association), a nonprofit corporation, was eventually organized.
The physical plant was developed largely during the 1970s. The first building was moved to the site in 1970, and the next year the state legislature appropriated funds for necessities such as utilities and a security fence. Twelve buildings had been moved, restored, and dedicated by 1974, and some twenty structures had been restored and an orientation building opened in time for the Center's official opening during the United States Bicentennial (1976)—announced by the culmination of a trail drive to the site. Subsequently several additional structures were added and a large locomotive with cattle cars was placed at the Center. Willard B. Robinson, a professor of architecture at Texas Tech, directed the moving and restoration of most of the structures. They represent several historical eras, regions, and building types, as well as the stylistic contributions of various ethnic groups, including the Germans, English, Mexicans, and Scots. Early nineteenth-century history is represented by a series of log and stone dwellings, including an 1838 single-pen cabin built of hand-hewn logs and hand-split shingles, and an 1853 double-pen house with a breezeway (or dog run; see DOG-RUN HOUSES), built by a Central Texas German family. Earth berms separate these structures according to their original historical and regional contexts. Late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century structures from West Texas represent a variety of construction techniques and include the George R. Jowell house, a small, two-story, fortress-like building with rifle slits in its stone walls; the 1890 Matador Half-Dugout, a cabin partially dug into the side of a slope (see DUGOUT); two homes of box and strip construction; the 1904 Picket and Sotol House, consisting of an earlier section of horizontal sotol stalks nailed to both sides of vertical cedar posts and a later addition with walls made of pickets or posts stuck into the ground; and the 1909 Barton house, a large two-story Victorian dwelling with a captain's walk. Other functional ranch structures displayed at the Center include a carriage house, a granary, a blacksmith shop, three different types of windmill, cattle-shipping pens from the King Ranch, and a late-1890s one-room school. In addition, a large reconstructed barn has been adapted to serve as a meeting space.
Financial support for the Center has been provided by several agencies. Buildings have been donated, and the costs of moving and restoring them borne by the Ranching Heritage Association. Numerous large monetary gifts from individuals have restored several buildings as memorials. Though the university initially provided maintenance and operation, a fund was later established to finance conservation of the structures and operation of an interpretive program. In 1975 the Museum of Texas Tech received a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a multifaceted interpretive program. Several techniques of interpretation were used, including pamphlets and audiovisual presentations. Events at the Ranching Heritage Center include the annual Ranch Day, when the Ranching Heritage Association holds a meeting at the Center. The event is accompanied by numerous activities and is preceded by the National Golden Spur Award Banquet, at which an outstanding rancher is honored. In 1994 the Ranching Heritage Center comprised thirty-three buildings. Though by the early 1990s the Center had been developed into a major outdoor museum, at that time its long-range master plan still called for the addition of a late eighteenth-century or early nineteenth-century Hispanic ranching compound representing yet another era, ethnic group, and architectural type. A reproduction of San José de Los Corralitos, which may be the oldest standing Texas ranch structure, was built to honor this heritage.
In the 1990s the Center became a separate department under Texas Tech University and was renamed the National Ranching Heritage Center.