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 Texas : Trips / Hill Country Towns

Bandera, Texas

by Byron Browne
All of Texas is divided into three parts. One of which, the neo-modern urbanizations, where the glass, concrete and steel agoras offer a majority the communion we have grown accustomed to, the one most of us are familiar with. Another, the grassy, hoary rural communities, where cars wave to each other on passing regardless of familiarity, where pre-dawn farm reports, feed stores and fishing are still a daily routine, are known to most of us either from childhood, stories or occasional Sunday drives. And finally, of course, those areas of the state which find themselves awkwardly straddling the aged fence between these two realities; those towns where the polis is attempting to envelope the pastoral with its shining new tendrils, promising fortune and prosperity in return for submission. Progress, as it is termed now, has motored into so many of our smaller communities that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the towns of our parents or grandparents, harder still to recall the images as they were- at times only the memory of details defines fact from obscurity.
Bandera Texas for sale sign
Sign of the times
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, December 2007
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Such is the case with the hill country town of Bandera. Founded sometime around 1853, the town (self-described as the “Cowboy Capital of the World”) has been home to several dance-halls and dude ranches through the years for service men and women from San Antonio as well as tree starved city dwellers from all over the country. However, while the population is still advertised at a meager 972, the beauty of the area attracts thousands of tourists and “winter Texans” every year. The appeal of the region seems only to increase as time moves forward. It seems strangely natural that urban growth is matched, exponentially, by an increase in desire for what it has replaced. Many towns throughout the country, once rural enclaves, are changing to accommodate an ever swelling population. Bandera is a community that illustrates this juxtaposition perfectly, although the town teems annually with a transient populace. The town does keep one large boot solidly planted in its agrarian past but, the other is loping forward with enough enthusiasm to drag both into relative modernity.

On an unusually warm January morning, my wife and I left Austin and drove southwest. We were to meet my father, a semi-retired doctor of optometry who spent his adolescent years in Bandera after leaving Houston when he was twelve years old. He was to be our expert on things “Hill Country”. Although my father only lived in the community for eight years, he still recalls that time with ardent affection and continues to refer to the area as his home. In fact, when he chose to sell his office and the need for population was no longer too important a consideration, it was into Boerne, just 45 minutes from Bandera that he and his wife settled.

Driving west along highway 46, my wife commented on the beauty of the real hill country. Austin, our home, being just the edge of this unique geology, affords us only a tantalizing, tangent view of the best scenery this side of Big Bend. The views are magnificent and clearly, this expanse is one of the reasons why so many Texans are so endeared with their state.

Ever since I can remember, my father has frequently commented on the way the hill country has changed. When I was a teenager though, I thought these constant comments were the standard opining of the middle-aged. During the few times that we visited the region then, I could never quite make out what, if anything, had changed from any previous time. The relatives always had the same unhurried manner, the deer were always in the road or lurking just off it and we always had to allow for the fact that water wasn’t a seemingly inexhaustible resource but rather, a very finite commodity that was literally bubbling up from a well just outside. For an adolescent living in the Dallas metroplex, any environment that did not have restaurants and gas stations every few yards was considered “the country”. An unpaved road was an anomaly. Opinions, of course, like landscapes, are subject to change with time.

Medina River near Bandera Texas
Medina River
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, December 2007
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We, that is, my wife, dad, stepmother and myself, entered Bandera on a Sunday afternoon from highway 16, a rolling, meandering two-lane road that has obviously been broadened to accommodate the increase in traffic. In fact, the construction is still underway. Even the tiny community of Pipe Creek, a few miles outside of Bandera, was busy with road and sewage construction when we drove through it. (“There used to be nothing out here. Nothing!” my step-mother was drawn to say as we drove past.) The main street in Bandera itself was littered with the highway department’s orange and white hurdles. However, my father, without a word regarding where he was taking us, rolled straight through the heart of town and headed farther west over a poetry inspiring fork of the Medina river and up a high, steep hill to the ruins of the Silver Spur Dance Hall.
Bandera Texas ruins of the Silver Spur Dance Hall
Ruins of the Silver Spur Dance Hall.
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, December 2007

Several years ago, while on a scholarship in Greece, an archaeologist told the group I was in an old adage concerning archaeological sites-“If you raise a couple of columns, the tourists will come!” Obviously, the maxim holds true in Texas also. The shell of the old dance hall, a cypress enveloped temple, still rests on a hill overlooking some of the most gorgeous scenery anywhere in the state. In fact, the ruin stands, sentinel like, keeping watch over the whole of the town below. The building itself, roofless now, its white, stone walls tenaciously weathering the years, is an architectural wonder. I was immediately aware of why my father had wanted us to see this. It resembles a Vanderbilt mansion more than a dance hall and must have been exceedingly impressive when fully functioning. Not far removed though are a few rental cottages. While I’m sure that a stay in one of these would be a great experience, I was struck with the same uneasy feeling as when I heard of a rock band playing inside the Roman Coloseum-wouldn’t the traffic and vibration somehow damage the site? ( I understand that comparing the Coloseum with the Silver Spur Dance Hall is quite a stretch, even laughable, however, each culture creates its own antiquities and we are all responsible for the curation our own histories.) Nevertheless, the cottage’s website states that, at least, there is no smoking. Oh, and you can have your Yoga class there if you give enough notice of the intent.

As we left and went back down the road, my father told us how, as a young man, he had so often, “made this trip drunk, sober and even backed down it one night.” I asked him what condition he had been in while descending the hill backwards. He replied, “Frightened!”

Back in town, we decided that we needed lunch and my father, although no one in the car was or is disabled, pulled in to the first handicapped parking space that he could find. (It was the sole spot available on the main street for several blocks.) At first, I was shocked by his temerity and disregard of law-after a moment I realized his motivation. We were in Bandera on a Sunday afternoon, a day of the week when hundreds of other folks from all over central Texas had had the same idea. We were surrounded by dozens of shiny new trucks, expansive SUVs and belching Harley Davidsons, all of which seemed to be in search of that famous Texan hospitality rather than offering any of it up themselves. I assumed my father was behaving in accordance with the circumstance and, while not physically handicapped, I further assumed that he considered walking to lunch from blocks away disabling enough to justify his decision. In any event, we parked and began to push our way through the crowded, narrow sidewalks of the old town. Initially, we tried to enter the OST, or Old Spanish Trail restaurant (established 1921) but, customers were already leaking out onto the sidewalk at a little after noon. We eventually found a BBQ spot down the sidewalk and very nearly enjoyed a Styrofoam-plated lunch of ribs, ham and chopped beef. Where this restaurant had been only half full when we entered, when we left, there was not an open table. Several people were standing, drinks in hand, sending smaller family members out into the dining room for reconnaissance work. We had to squeeze through a small throng just to exit.

Bandera County courthouse, Bandera Texas
Bandera County Courthouse
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, December 2007
My father suggested that I get a picture of the courthouse because, quite obviously, as they are in most smaller Texas towns, the courthouse is the focal point of the downtown community. While the structure seems to have been remodeled recently, the general architecture is that of most of those from the same time period, a multi-storied nineteenth century Norman Bates’ home looking structure but much better maintained and without the dark dreariness and resident insanity. (although I’m sure some would dispute the insanity statement. Isn’t the Bandera courthouse where Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton “worked” during one week of their old television show?) In order to get a decent picture though, I needed to cross the street since we parked, legally this time, directly in front of the building. So, while the remainder of the party stayed in the car, I tried as best I could to hurry across and get the shot. The traffic that afternoon was so constant you would have thought funeral processions were passing from either direction. I’ve waited shorter periods of time for pizza to be delivered. Honestly, I think I was just feeling ridiculous; standing on the curb, camera in hand, family peering at me, waiting from behind tinted glass while I stood, and stood, and stood. Eventually, I did get across but, the whole time I was wondering how long it might take to get back.

Afterwards, we drove to the Bandera Middle School, that was the high school when my father lived there. The original building has been incorporated into the existing school, an asset to the entire complex as far as my father is concerned. Now, of course, the original building is surrounded by many more modern structures and has the requisite, adjoining athletic fields and parking lots. My father noted how the earlier building, with its functioning furnace, housed all the grades back in the forties and fifties. Pointing to the furnace’s smoke stack he related how, during the winter months, the first student in to school was responsible for lighting the day’s fire-a chore many kids were more than willing to accept. “First one in in the mornings lit the fire in the furnace”, he started then added, “’Course, being first also meant you got to sit by the fire! It also meant you had a seat for the day.” As a school teacher myself, I imagined the relish some kids would take today given such an opportunity. (On the other hand, there would also be the ever-present opportunity for the old, “I lost my homework in the fire!” excuse.)

That afternoon we visited many areas that my father wanted to show us to illustrate both his own and the town’s past history. We took a quick tour of the Mayan Dude Ranch, a 340 acre ranch with individual rock cottages as well as regular rooms for rent, and noticed that the place was without a vacancy. The Mayan’s website states that, ”There is a ‘rootin’-tootin’ cowboy somewhere inside all of us,” and dozens of folks were there riding horses trying to jostle that spirit to consciousness.
Bandera Texas Horses at the Mayan Dud Ranch
Mayan Ranch horses
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, December 2007
We drove north on highway 173 to Camp Verde of camel fame. The “General Store” of the old army base is all that remains today. The buildings comprising the actual base, a mile from the store and decommissioned by the army in 1869, were destroyed by a fire in 1910, several years after all the camels had been sold to a circus. However, the most telling and indeed, most emotional aspect of the trip, for myself at least, was still in Bandera itself and just down the main street from the historical area.

In the late 1970’s my father took me dove hunting just outside of Kerrville. We stayed with a cousin of his and his family (most of whom still live in the area). Along the way we passed, quite deliberately, through Bandera-my first visit to the town. The impression that has stayed with me the most all these years is my father’s expression as he showed me the one room home he, his sister and mother lived in when they had first moved to Bandera from Houston. I remember that the house was in a small cul-de-sac of sorts off the main road, part of a ‘trailer court’. There were, perhaps, half a dozen of these dun colored homes. All had the dull, homogenous appearance of federal housing. My dad stopped the car to look again at his old home and for a moment I lost him to his thoughts. Often this sort of recollection is cleansing, even enjoyable. However, the expression my father held for a minute after returning to me and the present was pained. He has always maintained that his years in Bandera were some of the best of his life, especially after spending his early childhood on the too frequently violent and dramatic streets of Houston. It is also possible that remembrances possess an innate degree of melancholy and that this was what I had witnessed-given my own age at the time, I may have been too young to distinguish grief from resignation, having had no real experience with the former, no real cause for the latter. On the other hand, today the matter is of little consequence; my father has his memories safely stored away and the trailer court is now a Sonic restaurant.

My wife and I returned to Austin after a long but interesting day. All the drive back was filled with talk of what we had just experienced and soon we were asking each other questions that could only be answered by a return trip. While we had seen the majority of the town (not a difficult accomplishment with a town under 1000 people) we felt we needed to walk the place a little more in order to get a better feel for it. Also, I was anxious to see the town’s personality during a weekday when other visitors were returned to their normal routines.

Two days after our initial visit we retraced our drive, arriving around the same time of day as before-lunchtime.

I had expected that a farm community, even a popular vacation spot, would be settled into its normal schedule during the work week, i.e. the fields on the area’s periphery would be hosting their few workers, the stores thinly populated by housewives and the retired, cars and trucks resting idly on the side streets waiting for someone to drive them home after the day’s work. As my son and wife could tell you, I’m frequently wrong and, at least, on that day, I stayed true to form. As we drove back into town, we noticed that the streets held the same amount of traffic as the weekend had. The sidewalks were still supporting the weight of both locals and many visitors. Parking spaces on the main road were still scarce. Luckily, we found a parking spot in front of the bank. The one item that I immediately noticed as different from the previous day was that a few of the businesses that had been open on Sunday were now, incredulously, closed.

Bandera Texas silver Dollar  door
Silver Dollar door
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, December 2007
One spot that had been open during our first visit and one which we had not ventured into at that time was the Silver Dollar Saloon. The sign out front read open just as it had on the previous Sunday; it became our first stop. Maybe I shouldn’t mention that I am always drawn to such places. The neon signs (lit no matter what the time of day), the oversized, paint peeling, wooden door, coupled with the relative, physical obscurity usually gives the place just enough mystery to pull me in. (the Silver Dollar is located on the main street in Bandera. However, the front door-yes, there’s a back door-is hiding out in the open, sandwiched between two larger businesses. The entrance appears to be some sort of storage space for one of the other two stores; the sign out front, very possibly a relic.) The Broken Spoke in Austin and the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, hold the same sort of appeal for me. And, just as with these other saloons, the Silver Dollar is extraordinary on account of both its age and earned fame.

The Silver Dollar Saloon is subterranean. In retrospect, it should be. The staircase, just a few feet inside the door, leads to an earlier time- each step a few years. The sawdust on the floor in front of the band’s stage is the consistency of the sort one would pull together from under a workhorse, not the bottled powder that many honkytonks use simultaneously for the floor and shuffleboard lane. The tables here are “family-style” (I like “neighbor maker”), the long banquet type with 12-15 chairs at each. Like it or not, on a Saturday night, you’re sitting next to several people you didn’t ride in with.

As we entered the bar, I noticed the place was deserted except for a smaller table in the back, in front of the fireplace. Like the sign, the fireplace was lit and the five men sitting in front of it made frequent comments on how nice it felt and how cold it was outside (the temperature was in the 40s). There was something about the fire that put both my wife and me at ease immediately and although the young woman tending bar was a little bewildered by our order of just water and a diet coke (I think I redeemed myself a while later asking for cigarette change), all those in the bar quickly had the same effect on us as the fire. We settled onto our bar stools and were soon disregarded regulars.

We took pictures of the bar’s interior while half listening to a conversation regarding Spanish grammar (“it’s amigo if it’s a guy, amiga if it’s a girl.” “You sure?” “Yep. Positive.” “And it means friend?” “Uh-huh.”) which my wife, a native Spanish speaker and teacher of the same, found particularly charming. When we began to leave, after about half an hour, everyone wished us good luck and the sincerity in their voices was clear and genuine.

We walked to the Bandera Visitor Center next and found more pamphlets and information on the area than we could ever use. Taking the literature across the street, we found a table at the OST restaurant and ordered lunch. The meal was better than the one Sunday had been but, I was disappointed that they did not serve biscuits after 11:00 a.m. Noticing that we were close to “The second-oldest Polish catholic church in Texas”, we paid for our lunch at the register and began our westward walk. A cloudy, cool, windless afternoon made the walk of a few blocks even more enjoyable than it might have been otherwise.
St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, Bandera Texas
St. Stanislaus Catholic Church
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, December 2007
More Texas Churches
St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, built in 1876, is not too large a building, by church standards, however, the entire complex does take up an entire block. Much of the vicinity is taken up by the catholic cemetery- an historical site by itself. Also on site, now a part of the church’s school, is the convent for the few sisters who helped administer the catholic community. I couldn’t help but imagine the inherent problems these immigrants must have faced. Nevertheless, there certainly must have been some fraternal reciprocity with all the neighboring German communities. Still, I have always been awed by the courage these people illustrated by making such a bold migration to a region so foreign, relatively distant even from other immigrant populations. The pamphlets we read stated that the Polish community was, initially, involved in the production of roof shingles made from the ubiquitous cypress trees- a trade that my father had told me was one of the main reasons for Bandera’s founding, another, the fact that the town was the beginning point for northward cattle drives in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I was reassured that, at least, these Polish immigrants had had a common gathering spot.
St. Stanislaus Catholic Cemetery, Bandera Texas
St. Stanislaus Catholic Cemetery
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, December 2007
More Texas Cemeteries

We wandered the church grounds for several minutes, found the front door open, as it should be, and took a seat inside. The nave was empty but, still brightly lit. It smelled of burning candles. The interior is expansive, has pale-colored walls highlighted by reds and natural brown. The ceiling accents the rest of the interior with a pale blue hue- the heavens, of course, opened for the congregation. The walls are decorated not only with the omnipresent ‘Stations of the Cross’ but also hold many paintings, depicting various biblical and saint’s stories. Several of these paintings are created directly onto the walls, like frescoes, and reminded me of the Greek Orthodox churches I saw a few years ago.

Walking back to the town’s center was a delight. Not only was the weather still perfect but people had begun arriving home and waved to us as we passed their houses. My wife was pleased to see a number of roosters and chickens bouncing through some yards; she had raised a few as a child in Puerto Rico.

Our final stop that day was to ‘Polly’s Chapel’. This small sanctuary was built, by hand, by José Policarpo Rodriguez, a Mexican immigrant turned army scout turned Methodist preacher who determined, in 1882, that the town of Polly, Texas, then around 300 people, needed this church. Located off highway 16 about six miles east of town we had to double back since I missed the turn the first time. The road to the chapel is called “Privilege Creek” and runs off of a street named ‘Bear Creek Road’ according to the Bandera county map we acquired from the visitor’s bureau. If you come in from the east you will see a large white marker indicating the road and chapel. If you, like us, are leaving town, all you can make out is the blank, back of the sign. (That’s my excuse.)

If you’re making the journey (it should be described as nothing short of that) just remember that you are probably going the right direction and keep following the small, hand-made signs for a few miles. The one lane paved road crosses a couple of draws before it becomes dirt and rock and stays this way until you reach the church. As with so many Texas destinations, the chapel really is “just around the bend.”

Polly's Chapel, Bandera Texas
Polly’s Chapel
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, December 2007
Polly’s Chapel is such a unique spot that I’ll resist trying to describe it. I could never do it justice. The chapel is open most days and in fact, there is a flyer in doors describing who to call for events there.

Like the town of Bandera, this little church in the woods is best described by each individual who visits. However, it is a blessing that it has been allowed to stand for these past 120 years but, that is the spirit of this community. There are not too many locations where, as you eat a chicken fried steak, you can see a thirty year old pick-up truck pulling a load of hay, followed by a small fleet of motorcycles followed by a new Hummer. There are many residents of Bandera who bite their lips while enduring the four raucous motorcycle rallies each year. A few others will roll their eyes as the “winter Texans” roll their RVs into town every October. Nevertheless, this community welcomes them all and is eager to offer their evidence of historical Texas. As well they should-they not only have the past in hand but, they are preserving it as well as anyone could.

© Byron Browne

January 31, 2008
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