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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
Old Bill the Menger Alligator

Michael Barr
The Menger Hotel in San Antonio was the most important boardinghouse on the stage line between New Orleans and San Diego. When the train reached San Antonio in 1877, passengers raced each other from the depot to the Menger for a room. South Texas cattlemen used the Menger as headquarters for spring cattle drives.

Texas writer and folklorist J. Frank Dobie loved the Menger more than any other hotel. He especially loved its proud history, its ghostly ambiance, its proximity to the Alamo, and its harmonious blend of Old South, Texas, and Mexican architecture. The Menger is still one of the great Texas hotels.

Stories about the Menger fill volumes, but my favorite Menger story is about a pet alligator named Old Bill.
TX - Menger Bar Sign
Menger Bar Sign
January 2016 photo © Michael Barr
In the late nineteenth century the Menger Bar was the swank gathering place for celebrities, soldiers, politicians, cattle barons, itinerant literati, and town socialites. Fred Lockwood, the bartender, told the story of a man who came into the bar one day with a live alligator named Old Bill. The man stayed at the hotel several days, but when time came to check out, he was short of cash. Lockwood, who had become attached to Old Bill, persuaded the man to leave the alligator in lieu of his considerable bar tab.

For a time Old Bill lived in a tub in the Colonial Dining Room, but when he began to roar and snap at customers, the staff moved Bill to the lush tropical patio where he lived for the next 50 years. A tradition developed that became a standard initiation for all new Menger bell boys. At some point on their first day, the new guys were handed brushes and soap and dispatched to the patio to "wash the alligator." Thankfully, the joke was revealed before they all quit or someone lost an appendage.

Old Bill lived a good life, lounging on the patio and swimming in his pool, but a time came when hotel employees detected an air of melancholy in his demeanor. Old Bill needed a friend, so the hotel brought in another alligator named Oscar to keep Bill company.

The trouble started the day Oscar arrived. The two of them never got along. Hotel employees built a fence to separate them, and for 15 years there was an uneasy standoff. Then late one night Old Bill could take it no longer. He tore down the fence, and the fight was on.
TX - Menger Hotel
Menger Hotel
January 2016 photo © Michael Barr

A quiet evening at the Menger turned into pandemonium. Guests came out in their nightclothes to see what the racket was about. The palm trees shivered and shook. Thrashing tails hurled water into second and third story windows.

Not knowing what else to do, someone pulled the fire alarm. The firemen arrived in good time but too late to prevent the culmination of a 15-year struggle for supremacy.

Old Bill was game but was outmatched by his younger and stronger opponent. It was over in a few minutes. Bill became gumbo and cowboy boots while Oscar the interloper, with nary a scratch, basked triumphantly in the moonlight.



Michael Barr
"Hindsights" March 1 , 2016 Column

Sources:
San Antonio Light, April 12, 1970, p 7G, "The Animals in Our Lives."
San Antonio Light, August 23, 1936, "Gator Fight Brings Death for Oldster." Section 2 pa.1

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