When in Texas, visit Fort Worth's Stockyards and git a wee bit Western.
By Paul Gerald
JUNE 28, 1999: The line between history and reality blurs in the White Elephant Saloon.
The ol' boys playing pool and drinking beer sure have some mighty big hats and belt buckles, and those gals sure have some hoop skirts and the feathers in their hair. And when the bartender tells you that they film Walker, Texas Ranger in here sometimes, you won't even be surprised.
The White Elephant is a 100-year-old bar in the middle of an even older neighborhood, the Fort Worth Stockyards. The Stockyards used to be the hub of the cattle industry in Texas -- and therefore, according to local historical logic, the entire world. Now the whole place is something like a cowboy theme park, including dressed-up characters in the bars.
In its day, it's said, 160 million head of cattle were sold in these parts, and 83 million head of sheep and hogs. Now the Stockyards is a National Historic District, sort of the Beale Street of Cowtown. The hog and sheep pens now house restaurants and shops, most of the cattle holding pens are gone, and the only real, live Texas longhorns around are about a dozen or so being "worked" to get them accustomed to people so they won't kill anybody during an upcoming celebration. Why, heck, they don't even have cattle auctions at the Livestock Exchange anymore. Now all the work at "The Wall Street of Cattle" is done on the Internet and by video.
If by chance you've never seen a real live Texas longhorn, or one at just a few paces, you might want to watch one get worked by a real, live cowboy. It's worth a trip to the Stockyards just to look into the eyes of a longhorn.
I prepared to get a wee bit Western by engaging in one of Texas' -- and therefore the world's -- greatest rituals: a meal at Joe T. Garcia's. They've got two options at Joe T.'s, as everyone calls it: the fajitas and the family-style meal. Your only other decision is whether to sit inside or out in the Fiesta Garden. So where to eat in Fort Worth is not a decision at all, unless you're lured by the Cattleman's Restaurant in the Stockyards, which used to brag they could get your meal "from pen to plate" in less than an hour.
With my belly full of tacos and beans and rice, I honed my cowboy knowledge at the Cattle Raisers Museum, which has some interesting historical information. (Did you know that cattle rustling is still a problem and is still investigated by real, live Texas Rangers?) It's also got cool artifacts -- like old-time saddles and the world's largest collection of brands -- and some very creepy things called cini-bots, which are basically mannequins that talk to you ... and look at you. Beware the cini-bots.
By the time I hit the White Elephant, my travel-writer cover was blown, and the folks were pushing all kinds of information on me. Bonnie and Clyde, for example, once stayed in the Stockyards Hotel (which is overrated and overpriced) while plotting to rob the bank across the street. A tour guide told me somebody got wind of them and they never hit the bank, but the saloon crowd assured me the robbers did indeed get the loot -- didn't shoot anybody doing it, either, and even left a pair of $100 bills as tips at the hotel. Yee-haw!
Then the folks at the bar started bragging on the Cowtown Coliseum, with its real, live rodeos every weekend -- and even the Women's National Finals in November, among many other big events. The folks told me that Elvis played here once, as did Bob Wills, and George Strait shot a video.
I was already thinking about leaving the saloon when one of the big-hatted, big-buckled fellas brought up the statue out front of the Coliseum. It's of Bill Pickens, the first African-American rodeo cowboy. "That man single-handedly invented steer rasslin'," the man said with obvious amazement, "only he did it in his own way. See, he didn't grab the steer by the horns, like they do now. He seen how English bulldogs done it, and so he done it the same way. You know how that was? [I didn't, either.] That's right, he bit 'em on the lips! He would bite them steers right on the lips and take 'em down thataway. Ain't that something?"
I figured I had a real good idea what "that something" was -- the latest bill of goods sold in the Fort Worth Stockyards -- so I went to check it out. And by gum, it's true. Pickens' statue is even posed with his mouth open and teeth showing, about to assault the lip of a steer. The little plaque attached to it says he died young, after being kicked in the head by a horse. I suspect that horse was a big hero among his friends.
There was still one more mandatory stop on my Western tour, and it was to another bar. It's more like a palace, though: Billy Bob's Texas, "The World's Largest Honky-Tonk." If the Stockyards is Cowboy Disneyland, Billy Bob's is Country Heaven -- 100,000 square feet, 40 bar stations, room for 6,000 people, and the best world record I think I've ever heard of: greatest number of Budweiser Longnecks sold in one night -- 16,000 during a Hank Williams Jr. show.
Billy Bob's has real, live bullriding, too -- by professionals, not patrons. I asked if there was a mechanical bull, and the bartender stiffened and said, "No, that's that other place, down in Houston." (I guess he meant Gilley's, where they filmed Urban Cowboy.) He seemed quite proud of this distinction; I didn't ask him about the tourists lining up a few feet away to have their pictures taken on a fake bucking bull. Just before the picture is snapped, red lights come on in the bull's eyes and smoke comes out of his nose. At $25 per shot, I was glad to see that fleecing wasn't just at the sheep pens.
If you can name a country music performer, he or she or they have played Billy Bob's, and they've all literally left their mark: a wall of hands like the famous sidewalk in Hollywood, so you can find out how you match up with Willie Nelson or Alabama or Charlie Daniels or Wade Hayes -- whoever Wade Hayes is. I don't know or care anything about country music, but I know the names Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Junior Brown, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Jeff Walker, and David Allan Coe. All of them were scheduled to play Billy Bob's in the coming weeks.
I can't really recommend you go to any of these shows, however, because to do so you'd have to be in Texas in the summer. And if you ever want to think Memphis is cool and refreshing in July, just go to Texas at the same time this year. I got out at the end of May, when it hit 95 for the first time this year. If you're ever stuck in Cowtown at that time of year, do what I did: Eat at Joe T.'s, hunker down in a saloon for a while, then go git a wee bit Western.
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