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Fort Worth With Kids

Three generations meet in Cowtown for a collision-course with fun
Written by Kitty Crider.

Cute cowpokes (from left) Christopher Lewis, Adam Veasey, Luke Shineman, and Cara Newburn perch on a fence at Stockyards Station along East Exchange Avenue, a good vantage point for viewing one of the twice-daily cattle drives in the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District. (Photo by Robert W. Hart)

My grandson Garrett, 11, climbs onto Pecos Bill, a surprisingly docile, brown-and-white Longhorn stationed in front of the Livestock Exchange Building in Fort Worth, just long enough for a wave and a photo. He jumps off and rushes down the sidewalk to watch cowhands driving a herd of some 15 other Longhorns down the brick-paved Exchange Avenue. Later, he rides a kid-friendly mechanical bull in the same block for 25 seconds! 

Wearing a big grin, this city boy from Austin proceeds to stampede the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District, two miles north of downtown, where attractions include Western entertainment, museums, shops, and restaurants. He and his Aunt Beth feed alpacas, llamas, and two dozen other animals at a petting zoo before the “Fort Worth Jail,” an eight-foot-square, wood-and-metal cage down the street, calls his name. Soon, he and his Uncle Keith are behind bars, pretending they’re outlaws.

“I want to do the cattle-pen maze, and then we’ll get some vittles,” Garrett quips, in the spirit of the Crider Reunion Trip to Cowtown.

We chose Fort Worth, the state’s fifth-largest city, because most of the family had never been to the historic stockyards, the Fort Worth Zoo’s new herpetarium, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, or one of the Metroplex’s popular longtime attractions, Log Cabin Village.

It’s an annual tradition: Three generations of my extended family spend a weekend together in a Texas city, having fun and taking in its educational attractions. This latest gathering includes Garrett and his eight-year-old brother, Ryan, and six adults.

We chose Fort Worth, the state’s fifth-largest city, because most of the family had never been to the historic stockyards, the Fort Worth Zoo’s new herpetarium, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, or one of the Metroplex’s popular longtime attractions, Log Cabin Village.

As we drive around the city, a 40-foot, green iguana sculpture catches our attention. It’s at the Fort Worth Zoo, home of nearly 7,000 animals and what some consider the country’s most elite herpetarium, the $19 million Museum of Living Art (MOLA). We head directly to MOLA, where an intimidating, 16-foot crocodile suns in front of the building. We pull open the serpent-shaped door handles and find inside more than 100 thrilling exhibits featuring pythons, vipers, snapping turtles, a king cobra, rattlesnakes, Komodo dragons, and a shingleback skink, a heavily armored, four-legged reptile about a foot long.

The boys’ voices rise with excitement as we go from room to room, peering at poison dart frogs and Caiman lizards. Garrett, who doesn’t like girls currently, and I have a deal. If I, someone who hates things that slither, visit the herpetarium—and keep my eyes open—he will enter the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. I take a deep breath and deal with it, even though, to my horror, both boys love pressing their faces against the glass displays, looking for the poisonous reptiles hidden among rocks, leaves, and branches.

Finally, we exit MOLA and proceed past the flamingos to the penguin building for feeding time. At this indoor exhibit, Ryan steps right up to a tank for an underwater view of the tuxedoed birds paddling about. Then we head to the World of Primates to watch the gorillas’ antics. With all the exotic sights and sounds, it’s easy to understand why there are so many adults, kids, and strollers here.

After walking around the zoo, we’re ready to fuel up for the next attraction. We must eat beef in Cowtown, and Pappas Burger has a location near the zoo. We’re fans of its half-pound, hand-formed patties, especially the peppercorn ranch version topped with pepper jack cheese and spicy onion rings. My son Bart proclaims it one of the best burgers in Texas. My husband, Chester, and I agree.

Across the street from the zoo is the Log Cabin Village, a living history museum that recalls 19th-Century Texas with 10 structures clustered in a shaded, three-acre park. All except one—a reproduction blacksmith shop—date to the 1800s and were moved to the site from various North Texas locations. The collection includes log homes, a gristmill, a smokehouse, and our favorite—a one-room schoolhouse with benches, a pot-bellied stove, and a slate blackboard. School rules—posted at the back of the room—were explicit. For pupils: Do not talk, smile, or turn your head. Stand up when asked a question and recite. For teacher: Bring coals and water. Clean the chimney.

At one cabin, a docent in 19th-Century attire encourages visitors to lie down on the rope bed, handle the primitive household equipment, ring a dinner triangle, and pump water. My daughter-in-law Kim, our family’s history buff and a former teacher, later names the village her favorite Fort Worth attraction.

A visit to the recently renovated Fort Worth Museum of Science and History brings us back to the present. Passing through the spacious, colorful structure, we enter the Energy Blast exhibit’s theater and don 3-D glasses. During a six-minute movie we learn how natural gas formed in the Barnett Shale of North Texas more than 300 million years ago and how geologists and petroleum engineers have used science and technology to extract the natural resource for use by humans. As we blast off from the heavens to the bottom of the ocean, our theater seats shake, objects on the screen bombard us, and we’re misted with water. It’s so much fun that we decide to watch the movie again.

Exiting the theater, we encounter a 50,000-pound, seismic vibrator truck; it is so massive that when the museum was constructed, a crane placed the truck on a concrete slab and then the museum was built around it. Vibrations from trucks like this can send sound waves more than a mile-and-a-half underground; geologists use the seismic data to help find gas deposits.  We decide that the Energy Blast is a secret find—the theater isn’t visible from the main hallway and there are no lines. Not only is it fun, but we come away with a new understanding of natural gas exploration in Texas.

The museum, which attracts a million visitors annually, also includes an IMAX, a planetarium, a children’s museum with both indoor and outdoor exhibits, a DinoLab and DinoDig, and the Cattle Raisers Museum. The latter exhibit traces the history of the cattle industry in Texas; showcases hats and saddles from the 1850s to the 1920s; and displays more than 100 cattle brands, including the J Cross W brand and another one that belonged to Stephen F. Austin. One nook features an interactive roundup, where Ryan sits on a mock horse and drives cattle on a computer screen.

The science-museum admission also covers the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, located next door. It contains more than 5,000 items illustrating the lives of women in the American West, among them Annie Oakley’s traveling trunks from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. But I have erred in planning, and the museum is closed on Mondays. Garrett grins. Disappointed, I reminisce with Ryan about a previous visit, when he and I spent nearly an hour playing at a mock chuckwagon, cooking over a pretend campfire, and practicing lassoing.

However, back at the Stockyards, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame is open. Housed in a historic barn, the museum displays the world’s largest collection of specialized wagons. Among the 60 antique wagons and carriages: a fringed-top surrey, a milk wagon, a Standard Oil tank wagon, a fire wagon, a chuckwagon, a mail wagon, a photographer’s wagon, a hearse, and a covered wagon.

The more than 100 people saluted with displays in the Hall of Fame include bull rider Lane Frost (the subject of the 1994 movie 8 Seconds), singers George Strait and Willie Nelson, baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan, and trauma surgeon Dr. Red Duke. (Despite its Western emphasis, this museum honors individuals who have excelled in business, sports, and other aspects of Texas life.) There are more attractions: an exhibit of 120 horse bits, a saddle display, and a kid-friendly “branding” activity involving an inkpad, paper, and rubber stamps.

The Stockyards area is filled with families having a good time. We’ve opted to spend the night at the Hyatt Place Fort Worth Historic Stockyards, conveniently located on Exchange Avenue, where the cattle drives take place. In front of the hotel, we watch a rider with a preschooler on the saddle in front of him, nudging his horse to dance for the tourists. We notice hotel guests checking in wearing real spurs. Later, from the window of our hotel suite, we can see a lighted corral, where cowgirls and cowboys are practicing for an equestrian performance at Cowtown Coliseum.

Fort Worth looks so different from Dallas, only 30 miles away, Kim observes. My son Bart agrees, adding, “Here, you can still get the cowboy culture that people want to see.”

He’s right. Visitors can hear the clip-clop of hooves on the streets, get an occasional whiff of livestock, and see a cattle drive twice every day—all vivid reminders of how important cattle have been to Texas.

Austin writer Kitty Crider and her family have wandered through shark tunnels in Dallas, explored space labs in Houston, and ridden the Ferris wheel in Kemah. Fort Worth photographer Robert W. Hart first shot the historic Stockyards area in 1975, when Exchange Avenue was lined with abandoned storefronts and boarded-up windows—a stark contrast to the popular destination it is today. 

 

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