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The White Elephant Saloon

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr
The White Elephant was hands down the most popular name for a saloon in 19th century Texas. There were White Elephant Saloons in Abilene, Austin, Brownsville, Brenham, Bryan, Denison, El Paso, Lampasas, Laredo, Mobeetie and Wichita Falls.

The name was so familiar to Texans, it could have been a franchise.

The White Elephant Saloon in San Antonio was on the north side of the Main Plaza near San Fernando Church. At the White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth, gunfighter Luke Short got crossways with Longhaired Jim Courtright. Short drew first and gave Courtright the longest funeral procession the city of Fort Worth had ever seen. That was the long and short of it.
Fredericksburg TX White Elephant Saloon
The White Elephant Saloon in Fredericksburg
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, November 2018
The White Elephant Saloon at 242 East Main Street in Fredericksburg may have been the classiest joint of any saloon in Texas that carried the name. John Kleck built it in 1888. The outside walls are cut limestone with 3 double doors in front and ornamental wrought iron railing along the top. Until 1938 there was a wooden gallery out front.

Inside the building, the long wooden bar was along the west wall. There was a large mirror on the back wall with an ice chest underneath to keep the beer kegs cold. There was a cistern under the floor near the front of the building.

Carbide lights lit up the bar at night. Later workers installed electric lights when Pfeil's power plant made electricity available.

To put the finishing touch on the front of his fancy saloon, John Kleck hired two stonemasons, A. W. Petmecky and a man named Thompson, to carve or mold an elephant and attach it to the outside wall above the middle door.

That assignment proved to be a tall order. Images of elephants were hard to find in the Texas Hill Country.

As luck would have it there was at the time a merry-go-round on Market Square operated by a gentleman from Italy. For a small fee children could ride around in a circle on the backs of wooden animals from around the world. One of the animals was an elephant.

Petmecky and Thompson made an imprint of the elephant by pressing it into a large container of moist sand. Then they poured cement containing lime into the imprint to form the elephant we see today.
The White Elephant
The White Elephant
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, November 2018
In 1893 John Kleck leased the building to saloonkeepers John Klaerner and Henry Langerhans for $25 a month, but there was an interesting provision in the lease that allowed Kleck to terminate the agreement if the railroad came to town.

Klaerner and Langerhans bought the contents of the saloon for $1400 - $400 cash and a $1,000 loan. Business was good. They paid off the loan in less than a year.

The White Elephant Saloon served the men of Fredericksburg until Prohibition. Over the next 50 years the building housed a tractor and farm implement company, a grocery store, a barbershop and a dealership for Hudson-Essex automobiles.

The origin of the name White Elephant comes from Southeast Asian culture. White elephants were sacred in that part of the world. They were pampered and did no work of any kind. By the time the term arrived in America it had come to mean, sometimes in a tongue and cheek sort of way, an expensive but worthless investment.

The name White Elephant may also relate to the phrase 'seeing the elephant" - a 19th century expression that referred to a great adventure.

Some sources in Fredericksburg say the name came from a custom in parts of Germany where a white elephant was a symbol for an eating and drinking establishment.

Because frontier saloons were segregated, the color white also had racial overtones. There were Black Elephant Saloons in Fort Worth, Brenham, Austin, Houston and San Antonio that catered to Black Americans.

Saloons thrived in Texas until Prohibition hit the booze industry like a herd of elephants.

When the White Elephant Saloon in San Antonio closed, a local newspaper wrote with a noticeable tone of sadness, "When the boys come to San Antone they can't milk the elephant anymore."
Michael Barr
"Hindsights" January 15, 2019 Column

"Historic Store Front Razed," Fredericksburg Standard, February 17, 1938.
"Bicentennial Minutes for Gillespie County," Fredericksburg Standard, July 21, 1976.
"White Elephant Saloon - Main Eye Catcher," Fredericksburg Standard, July 2, 1975.
Richard Spelcer, "Fort Worth's White Elephant Saloon," Wild West Magazine, October 2003.
AncestorPuzzles.com, April 18, 2016, The Black Elephant Saloon.

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