At the new Bexar Heritage Center, visitors can click through a timeline of the county’s history, watch a crime scene investigation unfold, and learn more about county projects such as the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project and Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

The Bexar Heritage Center opened Tuesday, with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff snipping the ceremonial ribbon at the Bexar County Courthouse, where the center is located.

Wolff, who has been holding onto the idea of a historic center for the county since the 1990s, said the new center would allow visitors to learn about not only the history of Bexar County, but also the work that county government does now.

“You’ll be able to get an understanding of what we do, the projects that have been important to our community,” he said.

Wolff also pointed to the 2015 restoration of the courthouse as an example of the county preserving its history.

“We have a historic treasure here, and this is going to accent this treasure,” Wolff said.

Judge Nelson Wolff enjoys a video demonstration at the Crime Scene Theater at the Bexar Heritage Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The center houses various artifacts, such as a rifle that Sam Houston purportedly gifted to Antonio Menchaca at the Battle of San Jacinto and buttons from military-issue and personal garments. It also features dozens of video screens that tell the story of Bexar County, interactive programs that let people explore iterations of the Texas Constitution and cattle branding, and actors portraying historical figures.

Catherine Babbitt, major crimes chief at the Bexar County District Attorney’s office, lent her skills to play Matilda Stevens, Bexar County’s first female sheriff who served in 1928 after her husband died. Babbitt, who has been active in the local community theater scene since 1985, said the center served as an excellent refresher on Texas history.

“It’s a wonderful honor to be asked to be included in a piece of history – history that you’re telling and that will be around for a while,” she said.

Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) warned that failing to understand history leads to making the same mistakes from the past. The heritage center will aid in educating the community about its local history, he said.

“Make sure you send people here so they understand our history and how we got here,” he said. “That’s what I see as truly beneficial to our citizens here in Bexar County.”

For Anne Toxey of San Antonio’s Toxey McMillan Design Associates, designing the center was one of the most “fun and fulfilling projects” she has worked on.

“It’s been fun to bring to light so many of the contemporary stories of Bexar County and the historic stories,” she said.

The center’s design cost $1.2 million and construction cost $1.7 million. The money came from county capital funds, Bexar Heritage and Parks Department Director Betty Bueché said. And not only does the center function as an educational space, but as a community center – visitors can even check out ebooks from the county’s all-digital library, Bibliotech, at the center.

“The public is welcome to come here at any time,” she said. “It’s open any time the building is open. We’re encouraging school groups to come, and we’re working closely with the Conservation Society [of San Antonio] to bring school group tours through the building.”

The Story Maps section of the Bexar Heritage Center displays Bexar County history starting 10,000 years ago and ending in the 1800s, Bueché said. The University of Texas at San Antonio helped produce the story maps, and are working on the second of four phases. The second phase will show county history from the early 1800s to right before the railroad came to town, Bueché said.

“That one talks about the growing economy around the state, agricultural crops, the farms and ranches, all those things that contributed to the creation of Texas as a country, and as a state,” Bueché said. “The creation of Bexar County originally went above Cheyenne, Wyoming.”

The second phase of the interactive history display will be rolled out later in 2019, and UTSA will continue to develop the last two phases of the exhibit’s story maps, Bueché said.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.