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Bandera: Cowboy Capital of Texas... and the World

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Fun dominates this little town of 873 souls, a town that doesn't take itself too seriously, a town where locals regard the OST (Old Spanish Trail) Restaurant on Main Street as their office.

Fun dominates this little town of 873 souls, a town that doesn’t take itself too seriously, a town where locals regard the OST (Old Spanish Trail) Restaurant on Main Street as their office. They will be sitting at a table here most mornings and, if they are not, someone in town who will know exactly where they are this particular day. Hungry locals do have choices. “There is a restaurant in town for every 60 inhabitants,” says Pat Moore, our genial host, the executive director of the Bandera County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

We are sitting in her office, a cottage that was once part of the 3-story complex behind her. “An elderly woman came by once and told me she was ‘last person born in this house.’ My visitor—who turned out to be aged 95—also pointed out how the interior of the window frames were not square but angled more into the house. That was so you could stand unobserved by the window and look out in case it was an Indian attack!”

The first settlers were Mormons in the 1850s, the next Polish immigrants. We have the second-oldest Polish Catholic church in the USA—actually the oldest still standing and functioning.”

We don’t want Pat Moore to think we see her little town as a metropolis so we tell her we had a chicken cross our path as we parked outside. “Yes,” she says, “You’ll see them around town. Bandera is not a beautiful town but it does have spirit. You’ll experience that. We don’t have special events or places, just people.”

And the people! Hoot Gibson, who rode his horse to the Calgary Stampede. Ron Dakotah, who has driven his wagon all across the USA. Mary McGroarty Smith, whose son now owns the 11th Street Cowboy Bar. The town has as many bars as churches. Willie Nelson lived here for a time and his guitarist friend, Arkey Blue, now has the Silver Dollar Saloon on Main Street. Pat has been here for 24 years. “A bar to us,” she says, “Is not just a place you come to drink but where it becomes your living room.”

Longhorn Saloon. Ron Dakotah. The Sunday trail riders.

But that’s Wednesday and today is Sunday so Pat, after she drives us to lunch at the Backyard Bistro 5 miles from town for Crab Cakes Benedict and pan-seared salmon, takes us up to the Longhorn Saloon for its Sunday event; the trail ride. There’s no protocol or true program for this, says Pat, who is clearly proud of the spontaneity of her town. People just show up when they are good and ready and they head down the street on horseback and end up by the river.

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The cypress trees on the river banks of the Texas Hill Country gave rise to a lumber industry as shingles for pioneer communities across the land.

We talk to the famed Ron Dakotah, who is, and he knows it, a character. He has been interviewed many times and it’s hard to know when he’s pulling our legs. However he tells us his grandfather used to hide whisky in a false floor below his stallion’s stable and sell to the Indians. At the age of 6 he rode his horse 4 miles to school in Gettysburg, SD, so he’s been around horses all his life.

Asked what he’s learned about life after 22 years ambling across America behind his horses at 4 mph in a 75-mph world, he replies not unexpectedly, “Treat people as you’d want to be treated.” He looks around at the traffic of the modern world passing by the Longhorn Saloon, waves his hand and says. “Life? All this [on Earth] is kindergarten, teaching us things that build character.”

The big change he has seen has been in the response of State Highway Patrols to his presence. It was easier for him 20 years ago, they’d help him make it work; now they can’t handle it. “I understand their problems,” he says. “I’m on a 2-lane highway and suddenly it’s an Interstate. Someone once told me I should have a bumper sticker that says ‘I’m a non-conformist’ but heck I don’t need that. Anyone looking at my wagon and me can see that.”

The other attraction on Sundays is beside the Frontier Times Museum where locals who like country-style music show up for whatever’s going.

The museum itself is worth a visit but this is a small town and the museum isn’t exactly the Smithsonian.

Once you’ve ridden in the wagon train like a young Clint Eastwood, you are ready to walk around this town that makes tourists smile. A shop on Main selling antiques has a sign saying Family Doctor, the origin unknown to the assistant. The bar at the OST restaurant uses saddles for bar stools and signs to show you are heading for the right restroom. The General Store on the other side of Main has cowgirl boots made in typically unassuming style for Texas cowgirls

Enigmatic barn art, A cowboy sitting on a pot. And messages for visitors it’s all there.

We were originally told the doctor’s office from the 1920s to the 1950s was in this building next to the 1908 Boyle Store, now an antique shop. We have inserted in its interior a small plaque whose message might have deterred new medical school graduates…

But then we read that the office of the 11th Street Cowboy Bar was where the doctor had his office. When we went in to find the correct story a customer swept his hand over all the bras hanging trophy-like from the ceiling and said “Look at those! Sure looks like it was a doctor’s office!” He then told us that when old Miss McGroarty Smith and her son bought the cowboy Bar the bras were hanging there already. They took ‘em all down, washed ‘em then hung ’em up again. Traditions die hard.

The Cowboy Bar and the cool 10th Street Cottage B & B we stayed at just round the corner, a great location to downtown.

One night a week is Wednesday Steak Night at the Cowboy Bar. The idea started as a true pot luck but now locals pick up a steak at Daddy Jim’s Quality Meats and in the Cowboy Bar buy their sides for $6 per person. “There’s no cleaning up and we all have fun!” says Pat.

This is the Cowboy Capital of the World. You’ll better believe it. There’s an official proclamation posted by the Texas Historical Association on the Main Square. But this might be the rural shopping place for elegant Texas women too, from jewelry in shop windows on Main Street (top left) to all the lovely items in the store Gunslinger, it really was upscale.

Top Image: L to R Tommy Knotts, Roy Dugosh. Bottom R; Patria Moore

Gunslingers are always more interesting than the good guys. Tommy Knotts has been called the Mountain Man from Montana and he does at times take a genuine tepee to Mountain Men rendezvous events but he was born in Davis, SD in 1943 and delights in saying he has a photo of himself on a horse at the age of 6 months on a Sioux Reservation. He has lived mostly in Texas since the age of 3 and has appeared in half a dozen movies, some TV commercials and a music video. He usually plays the bad guy

“My father was in the military but left us when I was aged 5. I grew up in a Boys’ Home then a wealthy rancher in Texas took me in. He had a real ranch and real cowboys. I learned about horses.”

Are horses smart? “No, they are just like people, some smart, some dumb. One horse has been in more movies than I have; he’s like a puppy dog and very laid back. But he’s not a pet. He’s a 1,400-pound horse. Horses are herd animals, happier if there are 2 of ‘em.!”

His friend, Roy Dugosh was born in 1949. Wasn’t that a good year for wine? “I don’t know. I wasn’t drinking then.” Roy still lives in the house he was born in, He was delivered by his father and has 12 siblings. He remembers his childhood well. Our house was built in 1873 on top of an 1850 cellar. The phone bill was $3 a month but my father couldn’t afford it so the company took it away. We were dirt poor but we didn’t know it so we were not afraid to lose everything. We were a large catholic family and we have family reunions 4 times a year and usually have about 200 people turning up!

Why is Bandera special? It’s the people, Roy says. Arkey Blue had Doug Livingston, as bandleader and bass player for 25 years. He died in 2013 and the Silver Dollar had a life celebration for him one afternoon. People came from as far as Houston and San Antonio. When it was over they had left $30,000 on the bar for his family.

We think of all this next day when we take off along Highway 46 through the Hill Country’s gently rising hills, past gnarled live oaks and goat farms and elegant business retreats and homes behind limestone walks. We are heading for Gruene, TX. The town is pronounced Green and we know we’re still surrounded by Texas humor when we pass a bar signposted as “Tavern on the Gruene.”

Photography by the authors.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.


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