Legendary Watering Holes: The Saloons that Made Texas Famous


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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Richard W. Slatta

“This volume nicely crosses over between well-researched social history and popular history. Students of urban growth, regional history, ‘saloonography,’ prostitution, alcohol use and gambling will profit from these four case studies. Buffs in the cities under study as well as those who favor good tales of Texas history will also enjoy the book. . . . the writing style is clear, spirited, and engaging, with enough colloquialisms to charm. . . . Instead of a distant bird’s eye view of the topic, with a surfeit of generalizations, the authors take us right into the heady, often raunchy and violent lives of these Texas watering holes. They do an excellent job of highlighting colorful and important personalities, vivid events, and also providing wider political and economic contexts. The treatments of drinking, prostitution, and gambling are historically accurate. . . . this is popular history at its best. Descriptions are vivid. . .”--Richard W. Slatta, North Carolina State University, author, Simón Bolívar’s Quest for Glory: The Mythical West, Comparing Cowboys and Frontiers
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585443369
  • Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2004
  • Series: Clayton Wheat Williams Texas Life Series, #10
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Editor and compiler Richard Selcer is a long-time adjunct professor of history at Cedar Valley College in Dallas, Texas, and at the International University in Vienna, Austria. He lives in Fort Worth and has written six books on Western and Civil War history.David Bowser, born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is now known as the “historical detective” of San Antonio, where he has lived for over twenty-five years. He is the author of West of the Creek: Murder, Mayhem, and Vice in Old San Antonio.Nancy Hamilton, a past president of Western Writers of America, specializes in hisotry of the El Paso area. She retired in 1990 as associate director of Texas Western Press at the University of Texas at El Paso. She currently chairs the University of Texas–El Paso Heritage Commission.Chuck Parsons, a Texan by choice, has for decades held a deep interest in the Old West, the Texas Rangers, and outlaws and lawmen. He is the author of Captain L. H. McNelly—Texas Ranger: The Life and Times of a Fighting Man.
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Table of Contents

Introduction : "Set 'em up!" 3
Ch. 1 The fine art of mixology 43
Ch. 2 Jack Harris's Vaudeville and San Antonio's "fatal corner" 53
Ch. 3 Ben Dowell's Saloon and the "Monte Carlo of the west" (El Paso) 123
Ch. 4 The "free-hearted fellows" of the Iron Front (Austin) 169
Ch. 5 The White Elephant : Fort Worth's saloon par excellence 227
Epilogue : "last call" 291
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2005


    What did every town in the Old West have at least one of and more often several? Churches, shops? You knew all along - saloons. When a town was settled a saloon was usually the first building to go up. Now, it's not that all were hard drinkers (although many were), but a saloon served as much more than a bar. It was a gathering place, a makeshift meeting hall and, if you watch TV's 'Deadwood,' you learn it was also used as a courtroom. True, they were also the scenes of brawls and gunfights. This territory was called the 'Wild West' for good reason. Nonetheless, these saloons or watering holes, as they were sometimes called, are very much a part of our western history. A past President of the Western Writers of America, Leon Claire Metz, has said, 'Without saloons, the Wild West would have been dull, essentially unrecognizable. Yet the saloon story, until now, has never been told with such clarifying candor. If you understand saloons, you will understand the West: why it was Wild, why it was great, and why it will always be remembered.' Reading 'Legendary Watering Holes' is a major step in understanding the West. The authors focus on four of the most famous (or infamous) saloons in Texas, shedding light on their owners, the entertainment, and even the liquor that was served. Accompanied by vintage photos, each saloon is described from the day it opened until its swinging doors were closed forever. Historians and Western buffs will find much to relish in this well researched volume. - Gail Cooke

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