The last time I was in Fort Worth's White Elephant Saloon, about a decade ago, I nearly got killed. It was shortly after the historic bar reopened on Fort Worth's tough North Side, a derelict area adjoining the Stock Yards.
I had gone to the saloon because it was the first visible step in the revitalization of this historically rich area known as Cowtown. The bar was lined with cowboys--a few of the cosmic variety but mostly ol' boys just off the ranch, their boots covered with real cow stuff, not mud from the backyard of a mansion in Highland Park, home of Dallas elite.
A live band was playing country (before the big boom in the genre) and the dance floor was crowded with cowboys and cowgirls doing the Texas Two-Step.
We Weren't Wanted
My friend Shelby, a Louisiana girl who could do a passable waltz, and I got up and decided to show these hicks how it was really done. Pretty soon all the cowboys and cowgirls stopped dancing and watched us. Their eyes weren't friendly, making it plain that we weren't wanted there, and one ol' boy threw a beer bottle at my new Western hat.
Well, buckaroo, my mama didn't raise no fool (as they say in Fort Worth), so I grabbed my friend and we got out of there, fast. As I ran out the door I remembered that a former owner of the White Elephant, Luke Short, gunned down the town sheriff outside the tavern in 1887. Even in 1976, the North Side of Fort Worth was no place for sissy tourists.
So it was with some trepidation that I returned, almost 10 years to the day, to the bar where that Lone Star Long Neck nearly put out my lights. My timing was perfect; I was in town for the 10th birthday of the revival of the White Elephant.
This time I dressed the part--no obviously new pair of ostrich boots and newly creased cowboy hat. This time I wore khakis, a checkered shirt and a pair of Topsiders. And this time I fit right in.
Although there is still a sense of roughness at the White Elephant, and a few drinkers who would be happy to step outside and punch you in the nose, most of the good ol' boys are gone, replaced by fresh-faced co-eds from Texas Christian University and young attorneys and CPAs from the glitzy skyscrapers in downtown Fort Worth. Compared to a decade ago, the White Elephant and the North Side are tame.
Popular With Tourists
Although some locals may miss the tough old days, tourists don't seem to; they arrive in packs for a look at a cleaned-up Old West. It may not be entirely authentic, but it sure beats getting hit by a beer bottle.
The best-known of the Stock Yard's attractions is Billy Bob's, billed as the world's largest honky-tonk, a title it wrested from Gilley's in Pasadena, Tex., which was the setting for much of the movie "Urban Cowboy."
Billy Bob's is huge. Scattered through its 100,000 square feet are 46 bars, 27 pool tables, two dance floors where silver reflectors send winking lights across the sawdust, pinball machines, a shoeshine parlor, shooting gallery, video games, a real bull to ride, a photo studio where one can have a picture taken with a cutout of Dolly Parton, even a studio where one can record a song.
Billy Bob's owner, Billy Bob Barnett, was one of the first to recognize the potential of the Stock Yards area (along with White Elephant owner Joe Dulle) and has helped raise more than $33 million for Stock Yard improvements. Another $50 million is in the works.
First Indoor Rodeo
The Cowtown Coliseum, which was built in 1908 and hosted the West's first indoor rodeo, has been refurbished and hosts weekly professional rodeos April through November. Across a newly bricked pedestrian mall called Rodeo Plaza, the old livestock exhibit buildings have been gutted and replaced with retail shops (including one called "Truly Texas" that sells Texas souvenirs from stuffed armadillos to three-alarm chili) and restaurants (Sam's Place is perfect for a taco and a Tecate).
Just down the mall, where fountains splash and dozens of Texas flags flap in the breeze, is the Brown Derby restaurant, a handsome steak-and-seafood place.
The next phase will include the redevelopment of old horse and mule barns into a shopping and restaurant complex; construction of the Stock Yards Arena, a 6,500-seat entertainment center, and completion of a 130-room hotel.
Although the Stock Yards area is now a slick, entertaining place to play, there is still a hint of its rowdy past. Just down the street from Billy Bob's, along the route where cowboys used to herd cattle on the Chisholm Trail, are enough saloons to challenge the toughest liver: Filthy McNasty's, Cowtown USA, Longhorn Saloon, Big River Cafe and Saloon, the Cadillac Cowboy, Western Bar and Pool Room, the Original Maverick Saloon and, of course, the White Elephant.
Along the streets are some authentic, aging shops, places such as Ryons Saddle and Ranch Supply with its promises of "boots made to order" and "custom-made saddles." There's a modest museum to the late singer Bob Wills, whose "San Antonio Rose" is still remembered with great fondness, and the Cattlemen's Steakhouse will serve as good a steak as you'll find anywhere, just as it has been doing since 1947.
Teddy Bear Factory
But tourism is creeping along the streets where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Wyatt Earp, once walked. There is even a teddy bear factory, for crying out loud.
Still, even old Wild Bill Hickok would probably like the renovated Stockyards Hotel. Just six years ago this old place, built in 1907 and once host to Bonnie and Clyde, was a $4-a-night fleabag. Today it is one of the most pleasant small hotels around, a collection of 56 rooms and suites.
Rooms are decorated in one of four motifs--Cowboy, Indian, Mountain Man and Victorian--and all exude a charm missing in most hotels. The lobby is described as "Cattle Baron Baroque" with its leather chesterfield sofas and carved-wood chairs upholstered with longhorn hide.
All the furniture, from an outrageous lobby mirror circled by pheasant feathers to the black oak chairs in guest rooms, was crafted in Texas. Even the carpet, which features a weave in which the heads of longhorn cattle are prominent, is a Texas original.
The hotel's Booger Red (named after a famous cowboy) restaurant and bar are pleasant places to pass the evening, although the seven saddles serving as bar stools are a bit much. The price is right, too, at $85 for a single, $95 for a double in one of the most memorable hotels one can experience.
Even with a lodging place such as the Stockyards Hotel and a high-tech emporium such as Billy Bob's, the Stock Yards area resists complete domestication. There may be some rough characters and plenty of drunks, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. They add some needed excitement and an element of benign danger to the place.
Hopefully the Stock Yards will never be completely tamed, never turned into a bland Western Disneyland. Ten years from now, when I once again visit the White Elephant Saloon, I want to be a little fearful--and watchful for that beer bottle sailing toward my hat.
For more information on the Stock Yards and Forth Worth, contact the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, 700 Throckmorton, Fort Worth, Tex. 76102. For information on the Stockyards Hotel see your travel agent.