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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

The Tower

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Ever wonder how teenagers kept up with each other in the days before cell phones and instant communication? If you were a teenager in Fredericksburg in the 1960s and 70s, cruising Main on Saturday night, you made a swing through the parking lot at The Tower Drive-In. Everyone showed up there sooner or later. It was the best show in town.

 Fredericksburg, TX - Tower Drive-In
The Tower Drive-In
Photo courtesy Gillespie County Historical Society

The Tower, at 526 West Main Street, shared a low slung, flat-roofed building with Jim's Ice House at the corner of Bowie and Main (where Jek's Pit Stop is today). The business took its name from the big water tower just up the street. Newspaper ads called the Tower "the most popular drive-in in town," and for a time it was - especially with teenagers, itching to get out from under their parents' thumb.

The busy kitchen served hamburgers, chicken, shrimp and The Tower's famous finger steaks, while the soda fountain cranked out malts, milkshakes, banana splits and soft serve ice cream.

The Tower offered inside dining, curbside service or food-to-go. Car hops took orders and carried food to curbside customers on metal trays that hung on the car door. The food was good and the price was reasonable. There was a time when hungry teenagers on a budget could buy a hamburger, fries and a drink for 49 cents.

But The Tower was much more than a restaurant. It was a part of the American drive-in culture created by teenagers looking for something to do on Saturday night.

Teenagers want to be independent and for a teen in the 1960s and 70s, independence meant getting behind the wheel. A car meant freedom. A driver's license marked the transition to adulthood.

By the 1960s most families had cars - often more than one. Gasoline was 20 cents a gallon. The call of the open road was irresistible.

In towns all over America, cruising became a weekend ritual (adults called it "driving around aimlessly.") In Fredericksburg it was no trick at all to put 50 miles on the family Chevy in one night, just cruising (some called it dragging) Main Street, back and forth, between the "Y" and the Nimitz Hotel, all on a dollar's worth of gas. A part of the routine included a stop at The Tower to see if anything interesting was going on - as if anyone had to ask.

There, in The Tower parking lot, teens hung out with friends (adults called it "loitering,") listened to music and did what fun-loving teenagers do best: strut, swagger and show off.

Squealing tires, booming radios and loud exhaust pipes were part of the charm of the Tower. Out on the parking lot there was more action than a 3-ring circus. Sparks flew as sweethearts got together and sweethearts broke up - sometimes on the same night. There was plenty of laughter, theatrics, trash talk and an occasional fist fight. Every Friday and Saturday night the curtain went up on a new production - sometimes a comedy, sometimes a drama and sometimes a musical.

Car radios, 8-track tape players and the Tower's exterior speakers playing songs from the Wurlitzer juke box in the dining room provided the soundtrack, except for certain Saturdays in the fall when most everyone tuned in to hear the Texas Longhorns and local legend Happy Feller play football. Even Aggies cheered when Happy booted one through the uprights.


Few patrons, even the hard-core regulars, knew what it took to run a place like The Tower. The hours were long and grueling - 8am to midnight, Monday through Thursday, with special late hours on Friday and Saturday.

Tommy and Polly Zenner ran the Tower from 1967 to 1974. "On Saturday nights when Pat's Hall was open we didn't close until 2am," Polly told me. "After cleanup, we took the employees home. Sometimes we didn't get home until 4am."

As the setting sun cast long shadows on Sunday evening The Tower parking lot was mostly empty and strangely silent as if resting up for the next curtain call when the chaos, the comedy and the drama started all over again.

 Fredericksburg, TX - Tower Drive-In
The Tower Drive-In
Photo courtesy Gillespie County Historical Society


Michael Barr
"Hindsights" November 1, 2020 Column



"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

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