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Legendary Texas lawmen

Courtesy Waco and the Heart of Texas

Texas Rangers wear tall white hats and silver star-shaped badges made from Mexican pesos. They inspire fictional characters such as the Lone Ranger and Gus McCrae of “Lonesome Dove.” They aren’t your average lawmen.

Even today, 190 years after the force was created, the appearance of a Texas Ranger causes a stir, said Byron Johnson, executive director of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco.

A Ranger dining in public, is likely to be “mobbed like a rock star” by citizens seeking an autograph, says Johnson, who oversees a collection that traces the Texas Rangers’ history.

Originally a grassroots group of farmers, teachers and other regular citizens that warded off Indian attacks, today’s Rangers are an elite force of 150 officers who investigate major crimes, often aiding understaffed local police forces.

Weapons dominate the museum’s collection, but there are also plenty of badges, handcuffs, uniforms, saddles, belt buckles, paintings and photographs. Movie posters, film clips and costumes remind of the Rangers’ starring roles in film and television.

A research center onsite is the haunt of filmmakers, authors and family historians; a 6,500-square-foot conference center with views of the Brazos River was updated two years ago and hosts dinners, receptions and meetings. Events can include museum tours to educate attendees about the oldest state law enforcement agency in the country, authorized in 1823.

Although the Texas Rangers’ authority is limited to Texas, the force’s notoriety goes far beyond. According to Johnson, a good portion of the 80,000 to 100,000 people who visit the Rangers museum each year are from other countries. In places as far-flung as Belgium and Australia, grown men join Texas Rangers re-enactor groups.

“The two best-known things in Texas, outside the state,” said Johnson, “are the Alamo and the Texas Rangers.”

Having a familial tie to a Texas Ranger is a major point of pride. “In Texas, having an ancestor who was a Texas Ranger is like having a Mayflower ancestor would be to someone on the East Coast,” he said.

In an era when good guys sometimes aren’t, the Texas Rangers continue to deserve their white hats, Johnson said. “They still have that Lone Ranger image,” he said. “Impartial, level-headed law enforcement people. They are one of the last unsoiled American icons. We are helping to preserve an ideal that we think is very needed today.”