Progress Cools Off Rip-Roaring Life on ‘Thunder Road’
It was a gaudy mix of burglars, bootleggers and billionaires, rogues and royalty, whores and hit men, rednecks and roughnecks and college kids on the prowl.
It was cold beer and hot dice and warm summer nights dancing under the stars at Lake Worth.
It was murder and mayhem, cops and robbers, rhythm and blues and the big band sounds of Billy May and Paul Whiteman.
It was the Rocket, the Skyliner, the Black Cat, the Showboat, the Barrel, the Casino, the 3939, the Four Deuces, the Coconut Grove, the Bad Liquor, Massey’s and the lure of a young baby-faced stripper named Candy Barr.
It was Jacksboro Highway, or Texas 199, a neon ribbon of revelry flowing northwest out of Ft. Worth toward Azle, Jacksboro, Wichita Falls and Amarillo.
In its heyday, a 10-mile stretch of that highway was a symbol of the state’s rough-and-tumble heritage and a playground for the brave, bold, adventuresome and foolhardy.
The lights flickered and dimmed years ago. And now the party’s about over.
As a youngster growing up on Jacksboro Highway, Pat Kirkwood scrambled atop the roof of his dad’s gambling joint on Saturday nights and assessed the economy by activities along the road below.
“If it was a three-ambulance evening, money was a little tight,” he said. “But seven or eight ambulances meant everything was OK. People were out spending money and boozing and brawling.”
Kirkwood, 60, called them the “good old bad days.”
Well, the good old bad days are gone, and so is the Jacksboro Highway of yesteryear. And what’s left of “Thunder Road” is about to give way to a new eight-lane freeway.
A victim of urban growth, changing life styles and its own wicked reputation, Jacksboro Highway has become in recent years something of a toothless lion and a bit of an eyesore.
The new freeway, with a 1990 start date, may cut down the few remaining landmarks and provide the final nail in the coffin of a wild and woolly era.
The stories are legion, an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, a bit of myth and more than a dash of truth. Anyone who has been there is an expert on Jacksboro Highway.
Robert White: “When they widen that highway, they’ll probably find a whole bunch of skeletons.”
Cliff Helton: “Liquor laws? Practically nil. Everyone had a bootlegger.”
Carolyn Miller: “They weren’t all killers. They just loved to fight.”
Cleon Nettles: “When someone got too big for his britches, he just disappeared . . . and they’d find him in a well.”
Johnny Cabluck: “I’d drive my wrecker out to pick up their cars, and I’d take pictures of the murder victims for the sheriff’s office.”
Bobby Eubanks: “The further you went, the badder it got. You could get into anything you were big enough to handle.”
A customer at Massey’s Club 21: “I really liked the old Tower Motel. The popular phrase was, ‘Let’s go to the Tower for an hour.’ ”
Byron Matthews: “You ever hear of Elmer Sharp? Nobody ever whipped him. I don’t mean he was such a good fighter; he was just tough.”
A customer in the Scoreboard: “Elmer Sharp was so tough he wrestled his pet bear. But his mama was tougher.”
Another customer at the Scoreboard: “One-eyed Shirley Parker once put out a cigarette in a guy’s ear. The guy came up with a knife . . . .”
At roughly 2:30 one morning, a Jacksboro Highway club owner who demands anonymity left the Scoreboard lounge after attending a wedding party for a friend. In the parking lot, two punks stuck a knife to his throat, took his money and his ring, roughed him up and left him lying on the ground.
“We ought to kill you,” said one.
“You damn sure should,” the victim gasped.
The assailants laughed and left.
Later, after paying $250 to a stoolie, the club owner tracked down one of the muggers outside a beer joint. Luring him into his darkened car, he “extracted” an eyeball and a substantial number of teeth and shot off both of the guy’s kneecaps. Then he dumped him in front of a hospital and drove away.
Fled to Canada
Noticeably impressed by the Jacksboro justice, the second assailant fled to Canada and has not been heard from since.
Once, after a string of burglaries up and down the highway, the same club owner got a cot, a washtub full of beer and a 12-gauge shotgun and lay in wait nightly for the bandit to return.
It was not a long wait. The burglar crawled through an opening in the roof and dropped to the floor. The first thing he saw was the club owner, who shot both his legs off.
At Inez’ 5050 Club, Inez herself was reminiscing about the good old bad days, fretting over the new highway and complaining lightheartedly that at age 69 she is having difficulty finding a new husband.
“I’m looking,” she said. “I don’t want to die alone.”
“How many husbands you had?” a customer asked.
“Nine,” she replied. “And that’s not counting repeats and licenses I didn’t use.”
Besides the sparse spousal straits, Inez is also unhappy about Jacksboro Highway’s tarnished image. She insisted that it got its reputation dishonestly, blaming all those messy, headline-grabbing shootings, stabbings and bombings.
“I’ve never had a shootin’, a cuttin’ or even a real good fistfight. I always thought they had more trouble on Camp Bowie Boulevard than we ever had out here,” she said.
Carolyn Miller, manager of the 5050, said that she spent all her 41 years along the Jacksboro Highway and that her father, Billy Don Smith, introduced her to the rowdy side of life at an early age.
“My dad loved to fight,” she said, smiling. “He didn’t go out to drink; he went out to fight.”
Billy Don got word one night at the Green Room that a stranger was hitting the Jacksboro Highway honky-tonks claiming to be the toughest guy in Texas. He found him at a club that Miller said was so rough “they issued you guns and pool sticks whether you needed them or not.”
He stormed through the door and shouted: “Where’s the so-and-so who says he’s the meanest man in Texas?”
“That’s me,” the stranger growled.
Billy Don knocked him over the pool table.
“When he wakes up,” he told the bartender, “tell him the toughest SOB is back at the Green Room.”
Tincy Eggleston was not the toughest of the Jacksboro Highway regulars, but he ranked right up there with the meanest. Like his buddies Cecil Green and Gene Paul Norris and several other world-class thugs, Tincy had a high tolerance for violence.
At 2:10 a.m. on May 3, 1955, Tincy and Cecil Green were busy examining the fruits of an extortion caper when two gunmen opened fire on their car parked outside a Jacksboro Highway nightspot.
Tincy escaped in a fierce gun battle, but Green was fatally wounded and died the next day.
Unfortunately, Tincy later had a serious falling out with Gene Paul Norris, perhaps over the loot from a robbery linked to a Cuban weapons deal. Norris killed Tincy, blew his head away in fact, and dumped his body in a well.
Rehearsal for Robbery
Old Gene Paul spent an extraordinary amount of time in trouble himself, none worse than what occurred on April 29, 1957. That day he and a pal named William Humphrey were rehearsing a scheme to rob the Carswell Air Force Base payroll.
Incidentally, the Jacksboro Highway was off limits to Carswell personnel, in part because someone finally figured out that cowboys, cedar choppers, cold beer and Yankee flyboys were a volatile mix.
At any rate, an army of law enforcement officers that included the police chief, the sheriff and the Texas Rangers interrupted the robbery rehearsal and chased Gene Paul and his crony out the Jacksboro Highway nearly to Springtown.
After wrecking their car, the two desperadoes exchanged gunfire with officers as they fled on foot along Walnut Creek. Both were gunned down and died at the scene.
Pat Kirkwood claims he was born in the back room of the 2222 Club while a crap game was in progress up front.
“I grew up in a strange environment,” he quipped.
He and others of his era maintain that Pappy Kirkwood’s club enjoyed a reputation not only as a squeaky clean gambling den but also as a place where the rich and powerful could eat, drink and wager in private.
That group, Kirkwood said, included Dick Kleberg of the vast King Ranch family, U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn and big game hunter Frank Buck.
“They were our house guests all the time,” he said. “Pop would close the gambling joint sometimes and he and Sam would knock down about two quarts of Jack Daniels a day. I didn’t know much about politics, but I knew this was a powerful man.
“It was a gambling joint and maybe a little illegal, but Sam and the others were comfortable there. Pop had New York strip steaks flown in and served the finest duck and geese and the best cigars.”
The Four Deuces also provided a shot in the arm for the local economy, he said, considering the amount of whiskey, turkeys and hams Pappy Kirkwood dispensed to his special friends.
Most were cops.
“My daddy was a little smarter than some gave him credit for,” Kirkwood said with a crooked grin.
Aside from Tincy Eggleston and his crowd, among the best-known and best-liked figures on the Jacksboro Highway were a gambler, a sheriff and a man who probably has owned more clubs than anyone along the strip.
That in itself says much about the Jacksboro Highway.
The gambler was of course Pappy Kirkwood, who died in 1983, and the sheriff was the late Sully Montgomery, who friends say winked at the law when it came to gambling, girls and illegal booze but would not tolerate “serious” criminal activities.
Those same friends concede that Sully raked off a generous amount of the cash flowing up and down the highway, but they maintain that he was a “first cousin to Robin Hood” and shared his wealth with the less fortunate.
It is not clear, however, who those less fortunate were.
But for sheer dash, color and staying power, few could rival Cliff Helton, whose clubs included the Magic Lounge, the Barrel, the Sugar Pool and the Thunderbird.
Best and Worst
“I owned the Barrel seven different times,” said Helton, 72, who in the good old bad days was known as mayor of Jacksboro Highway.
Helton met and mingled with the best and worst of the Jacksboro crowd and knows a great deal more about the Strip than he’s willing to tell for the record.
He took a reporter on a recent tour of the highway, pointing out such landmarks as the Skyliner Ballroom where stripper Candy Barr performed and the spot where Tincy Eggleston and Cecil Green were ambushed.
Helton explained how a gambler survived an intricately conceived house bombing behind the original Chenault’s Drive-In only to be gunned down later on Watauga Road.
It was back down the highway at the Albatross Club that Helton’s buddy, Junior Dodd, celebrated his last birthday. A gambler best known to reporters and lawyers for his home-smoked barbecue, Junior was shot to death shortly after leaving the party.
Helton’s tour that evening took him past the Chateau, once a gambling palace called the 3939 Club, and out to Lake Worth and Casino Beach, site of the grand old Casino Ballroom.
“In the 1950s, that was the nicest place on the Jacksboro Highway,” recalled a 50-ish Beverly Nettles, who grew up on the north side. “They had all the big bands, and you could dance inside or outside.
“Thirty years ago, at that age, that was the place to be. The Skyliner and the Rocket were raunchier.”
Helton noted that a car lot stands now where first the Ring Side and later the ultra-posh 400 Club provided late-night and after-hours dining and dancing downstairs and gambling upstairs.
Retired State Judge Byron Matthews says the 400 Club flourished in the 1930s and 1940s with name bands and top floor shows and what may have been the first pre-cut steaks in Texas.
“It was first class,” said Matthews, who earned a reputation as the best criminal trial lawyer in town by defending more than 100 accused killers, a sizable number of them from Jacksboro Highway.
Helton’s tour took him finally to Massey’s Club 21, which holds the oldest continuous beer and wine license in Tarrant County and is probably the oldest business establishment on Jacksboro Highway.
Opened in 1934 in an old streetcar, Massey’s today is the quintessential Texas roadhouse with its neon beer signs, leather bar stools, Tombstone pizza and dancing on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays to a group called the Jacksboro Highway Band.
Hanging behind the bar is a 1936 photograph of a dapper Cliff Helton standing beside a wrecked Ford coupe.
Headed for Kitchen
Laughing, Helton recalled the time years ago when a drunk entered one of his clubs and asked where he could get a bite to eat. Helton directed him to Massey’s.
A short time later, the phone rang. It was Massey.
“Cliff, don’t you ever send me no more business!” he wailed.
The drunk had driven his pickup truck through a wall into Massey’s kitchen.
Massey’s widow, Adrian, is still a Jacksboro Highway fixture and his son-in-law, Bobby Sitton, now runs the club.
Bemoaning the pending freeway, Sitton said: “It looks like they’re going to put us out of business. They’re tearing down tradition here.”