Legendary Watering Holes

The Saloons that Made Texas Famous

978-1-58544-336-9 Cloth
6.125 x 9.25. 320 pp. 34 b&w photos., 11 line drawings.
Pub Date: 08/31/2004
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Saloons, barrooms, honky-tonks, or watering holes—by whatever name, they are part of the mythology of the American West, and their stories are cocktails of legend and fact, as Richard Selcer, David Bowser, Nancy Hamilton, and Chuck Parsons demonstrate in these entertaining and informative accounts of four legendary Texas establishments.

In most Western communities, the first saloon was built before the first church, and the drinking establishments far outnumbered the religious ones. Beyond their obvious functions, saloons served as community centers, polling places, impromptu courtrooms, and public meeting halls. The authors of this volume discuss both the social and operational aspects of the businesses: who the owners were, what drinks were typically served, the democratic ethos that reigned at the bars, the troubling issues of social segregation by race and gender within each establishment, and the way order was maintained—if it was at all.

Here, the spotlight is thrown on four saloons that were legends in their day: Jack Harris’s Saloon and Vaudeville Theater in San Antonio, Ben Dowell’s Saloon in El Paso, the Iron Front of Austin, and the White Elephant of Fort Worth. Together with architectural renderings of the floor plans and old photographs of the establishments and some of their more famous customers, the history of each is woven into the history of its city. Fatal shootings are recounted, and forms of entertainment are described with care and verve.

One of this book’s most fascinating aspects is the sharp detail that brings to life the malodorous, smoky interiors and the events that took place there. Selcer and his co-authors are experts on their respective watering holes. They start with the origins of each establishment and follow their stories until the last drink was served and the places closed down for good. There are stops along the way to consider the construction of the ornate bars, the suppliers of the liquor served, the attire of the gentlemen gamblers, the variety of casino games that emptied men’s pockets, and more. Through the wealth of detail and the animated narrative, a crucial part of Texas’ Western heritage becomes immediately accessible to the present.

Clayton Wheat Williams Texas Life Series

Published by Texas A&M University Press