The first mark of civilization on the advancing western frontier was a saloon. Frontiersmen built structures of lesser importance, like houses, churches and schools, as they got around to it.
Saloons were about more than just drinking. Saloons were gathering places. Drinking, after all, is best done in the company of others.
From 1860 to 1920, saloons dominated social life in small towns and big cities all over America. They were boisterous men’s clubs where mostly working class menfolk with callused elbows and strong opinions debated politics and argued the important issues of the day.
Saloons and politics went together like coffee and the morning paper. Before some frontier counties had courthouses or city halls, men conducted city and county business in saloons.
Saloons were democratic for their day. Every man was equal in a saloon. A thirsty patron checked his college degree and his social status at the door before he bellied up to the rail to wet his whistle. A saloon was a beer drinker’s republic where men could passionately debate the issues on a more or less equal basis.
In 1897, there were an estimated 250,000 saloons in America. In today’s terms that’s 20 saloons for every Starbucks.
In 1907, there were more saloons in Fredericksburg than tourists. A lineup of drinking establishments scattered along San Saba Street, now Main Street, included the Buckhorn Saloon, the Bismarck Saloon, the Capital Saloon, the Crystal Saloon, Peter’s Saloon, the White Elephant Saloon and the Bank Saloon.
Beer was warm as sunshine and sold for a nickel a glass.
The decor of saloons often reflected local culture. Cow horns and buffalo hides decorated saloons on the plains. Moose horns dangled from the ceiling in saloons in Montana.
In the Texas Hill Country it was deer horns. Antlers covered the walls of the Buckhorn Saloon, one of the most popular watering holes in Fredericksburg. The Buckhorn occupied the lot where Security State Bank now stands.
Most saloons in Fredericksburg had pool tables and some form of gambling. In the early 20th century, some Fredericksburg saloons had contraptions called “marble machines” - an early form of slots. The White Elephant Saloon had a separate room out back where certain men played high stakes poker.
Many a horse race began with a liquored-up cowboy talking trash in a saloon. In Fredericksburg the race track was the unpaved expanse of San Saba Street. The Nimitz Hotel was the starting line. The finish line was the front door of the Buckhorn Saloon.
By 1910, saloons in Fredericksburg sold wines, liquors, cigars and all kinds of keg and bottled beers. A popular beer at the time was called “Santone,” bottled by the Lone Star Brewing Company of San Antonio.
When Texas Blue Laws ordered drinking establishments to close at midnight and on Sundays, saloons in Fredericksburg complied – sort of. The White Elephant Saloon always locked the front door at the appointed time, but the back door sometimes stayed open all night and all weekend, especially if patrons were particularly numerous and thirsty or a hot poker game was in progress.
Saloons were a way of life, and owning one was a perfectly respectable occupation. Herman Ochs, owner of the Buckhorn Saloon, served as Gillespie County Sheriff from 1910 to 1918.
Saloons prospered until Prohibition wiped them out in 1919. Some historians insist that Prohibition was as much about politics as drinking. Prohibition, they say, was about the desire of the wealthy class to suppress the working man’s vote by shutting down the places where political ideas formed and unions organized.
When the country repealed Prohibition in 1933, most people assumed saloons would return. But saloons never made a comeback. They were from another time. They were too rowdy. Women and minorities were excluded.
Drinking establishments slowly became more inclusive and more polite. They became bars, pubs, taverns, lounges, cantinas, breweries, beer gardens, ice houses, and tasting rooms.
Saloons marked the beginning and the end of an era. They were the first imprint and the last bastion of the frontier culture.