By Rebecca Fiedler
The Red Men Museum and Library, a simple, red brick building, is not Waco’s most iconic attraction.
But the small, quiet building, with its walls decked with books and historic artifacts from centuries ago, gives visitors a glimpse into the past that many might not expect to find in Waco.
Books published in the early 1800s are displayed, along with objects of all shapes and sizes, telling their stories from behind glass cases.
A collection of letters from a Civil War soldier to his mother rests on one shelf. A 1774 viola that circulated during the World War II United Service Organization days bears the signatures of 90 famous figures including Charlie Chaplain, Bob Hope, Herbert Hoover and Margaret O’Brien. A colorful painting of a cup of flowers is on loan to the museum, a work from the hand of Adolf Hitler himself.
Preserving history both local and national, the museum also holds relics significant to Baylor.
Take the .41-caliber Colt pistol from 1898, for instance, resting in a glass case near its holster at the museum. The pistol belonged to William Cowper Brann, a man who was openly against Baylor University and what he believed to be its religious hypocrisy and intolerance.
Brann was described in a biography on tshaonline.org as a man who held prejudices against many groups of people including Baptists, Episcopalians, the British, women and African Americans. David Lintz, director of the Red Men Museum and Library, said Brann’s hatred resulted in a showdown in downtown Waco with Tom Davis, the angry father of a female Baylor student who didn’t appreciate Brann’s disparaging remarks about Baylor women.
The pistol on display is the one Brann used to fatally shoot Davis right before Davis shot back and killed Brann, too.
Lintz said he believes though these items might seem unrelated to one another, they all serve to preserve the nation’s history, a major goal of the late Robert E. Davis, a historian and the museum’s founder.
A loyal member and former national secretary of the Improved Order of Red Men Fraternity, a group dedicated to inspiring patriotism, Robert E. Davis found pleasure in bidding on historical artifacts at auctions and adding them to his collection. Eventually, he used these items to fill the Red Men Museum & Library, which was constructed in 1991, Lintz said. Davis’ collection safeguards objects of significance in the history of the Improved Order of Red Men, as well as many other curiosities from Waco and American history.
Fraternities such as the Improved Order of Red Men, said Lintz, once played a significant part in America as a source of companionship and even financial safety. Fraternities united men with a sense of exclusivity and secrecy while catering to their needs by providing things like pensions and health insurance, Lintz said.
According to the The Improved Order of Red Men official website, the group traces its roots back to historic groups such as the pre-Revolutionary patriotic secret society the Sons of Liberty, who were responsible for the Boston Tea Party. Today the Improved Order of Red Men still exists, Lintz said, though its membership has dropped significantly since its peak.
Lintz said he believes the fraternal history of the United States is disappearing, but the Red Men Museum is trying to preserve the history of the Improved Order of Red Men by saving artifacts and documents.
“The old fraternal stuff is disappearing. A lot of it’s made out of gold. [It’s been] sold and melted,” Lintz said. “You’ve got granddads with old boxes of stuff in the attic. Nobody wants it; they don’t see any need to save it. Sadly, it’s disappearing, so we’re trying to save that.”
The Red Men Museum only sees about 100 visitors per month. Lintz said he credits the digitization of books and other artifacts as a reason the attendance of libraries had declined. Once the object is easily accessible from a computer database, the need to visit diminishes.
Dr. Ellie Caston, director of the Mayborn Museum and senior lecturer in the department of museum studies, said there are pros and cons to this trend.
“I’m always going to say that there is importance to the original object or document,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that technology is able to make a lot of these things available to people who would never be able to get to Waco, Texas.”
“But I also think there is something extraordinarily powerful when a person encounters a document or artifact that is the ‘real deal.’ When you realize you are looking at a letter that was written to a loved one from a soldier in the Civil War, there is something extraordinarily powerful about that document when it’s in your presence,” Caston continued.
The museum and library are open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. Admission is free, and the library books are accessible, though the library is non-circulating. Visit www.redmen.org</a> for further information, or call the museum at 254-756-1221.