Alive and Well in Austin

It may be "weird," but Texas's capital city retains a healthy dose of cowboy culture.
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
It may be "weird," but Texas's capital city retains a healthy dose of cowboy culture.
Credit: Andy Rhodes Texas Star sculpture greets visitors to the Bullock Texas State Historical Museum

Credit: Andy Rhodes Texas Star sculpture greets visitors to the Bullock Texas State Historical Museum

Austin has always been a destination for dreamers. Drawn by its untamed landscape, political and educational opportunities, and creative culture, visionaries have consistently gravitated to Texas’s capital city with innovative ideas.

This was certainly the case in the 1870s, when local cowboy Jesse Lincoln Driskill, armed with cash from cattle drives, envisioned a grand hotel in the heart of downtown. The city had only 11,000 residents at the time, but Driskill was convinced Austin was destined to become a hot spot for social, political, and business activity. 

“Driskill was a bit of a dreamer,” says Jenna Reed of the Driskill Hotel. “He was one of the first people to see commercial potential in Austin. He had faith that this growing city would support his vision, so he ran with it.”

Driskill was known as an adventurous cattle drover. His dedication to his craft rewarded him handsomely, and his remarkable hotel serves as testament to this ambition. According to the Austin History Center Association, Driskill purchased the property in 1884 for $7,500. The hotel opened two years later at an exorbitant cost of $400,000, equivalent to nearly $95 million today.

“It was by far the most grandiose, luxurious building in town,” Reed says. “He was quite a driven person who felt strongly about investing his time and talents in Austin.”

The Driskill became the talk of the town, with its unique architectural details— including the largest arched doorway in Texas—and separate entrances representative of Austin’s masculine-minded cattle-baron era. Men entered the Driskill from the south side, where they could meet their needs with a rowdy saloon, cigar store, billiard room, and barber shop. Meanwhile, women were expected to enter the hotel’s east side to shield them from cigar smoke and vulgar language.

These days, visitors won’t encounter cigars, spittoons, or bawdy patrons; instead, they’re transported to Austin’s prosperous past, where it’s easy to imagine socialites hobnobbing in the lobby and cattlemen brokering deals in the bar.

The Driskill Bar, in fact, is one of Austin’s most authentic cowboy-era settings. Patrons can enjoy expertly crafted cocktails (or a pour of whiskey) in plush leather chairs beneath western artifacts and a glistening pressed-copper ceiling. Or they can indulge in an exquisite meal at the renowned Driskill Grill, offering New American cuisine acclaimed by Zagat, Fodor’s, and Wine Spectator. To fully appreciate the Driskill’s rich western heritage, spend a night or two in one of the hotel’s 175 luxurious guest rooms, each customized with Western-themed artwork and detailing.

“We’re trying to keep everything as historically Austin as possible,” Reed explains. “We think Mr. Driskill would have been proud—his hotel is still a sight to behold in a city that continues to draw a dynamic crowd.”

Hit the Trail

Austin’s historical cowboy legacy is tied hard and fast to the cattle-driving routes that led to the Chisholm Trail. Cowboys moved millions of cattle from South Texas—including herds from the iconic King Ranch—northward through Austin to Kansas’s railheads.

According to Texas Historical Commission historians, the Austin-area’s affiliation with the cowboy era is especially intriguing to heritage travelers.

“The cattle drives had a significant economic and cultural impact on the region. Today, the legacy can be seen around Central Texas in both obvious and subtle ways,” says Bob Brinkman, coordinator of the agency’s Historical Markers Program. “From historic crossings such as the namesake limestone formation in nearby Round Rock, to stately homes and early skyscrapers built with cattle kingdom fortunes, to modern business names, school mascots, and barbecue joints, the era of the cattle drives continues to resonate with modern-day Texans.”

Austin’s cattle drives traversed the Colorado River at low-water crossings adjacent to the city, and their legacy is immortalized on the grand State Capitol grounds.

One of the most striking and oft-photographed statues on the Capitol’s south lawn is “Texas Cowboy.” The powerful bronze piece, which dates to 1925, was designed by noted American sculptress Constance Whitney Warren, one of the first women to produce large-scale works of this type. The statue represents Warren’s vision of a typical Texas cowboy riding a rearing horse, and serves as a tribute to the “rough and romantic riders of the range.”

A 1925 article in the Austin American Statesman chronicled the statue’s unveiling, noting that several thousand people in attendance cheered repeatedly as speakers praised Texas cowboys and their valiant cattle drives northward through the city. Then-Gov. Pat Neff said, “Over the very spot where this statue now stands, the old Chisholm trail—perhaps the most famous cow trail in the state—led to the North. It is fitting that this statue should stand in the capitol grounds of the cowboy’s state…and see through it the daring, the dash and the bravery of the Texas cowboy, knight of the saddle and king of the prairies for so many years.”

Another prominent statue just south of the Capitol is one of the oldest on the surrounding grounds. “Terry’s Texas Rangers” by artist Pompeo Coppini was erected in 1907 by surviving comrades of the unit, which reportedly included several members of the iconic state agency.

Officially dubbed the Eighth Texas Cavalry, this valiant group of Texas volunteers for the Confederate Army was assembled by statesman Benjamin Franklin Terry in 1861. Each member of Terry’s Texas Rangers was famously required to provide a shotgun, Colt revolver, Bowie knife, saddle, bridle, and blanket. The Army supplied the mounts. Terry’s Texas Rangers are considered one of the best-known Texas units to serve in the Civil War, earning a reputation as among the most effective mounted regiments in the west.

Capitol visitors should hold onto their hats (or remove them out of respect) when they enter the remarkable 1888 Renaissance Revival structure, with its captivating granite exterior and intricately detailed interior. The Capitol building truly represents Texas, from its expansive legislative chambers to the tip of its dome—deliberately designed 15 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol. People from across the world flock to Austin for this architectural marvel, designated a National Historic Landmark for its significant contribution to American history.

While exploring the building’s magnificent interior, be sure to notice the many intricate design details, especially the countless Lone Stars that tie all elements of the building together—from chandeliers to window frames to doorknobs and floor tiles. Make a day of it by ordering a takeout lunch from the cafeteria to enjoy beneath one of the cowboy statues on the 22-acre grounds.

To continue a historical traveling trek on the famous cattle trail, drive 15 miles north of Austin to Round Rock, where cattle famously crossed Brushy Creek at the town’s namesake. A Texas Historical Commission marker documents the distinctive table-shaped geological structure, which marked an important low-water crossing evidenced by the nearly 125-year-old wagon wheel ruts still visible in the creekbed’s limestone. Nearby, the Chisholm Trail Crossing Park features larger-than-life-sized bronze sculptures depicting the classic cattle drives.

Learning Cowboy Culture

The University of Texas campus area just north of downtown Austin offers a full course of educational opportunities for visitors interested in the area’s cowboy heritage.

For starters, head to the Bullock Texas State History Museum, offering several fascinating and informative exhibits. A display related to Mexican cowboys showcases the history of these impressive cattlemen who taught their skills—riding, roping, and branding—to Texas settlers who arrived when cattle roamed freely.

“These vaqueros were the first true cowboys—they more or less tamed the land and the horses in areas that would become Texas,” says Tom Wancho, an exhibit planner with the museum. “All the pioneers out here walked in their footsteps.”

A display highlighting Texas’s cattle drives includes an impressive leather saddle, stirrups, and a coffee grinder that was likely used on a chuckwagon. Wancho offers an interesting side note: the chuckwagon name originated with legendary Texas rancher Charles Goodnight, who introduced the idea of having cook supplies, including a chuck box, on his trail-drive wagons.

The Bullock’s cowboy-related content concludes with a highly entertaining video documenting the popularity of Western movies since the 1940s. Many dramatized the iconic Lone Star State cowboys with formulaic but fun stories of Indian attacks, stampedes, saloon shootouts, and the good guy sauntering into the Texas sunset with his gal.

“Those movies did a lot to perpetuate a myth about Texas that remains to this day—that it’s flat, dry, and dusty,” Wancho explains, adding that most were filmed in the California and Arizona deserts. “Once people get here, they realize it’s a lot different than it appeared in the old picture shows.”

Directly across the street from the Bullock museum is the Blanton Museum of Art, an impressive facility that bills itself as the largest university art museum in the country.

The museum boasts more than 17,000 works, including the magnificent C.R. Smith Collection of Western Art. Items are regularly rotated and displayed in prominent galleries, offering visitors a glimpse of mesmerizing Southwestern landscape paintings, rugged cowboy sculptures, and Texas-themed portraits. The museum also hosts programming related to various exhibits, including historic and modern Western art.

Just around the corner is the university’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, an underappreciated resource in Austin and the country. Many of the Ransom Center’s holdings appeal to researchers interested in specific Western topics, but visitors can browse the artifact exhibits and collections, which range from influential Southwestern artist Frank Reaugh to legendary El Paso writer and artist Tom Lea, to works collected by noted Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie.

On the eastern edge of campus is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, dedicated to America’s 36th president, a Texas icon and Austin-area native. LBJ proudly carried a Lone Star swagger and was especially fond of his family’s ranching heritage. For those who wish to explore this aspect of his life and legacy, including a tour of the Texas White House, the LBJ Ranch and Boyhood Home in Johnson City (about an hour west of Austin) is highly recommended. The campus museum also features displays and artifacts highlighting the sizable impact of his rural upbringing.

Adjacent to the LBJ Museum is the Briscoe Center for American History, containing a remarkable collection of historic Western images. Visitors can ask to view the facility’s Erwin E. Smith photo collection, offering a fascinating slice of cowboy and ranching life from 1905-1910s.

 Hit the Town

After all this learning and viewing and pondering, Austin visitors will want to put their boots up (or, preferably, on the dance floor) and enjoy the city’s legendary entertainment scene, as Austin maintains a healthy dose of Texas culture with long-standing and contemporary venues catering to rural and urban cowboys.

To get gussied up for a night on the town, drop by Allen’s Boots, a refreshingly old-school Western shop on the city’s trendy South Congress Avenue. Allen’s knowledgeable employees are experts at assisting customers with fitting boots and navigating the store’s wide variety of hats, jeans, shirts, and belts.

Another popular apparel shop is Cavender’s Boot City, a Texas-bred company featuring quality boots, jeans, hats, and accessories. Cavender’s is also considered the best place in town to buy kids’ Western gear.

Austin’s restaurant scene is regularly featured in the national news, and for good reason. The city’s quality culinary offerings—from haute cuisine to down-home cooking—are a notch above the fare in other Texas locales.

Barbecue is a main draw, and Austin’s vast array of options will keep hearty appetites satisfied for days. For the truly devotional and extremely patient, it doesn’t get any better than the nationally acclaimed Franklin Barbecue. Be forewarned: the wait is typically two to three hours, but dedicated ‘cue aficionados (and those who enjoy socializing with strangers and drinking beer at 10 a.m.) will find it’s absolutely worthwhile. The smoked meat is utter perfection, especially the brisket—succulent, exceptional beef with an option of lean or fatty. Choose the fatty. Complement the meaty meal with a “side” order of savory pork ribs or peppery sausage.

Several other Austin barbecue joints serve fantastic food without the lengthy lines. One of the best is Stiles Switch BBQ, a relative newcomer garnering rave reviews and curious customers from across the state. Everything on the menu, from tender brisket to flavorful pork ribs to spicy sausage, is highly recommended, but one Texas-worthy option rises above them all: the beef rib. This hefty item is covered with a simple yet incredibly effective salt-and-pepper rub, which complements the hearty, steak-like beef within.

For those in search of high-quality meat in a low-key environment, there’s Ruby’s BBQ. This campus-area mainstay prioritizes its sourced meat from Creekstone Farms in Kansas. The extra effort is evident in the beef’s rich flavor infused with just the right touch of oak smoke.

To work off a meat feast and put those new boots to use, be sure to drop by one of Austin’s honky tonk dance halls. The granddaddy of them all is the Broken Spoke, a truly legendary club that has hosted Country and Western icons such as Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson, and George Strait. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014, the Spoke takes visitors back in time to a classic country-music experience, where old-timers gracefully two-step to traditional Western tunes while patrons sip on Lone Stars and soak up the whole happy scene.

Not quite as famous yet similarly old-fashioned is the Little Longhorn Saloon. “Little” is an apt description, but Ginny’s, as it’s known locally, is big on charm, with throwback prices on Texas beers and country bands on a tiny corner stage while dancers attempt to maneuver in front of them. Ginny’s is also known for its immensely entertaining games of chicken (poop) bingo on Sundays.

Keeping the honky-tonk tradition alive for a new generation of Austinites is the White Horse, offering a welcome mix of old (retirees in cowboy hats) and young (hipsters in porkpie hats). Both crowds are bonded by a hankerin’ for Lone Star beer and quality country music, provided by live bands most evenings.

The Real Austin

These sites offer a mere sampling of Austin’s vibrant cowboy culture. Though the scene is often obscured by news about new high-tech firms and a rapidly expanding population, the city’s heart lies with its bold Western roots. Newcomers and visitors may not even realize it, but they’re following the same hopeful trails blazed by Western adventure seekers for centuries.

Andy Rhodes writes about Texas history and culture in Austin.