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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

"Saloons on Every Corner and Plenty in Between..."

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

For nearly a century, soldiers at Fort Clark protected the border from hostile Indians and Mexican bandits.

Established at Las Moras Springs in 1852 in what is now Kinney County, the fort remained an active military post through World War II. The town of Brackettville grew up around it.

Through the 1870s, troopers stationed at Clark occasionally skirmished with Indians but most of the time they adhered to daily military routine, from reveille to taps. Later, during the Mexican Revolution, the garrison kept a watchful eye on the Rio Grande that flowed only 13 miles below the post. But most of the time, life on the border was more boring than action-packed.

Except on pay days.

In the fall of 1933, about the time national prohibition was down to its figurative "last call," retired Army Lt. Col. Jasper Ewing Brady, Sr. wrote the New York Herald Tribune to recollect the time he spent at Fort Clark in 1889 as an enlisted infantryman.

Just across Las Moras Creek, he wrote, lay Brackettville, "a nondescript frontier town...and about the worst place on the map." With a population of only 500, it had "saloons on every corner and plenty in between, dance halls, brothels-let your imagination run riot and you may approximate what this town was in those hectic days."

Back then, Brady recalled, soldiers got paid every 90 days. Privates earned $13 a month, corporals $15 and sergeants $18. The first day of Brady's Fort Clark tour happened to be pay day.

In Brackettville that night, he continued, "it was wild-not a revel, but an orgy, such as would have made Nero look like a piker."

At two of the more infamous places, the Blue Goose and the Gray Mule, "there were several kinds of dances indulged in that are not seen on stage or ballroom floor. There were cheap liquor, cards, all kinds of gambling, women and no legal restraints."

The next morning, 110 of the post's 1,100 soldiers-10 percent of the entire garrison-lay sobering up in the post's guard house or under arrest elsewhere since the lockup was full to capacity. Ninety days later, the arrest count grew slightly to 112.

On the third pay day after Brady's arrival at the post, the situation changed dramatically. An Army canteen had been built at the fort and soldiers were barred from going to Brackettville. At the post facility, only beer and wine "so light it would not stand alone" were sold to the troops and no one could have more than five drinks a day.

Brady did not say what economic impact the Army's move had on Brackettville, but it sure reduced pressure on the post's guard house. The morning after the next day pay found only eight troopers in stir. The next pay day the number rose slightly to 10, but on the third payday after the change, the guard house held only six soldiers.

"It was the finest example of controlled temperance I have ever seen, and everything was working against that control," Brady wrote.

Of course, the policy did not last and Brackettville continued to cater to off duty soldiers with money in their pockets until the post's abandonment at the end of World War II.

One morning in the early 1960s, a cavalry veteran who had hung around after the military left was sitting at the counter in a hotel-cafe across Highway 90 from the old fort drinking coffee and holding forth for several visitors.

"One story in particular I just can't forget," he began, "is about a green recruit and a sergeant with a sense of humor."

A young recruit freshly arrived at Fort Clark did not know how to ride a horse.

"They sent him down to the corral for his first training," the veteran said.

The rookie appealed to the sergeant for a break.

"Gimme a gentle horse, sarge, I've never ridden before and I'm kinda nervous."

The sergeant pointed at a horse penned by itself.

"Well, now, look yonder," he said. "He's kinda nervous, too. He ain't never been ridden. You're gonna ride him, soldier, and y'all can learn together."

The anecdote sounds suspiciously apocryphal, but it's not a bad story, either way.

The two-story hotel across from the fort survived for more than a decade after the military abandoned Fort Clark . The cafe lasted into the 1970s.

A fire finally did what the loss of the military payroll had not quite done. Today there's no trace of the old hotel, but most of old Fort Clark has been preserved as a retirement community called Fort Clark Springs. And while the cavalry no longer rides the Rio Grande, the U.S. Border Patrol stays active in the area. Brackettville still benefits from federal dollars, though certainly not on the scale it once enjoyed.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February 22, 2018 column
An award-winning author of more than 30 non-fiction books, Mike Cox is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters. A long-time freelance writer and public speaker, he lives near Wimberley in the Hill Country. To read about more his work, visit his website at mikecoxauthor.com. He can be contacted at texasmikecox@gmail.com.

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