gambler, gunfighter, cowboy and even the occasional prostitute endures
in the popular imagination as romantic and iconic figures of the Old
West, but what about saloonkeepers? We dare to say the Old West would
have been settled much later and in a much less entertaining fashion
if not for saloons and, of course, the saloonkeepers who ran them.
The saloons from those turbulent days are more famous than the men
who ran them, except in certain cases where the man who ran the saloon
was named Wyatt Earp or Ben Thompson.
Saloonkeepers of yore had to be personable and full of empathy for
the patrons who poured out their personal woes faster than man behind
the bar could pour drinks, but he also had to be part businessman,
part bouncer - smart enough to run a successful small business and
tough enough to settle disagreements or end a ruckus once and for
A few frontier saloonkeepers, either out of viciousness or necessity,
ended up killing one or more of their patrons and/or a fellow saloonkeeper.
Others were on the receiving end of the fatal attention. Tending bar
on the frontier wasn't for the timid or the meek.
But let's not forget that saloons were businesses, and there was a
lot of competition. An early visitor to Moteebie
in the Panhandle
noted "nearly every other house is a saloon" and that was the case
in a lot of frontier towns both large and small. Because of that,
savvy owners and bartenders took good care of their customers and
- far from dispatching them to eternal rewards - did everything they
could to make sure a customer came back time and again. Patrons were
usually the barkeep's friends and neighbors, and repeat business was
crucial for a saloon's success.
Successful saloonkeepers also took care of business in the towns where
they worked. They were often members of the city council or the local
version of a justice league. They hired off-duty cops as bouncers,
contributed to police charities and, most devious of all, posted the
bond for the man who wanted to be a law officer.
"By state law, all lawmen were required to post a surety bond -- $1,000
for a city marshal and $500 for a policeman - when they took the job,"
Richard Selcer notes in the introduction to "Legendary Watering Holes:
The Saloons that Made Texas Famous." "Either amount was a far greater
sum than any average man could pledge himself. Enter the saloonkeepers…As
an act of generosity, the saloon man could reasonably be assured of
the officer's future good will for as long as the fellow was on the
The good will
of law enforcement and city officials was important in a business
that couldn't avoid flirtations with gambling, prostitution and
other "value-added" businesses. A saloon that attracted famous gamblers
of the day, people like Luke Short and Bat Masterson, got a share
of their reputation in the bargain. These gambling dens tended to
be fancy two-story places with mahogany bars and elegant furnishings.
On the other end of the spectrum was the "blind pig," the "dive"
bar of that earlier time. Here, the alleged saloonkeeper poured
shots of Tanglefoot, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning or Coffin Varnish
that generally consisted of raw alcohol mixed with burnt sugar and
maybe some chewing tobacco added for color. Cactus Wine consisted
of tequila mixed with peyote tea.
The most popular whiskey in Texas during that time, according to
"Legendary Watering Holes," was a concoction called Monarch whiskey.
Chris Rintleman, owner of the Local Option Saloon in Fort
Worth, touted Monarch's "beneficial effects" and bragged that
a second drink of Monarch "makes you an honest man."
The more respectable places mostly served straight liquor rye or
bourbon. Beer was the most popular drink, even before ice making
technologies made cold beer even a possibility. The pioneer mixologists
knew how to take a good thing and make it better, or at least more
The Professor, as some patrons respectfully referred to their saloonkeepers,
could take Dr Pepper, which was created in a Waco
drug store as a perfectly harmless treat for citizens of all ages,
and "improve" it by adding a shot of alcohol and removing some of
the carbonation - no fizzy drinks, please. Seven-Up is basically
an old concoction called Rocky Mountain Punch, but without the booze.
Surprisingly, the Old West saloons also sold a lot of soda pop,
which liquor dealers gladly supplied. According to "Legendary Watering
Holes," Henry Strum of Dodge City produced 14,400 bottles of soda
pop a week. Thus, Strum increased his sales at a time when temperance
crusaders were working around the clock to put saloons out of business."
Eventually, the crusaders had their way. A Texan, Morris Sheppard,
introduced the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which created
Prohibition, and Sheppard also helped write the Volstead Act, which
enforced it. Later, authorities found on Sheppard's Texas ranch
a still capable of producing 130 gallons of moonshine whiskey a
Sheppard was shocked and appalled!
In all fairness, no one ever showed any evidence that he knew anything
about the still.
The speakeasies of Prohibition serve as timeline between the saloons
of the Old West and the bars, taverns, beer joints and roadhouses
that followed. Barkeepers still dispensed booze and beer at these
new drinking establishments, but people respected history too much
to call them saloons.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
May 1, 2017 column