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Here’s My Nomination for America’s Most Underrated Museum (and There Are a LOT of Guns)

Attention, Texans! As if you needed another reason to be proud of your state, Sweetwater, TX, just might be home to the most underrated museum in the country. 

This hidden gem is home to over 1,000,000 historic artifacts, including a mammoth tusk, a signed photo of Elvis, and 81 (yes, eighty-one) vintage Winchesters.

As you travel the serene road to Sweetwater from the Austin area, you know you’re close when you reach the massive Sweetwater Wind Farm, among the top 10 largest wind farms on earth. Tucked away in the classic town of Sweetwater, it’s easy to miss the Pioneer Museum—but keep an eye out for it, especially if you like historic rifles and shotguns. 

Here is a mini-tour of this captivating place.

The Pioneer museum is home to a breathtaking collection of vintage Winchesters, several of which were never even fired and still proudly wear their century-old tags.

Just one look at these weapons, and you may find they speak for themselves.

pioneer museum sweetwater texas
Photography by Sam Nightengale

Almost as remarkable as the collection itself is the story of how they came into the care of this off-the-beaten-path museum. These Winchesters are all part of a private treasury donated to the museum by just one man, Mr. J. Paul Turner, in 1994. In his will, Turner asked that the collection either be displayed in its entirety, or not displayed at all. As I admired the impeccably maintained firearms, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to spend time with the intensely passionate man who gathered them for his private collection.

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Photography by Sam Nightengale

Richard Rattenbury, Emeritus Curator of History at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, speaks highly of the firearms exhibit:

“This collection provides a fairly comprehensive public representation of the first century of Winchester production. It is virtually unrivaled in Texas and surpassed by but a handful of general history museums across the nation.”

J. Paul Turner’s will also stipulated that the Winchesters be kept clean and in working order, not to be disabled or plugged. So, the Sweetwater Rifle and Pistol club, established 50 years ago, takes on the responsibility of cleaning the weapons every year.

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Photography by Sam Nightengale
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Photography by Sam Nightengale

The J. Paul Turner collection of Winchesters is an awe-inspiring legacy of passion that will be of interest to any firearms or history enthusiast… but it’s not all this museum has to offer.

Also on display at this museum are a number of original S.D. Myres leather saddles and other items. For those not in the know, S.D. Myres was a legendary American saddle maker, a peerless craftsman and, though he had only a fourth-grade education, a beloved public servant. During his term as the the mayor of Sweetwater, the town was the center of the passenger railroad between San Diego and Washington, D.C., constantly bustling with travel and commerce.

In addition to the saddles, S.D. Myres cowboy boots worn by the man himself as well as his ceremonial Templar sword from his induction into Freemasonry are on display.

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Photography by Sam Nightengale
pioneer museum sweetwater texas
Photography by Ellen Fishbein

You can also see a signed photo of Elvis (no joke!), the legendary Sammy Baugh‘s High School football helmet, and an enormous mammoth tusk nestled among the largest collection of original primitive arrowheads I’ve ever seen.

Kids will enjoy seeing what life was like in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the Pioneer Museum’s wide variety of well-preserved items.

I know my inner child loved seeing a fantastically huge hair wreath (although I couldn’t decide if it was beautiful or a little creepy) as well as this Model T Ford, assembled a century ago by hand.

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Photography by Ellen Fishbein

The museum is furnished with unique pieces that bring the past to life, including a small antique organ, pressure cooker, and other fixtures of everyday life.

Photography by Sam Nightengale
Photography by Sam Nightengale
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Photography by Sam Nightengale

The Pioneer Museum is one of a kind, and I left with the sense that it might be America’s most underrated museum. No one with an interest in firearms, Texana, history, or just “neat stuff” should miss it.

For more information, please visit the museum’s website or email the curator directly at sweetwaterpioneermuseum@gmail.com. Here they are on Facebook.

NEXT: TIME MACHINE: GET A LOAD OF THESE VINTAGE GUN ADS

Here’s My Nomination for America’s Most Underrated Museum (and There Are a LOT of Guns)