San Felipe museum breaks ground

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Austin County residents have looked to resuscitate the Town of San Felipe and the little known San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site for more than two generations, — ever since the Runaway Scrape where San Felipe settlers set their town ablaze before the arrival of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna 180 years ago — not only for the economic impact that can be had locally and statewide but also to restore lost culture and historical pride in the state of Texas.

In September 2015, preliminary site plans for a 6,500-square-foot new museum and visitor’s center for the historic site were released with a $7 million price tag. The state legislature already funded $5.2 million of the cost through two appropriations. Now, its size has been increased to 10,000 square feet along with cost estimates.

The groundbreaking took place just two weeks shy of Nov. 3, Father of Texas Day, which commemorates the birth of Texas pioneer Stephen F. Austin.

On the morning of Oct. 20, the day of groundbreaking, fog rolled across the fields and seemed to create a scene perfect for a Texas Revolution battle reenactment. Reenactments take place annually in San Felipe as a part of heritage celebration.

“Today, the Friends of the Texas Historic Commission officially launch a $12.5 million capital campaign,” said John Nau III, chairman for the Texas Historical Commission, who was there for the ceremony along with TCH executive director Mark Wolfe.

Descendants of the Old 300, the original settlers, were also present at the event.

Additionally, the goal is to achieve a $3 million endowment to capture $15.5 million overall for the project.

“We want to do the endowment so that the facility, the museum, can be updated as technology changes, as research comes up with newer facts. Most importantly, so that the building itself is not held hostage” by Austin bureaucracy, Nau said. “It’s kind of an insurance policy.”

According to the commission and state historic site staff, the facility’s core exhibit will explore Austin’s life and role in Texas, as well as the history leading up to the Texas Revolution. It will also house a map plaza that reconstructs the town as it stood in 1836 with physical elements of San Felipe and the lives of residents nearly 200 years ago; outdoor interpretive exhibits; educational programs with interactive activities, camps and after-school programs for students and teachers; and a research program for archaeology and historic preservation students, archaeologists and academics.

By the numbers, $7.2 million of the necessary $12.5 million still leaves $5.3 million to be raised through public and private philanthropy, Nau said.

“The friends and the Texas Historical Commission are committed to achieving that goal. Now, the timing of this project is opportune because San Felipe de Austin will celebrate the 200th anniversary of its founding in the year 2023, and then Texas will celebrate its bicentennial in 2036,” Nau said.

“My personal goal is to impact and bring heritage tourists from around the state and beyond,” he said. “Heritage tourism is the fastest growing business in the tourism industry. Heritage tourists on average will spend about $175 a day more than recreational tourists. And that’s big business, not only for Texas, but for right here.”

Nau said heritage tourists support 50,000 Texas jobs, lend $7.3 billion to the state’s economy and THCs historic preservation projects add $4.6 billion annually.

“This isn’t a hobby folks; it’s a business,” he said.

But continued restoration and San Felipe’s resurrection is more about its historical significance and educating the next generation to become torchbearers for the cause.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and State Rep. Leighton Schubert were also there to help increase public understanding of the colony’s history.

Shamefully, Kolkhorst said local grants have been the primary support for the historic site.

“Embarrassingly so, not the state of Texas,” Kolkhorst said. The state does not lobby for historic site funding because it spends all its efforts on entitlement programs like Medicaid until there’s nothing left, she said.

Kolkhorst has been behind the project for about 10 years now and saw prudence in addressing a fourth-grade class from Stephen F. Austin Elementary School in Richmond, Texas, who was there to lead attendees in the Pledge of Allegiance and the song Texas, Our Texas, on the site’s importance.

“To those young people, today is about you. Today is about you and your friends and your future because we’re going to tell a story that must be told over and over again to understand where we came from and to understand where we must go,” Kolkhorst said.

The museum is slated to debut in Spring 2018. The historic site is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, go to visitsanfelipedeaustin.com or call 979-885-2181.

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