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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Unsung Saloonkeeper

by Clay Coppedge

The 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 all.

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 force."

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 intoxicating.

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 day.

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
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