HICO — As a young girl growing up in the southern deserts of New Mexico, school field trips weren’t focused on theme park excursions, visiting NASA museums or going into “the city” for the day. Instead, we had gold panning in Ruidoso, traveling to the Smokey the Bear Historical Park, and my personal favorite: visiting Lincoln, New Mexico, where we were able to walk the same steps as the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid.
Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William H. Bonney, but actually born as Henry McCarty in 1859, has long been contributed with the start of the American Old West: the days of outlaws, gunslingers and showdowns at high noon. Growing up in the west where so much of that history happened was exciting for me, and I loved to learn about the crimes and escapades of Billy. We even visited his gravesite at Old Fort Sumner, New Mexico, which has actually been protected in an iron cage due to the headstone being stolen numerous times in the past century.
So imagine my surprise when I learned, during my research of historical places in the Central Texas area, that there was a Billy the Kid Museum in Hico, roughly 75 miles north of Fort Hood.
I immediately planned a trip. I had to know why there was a Kid museum in Texas. So I packed up my 2-year old daughter, Gwennie, for a day-trip and we headed north on Highway 36.
The roads to Hico are simply gorgeous. There are different routes one can go to Hico, and they are all country highways and farm roads that take you through the hills and fields of Central Texas. We took Highway 36 past the Gatesville prisons, and then turned onto Farm to Market 1602. If you don’t mind a slightly rougher road and numerous curves, I would highly recommend taking this route. Passing numerous beautiful ranches, small-time towns and historical churches, Gwennie and I stopped several times to take pictures of beautiful scenery and even some freshly-bloomed bluebonnets.
Entering the town of Hico, I was immediately enchanted. Hico is a small town with numerous historical storefronts and lots of old-town charm. I found the museum on Pecan Street, which is one of the main streets in downtown, surrounded by restaurants, shops, and plenty of benches to take in the inviting breeze.
I entered the museum with one intention: to find out why there was a Billy the Kid museum in Central Texas, 500 miles away from the original home base of the Kid. What were his ties to Texas? What could be so important about him that they would construct an actual museum dedicated to his outlawness?
Well, the answer to that is explained on the walls of the museum, in the back half of the building, through the saloon doors that lead to the heart of the Billy the Kid exhibitions. This is where I impart on our readers a brief history lesson.
The reasoning for the dedication to Billy the Kid in Hico lies in the rumors that have followed Billy’s death since he was allegedly shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881. At the time, the Kid was a fugitive with a bounty on his head. Garrett responded to rumors of the Kid being at a friend’s house, and upon entering the room, as shootout ensued. The story goes that it was too dark for Billy to see who had entered his room, so he drew his pistol while asking “who is it?” and Garrett, recognizing the Kid’s voice, shot him in the chest.
A coroner’s jury of six people agreed that the body was that of Henry McCarty, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, and the body was quickly buried in Fort Sumner.
So everyone thought, until 1948, when a man living in Hamilton named William Henry Roberts, a.k.a. “Brushy Bill,” came forward stating that he was really Billy the Kid, that he had escaped that alleged shooting in 1881, ran away to Texas, changed his name, and lived a life much different than that of an outlaw. He was attempting to pursue a pardon that had been promised to him … or to Billy the Kid … in 1879 by then Governor Lew Wallace.
While Brushy Bill’s pardon request was denied, and he later died in 1950, Hico immediately adopted him as the infamous Billy the Kid. He had spent much of his elderly years in Hico as a prospector, and lived out his time as the cowboy he always enjoyed being. Decades after his death, in 1987, Hico erected a Brushy Bill monument and opened the Billy the Kid Museum.
The museum is full of historical memorabilia, old western firearms, and a limited collection of items belong to Brushy Bill. There are also areas of the museum dedicated to military history, from the Civil War to current-military-era collectables.
Not only is there a museum dedicated to the Kid, but Brushy Bill’s gravesite in Hamilton, about twenty minutes’ drive from Hico, has also become a tourist attraction since it has been erected with additional engravings letting the world know that in fact, here lies Billy the Kid. Many offerings from well-wishers surround his headstone.
After my daughter and I immersed ourselves in the museum, and then traveled to the gravesite to stand and wonder, “Am I now standing on the actual gravesite of my infamous outlaw protagonist, Billy the Kid?” we decided a late-lunch was in order.
Hico is not only known just for its controversial history museums, but also for its world-famous pies, offered at the award-winning café Koffee Kup. My daughter and I were able to grab a seat in the otherwise-packed restaurant, and feasted on fried pickles, mouth-watering homemade sandwiches and sweet tea. And, of course, a chocolate pie.
On our way home, again following the beautiful country side back to Fort Hood, I reflected on what I had learned. My above history lesson was very brief; there is still so much one can learn about Billy the Kid, his tales from his days as an outlaw, and whether the possibility that he lived long past the year 1881 could be true. I was just excited to find a piece of my childhood history within an hour and a half’s drive of our own Texas Fort, and be able to share this historical traveling path for others to enjoy.
For more information on the museum, visit https://www.billythekidmuseum.org/.