The flying herd of buffalo towering over the eastern edge of downtown Abilene isn’t an illusion created by a blazing sun but the realization of local artist H.C. Zachry’s dream of paying homage to what he calls “the big semi-mystical beast.”
The herd of eight can be seen by day or night. They are trimmed in lights and serve as a beacon to downtown attraction Frontier Texas!, an interactive museum and official visitor center that highlights the history of West Central Texas, with the buffalo as a central figure.
“[The buffalo] was the lifeblood of our immediate part of the country,” and beyond, says Zachry, an Abilene artist, history buff, and businessman who conceptualized both Frontier Texas! and the flying buffalo herd.
Made of steel and placed at the museum in 2013, the herd is a totally local project—from Zachry’s idea to the fabrication and installation of the sculptures by employees of Rentech Boiler Systems, owned by Abilenian Jack Rentz. Each one-dimensional buffalo is 8 feet tall, 12 feet long, and weighs over 1,000 pounds. Each rotates 360 degrees, creating the unofficial status of “the largest weather vane in the world,” as Zachry likes to boast.
More than that, the flying herd creates a sense of whimsy that invites visitors to the museum and Abilene’s restored downtown cultural district. “The flying buffalo drew me into the facility,” is a comment that Jeff Salmon, executive director of Frontier Texas! hears frequently from guests.
Hard to miss, the buffalo are mounted on individual poles, 30- to 35-feet high, and are spread in a crooked line over 250 feet wide. They fly over the parade grounds of Frontier Texas! facing facades of the building that are replicas of the chimneys that remain at Fort Phantom Hill, located north of Abilene. The fort was active from 1851 to 1854, when buffalo still roamed the area.
Memorializing the significance of the buffalo to the history of West Central Texas was the impetus behind Zachry’s creation. Buffalo fed and clothed the Native Americans who first called this region home and later provided income for settlers who gathered and sold their bones to make items as varied as buttons, corset stays, and fertilizer.
Zachry created and published a coffee-table book to accompany the Frontier Texas! experience, with the buffalo as a prominent feature. In fact, the buffalo figures into everything at the museum, beginning with the flying herd that lines the east side of the museum and the heroic-sized sculpture by T.D. Kelsey that welcomes visitors to the museum’s entrance on the west side.
Resting underneath the flying buffalo on the parade grounds is an oversized buffalo skull, created by Throckmorton sculptor Joe Barrington. It’s big enough for children to crawl into and have their picture taken. Inside the museum, visitors encounter a buffalo bone pile that is on the very spot where similar bones were piled for rail shipment in the late 1800s. Apparently, visitors are as fascinated by buffalo and appreciative of their iconic status as Zachry is.
“They like the whole buffalo emphasis,” he says.
When the project got to the fabrication phase, Zachry was pleased to see the pride that the craftsmen at Rentech Boiler Systems took in creating the buffalo. They enthusiastically worked on the project while also doing their boiler-making jobs–with no complaints.
The finished product is one that draws enthusiastic compliments from visitors to Abilene. That makes Zachry smile. He is pleased that his creativity led to an outdoor sculpture that everyone can enjoy. And, he hopes the “thundering herd” fills visitors with wonder, as he wrote in his Frontier Texas! book: “Seeing them move in the wind, almost 40 feet in the air, one can feel the drama of a mystical buffalo herd pounding through the sky.”