Users enjoy playing games, listening to recordings and counting critters as they take a self-guided tour through the historical park.
Cowboy boot-bedecked brothers McCoy and Miller Middleton ran from old house to old house, stopping to play in the grass, look for rabbits and fist-bump other visitors. Father Charlie Middleton followed with an iPad, pointing out the history of each item they passed.
The Middletons were some of the first users of a new app that acts as tour guide, information sign and map for the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech University, a museum and 27-acre historical park that explains the history of ranching in West Texas and the rest of the country. They've been before, but never like this.
“It works well,” Charlie said of the app. “When we get near a structure it pulls up the information about it and tells us what it is.”
The app, which is available for download on Google Play and the App Store, includes GPS so visitors know where they are on the interactive map and has specific information about each of the 49 structures as well as pictures and information about the artifacts inside them.
It also includes games, though Charlie made up his own game for his almost-4-year-old and almost 2-year-old. He would show them a picture of an artifact, and they would peer into the house, train depot or dugout to find the artifact. They were all having fun.
“I think this would be a tool in getting people more interested in coming out here,” Charlie said.
The Logan family, also of Lubbock, has been to the NRHC dozens of times through the years. However, having the app made this trip much more informative than others.
“We like it,” said 7-year-old Katie Logan, who was there with her family. “We like how it has all the details and we can look at pictures.”
Caleb Logan, 16, liked how much information is available on the app. It includes the history of each structure and pictures of the artifacts inside each structure, but it also tells the visitor the logistics behind moving each structure. He also took the ranch hand quiz, getting 19 out of 25 questions correct.
Lesley Logan said they plan to use the app every time they come to the NRHC. It provides a more rich experience than simply standing in building doorways and reading information signs can provide. The app takes them around corners inside of buildings and into places visitors can't see as well from the outside. It also gives a more complete description of each building and its history.
“It's almost like reading a book,” Lesley said. “It tells a story.”
The app is the product of a grant from the Amon G. Carter Foundation and 18 months of work for Julie Hodges, the Helen Devitt Jones director of education at the NRHC. They realized many of their visitors are technologically savvy and have smartphones, so the best way to reach potential visitors was to go where they are. She anticipates the app will be helpful both for regular visitors and the thousands of schoolchildren who come to the NRHC every year on field trips.
“It's a fun way to keep kids focused on learning while they're here,” she said.
Parts of the app were designed with children in mind. It has interactive games, including a history quiz and scavenger hunt for older children and a “critter count” for younger children to count the lizards, jackrabbits and other animals they see in the park. It also has a postcard feature that allows users to upload pictures into branded frames to be posted on social media.
The app is helpful before and after a visit as well. Potential visitors can check out the center before going, find upcoming events and even look for nearby restaurants and lodging.
“I'm really pleased with all the options it gives you to explore the center in different ways,” Hodges said.
Jenny Paxton was impressed with the how thorough the app is, including audio and video clips along with pictures and historical tidbits. It had more information than she expected.
She also liked that it includes GPS and can track where patrons are. That ensures visitors don't miss an entire loop by accident.
“I was a ranch host, and even then sometimes it's hard to find your way around,” she said.
Current ranch host John Levacy, who's in his 26th year of giving tours, is happy to share some of the work with smartphones. While he admits his tour is better, he can't be at the NRHC all the time to give tours, and having an app provides a much better tour than walking around and reading the signs.
“Here, anyone that's got a smartphone or iPad can get a great tour using this,” he said, holding up his smartphone.
Having the app to help in meeting the demand for guided tours also will allow him to continue on focus on the Masterson JY Bunkhouse, where Old West cowboys hung their hats.
“The cowboy to me is the embodiment of the development of the West,” he said.