Friday, December 31, 2010

Guy Town

Between 1870 and 1913, roughly the years which now represent the Old West, there was a certain section of Austin, Texas which was referred to as “Guy Town.” Its southern edge ran along the old banks of the Colorado River northward to what is now 4th or 5th Street, and ran east to west from Congress Avenue to Guadalupe. The old city thought of the area as its First Ward, but folks at the time merely called it the “jungles,” or just plain “Guy Town.” If people called the neighborhood by different names, they all knew what went on there. It was, in fact, Austin’s red-light district.

The community was populated with saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, and of course, brothels, where the “ladies of the evening,” of several different ethnic groups, went about their work. To be sure, the world’s oldest profession was alive and well in Austin in those days, buoyed by the steady influx of rural workers who came into town from the farms and cattle ranches to “kick up their heels.” But, the farm boys and young ranch hands weren’t the only ones sowing their wild oats. Austin was then, and is now, where the Texas State Capitol is located. When the state legislature was in session, Austin became a destination point for office seekers, businessmen, and others seeking favors or special privileges from the elected officials of Texas. Despite the illegality of it all, some legislators, lawyers, and businessmen, seemed to find their way to Guy Town in the evenings to compete for the affections of the ladies. It is not known what the regular patrons thought - those being the ranch hands, farm boys, soldiers, laborers, and drifters - about this additional competition, but it probably is a good guess that they weren’t too pleased. It’s just conjecture on my part, but I’m sure they didn’t have the same kind of money to throw around as the more “sophisticated” and wealthy clientele.

As time went on, Guy Town became Austin’s focal point for scandal, noise, loud music, fights, and disturbances of every sort imaginable. Murders were common, and during one period of time between 1884 and 1885, a serial killer, who has come to be called, the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” prowled the streets of Austin, including Guy Town, dispatching his 8 victims with his favorite weapon, an axe. As quickly as the killings had begun, they ended, and the killer disappeared. Some have speculated that he escaped and became the famous “Jack the Ripper,” who terrorized London in 1888. We’ll probably never know for sure, but it makes for an interesting theory.

It would be wrong to leave the impression that Guy Town was an area only devoted to vices, commotion, and criminal activity. Far from being the case, reputable businesses thrived in Guy Town throughout the period of its notoriety. One such business was owned by the Schneider Family, who operated a general store at the corner of Guadalupe and 2nd Streets. The store sold a wide range of items, including, clothing, wine, whiskey, meat, cheese, and other food. Remarkably, the building is still in existence today, and remains the only building left from the Guy Town era. Even more remarkable, is that it is still owned by the Schneider Family.

Eventually, all bad things, as well as good, come to an end, and Guy Town was no exception. In many ways, Guy Town is a symbol of the rise and fall of the Old West. Like the other famous red-light districts in Texas which thrived during nearly the same time frame – Houston’s “Hollow,” El Paso’s “Utah Street,” Fort Worth’s “Hell’s Half Acre,” Waco’s “Two Street,” and “Frogtown,” in Dallas – it fell victim to a rising tide of national sentiment against not only prostitution, but gambling and the abuse of alcohol as well. Led by religious leaders, and women’s groups, the end of the Old West, and all that went with it – the tacit acceptance of wanton violence in many places, the reluctance to charge or convict felons, corrupt law enforcement and judicial officials, overt prostitution, saloons, heavy drinking, legal gambling, and public hangings in and around county jails – soon disappeared from the scene.

The Old West, as we know it, was a relatively short period of time lasting from the end of the Civil War in 1865, until 1910 or so. In the grand scheme of the Mandate of Heaven, it didn’t really last that long. But the impact that this period has had upon the rest of the world’s perception of the United States, and, the perception we have of ourselves, will live on for a very long time indeed.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Great Texas Restaurant In Jonestown

Jonestown, Texas, calls itself the “Gateway to the Hill Country," and sits on the north shore of Lake Travis, northwest of Austin, between Cedar Park and Lago Vista, on Farm to Market Road 1431. Nestled in the scenic hill country on the eastern edge of the Balcones Escarpment, Jonestown was founded in the middle of the 1930’s, and was for many years thereafter, just a rustic fishing village.

The population of Jonestown has grown since its inception, but still is probably not more than 2,000. Nowadays, the old fishing cabins are starting to disappear, and taking their place are some very nice homes for those Austin commuters living on the north shore. In addition, Jonestown, like many communities in the Texas Hill Country, is becoming a haven for “snowbirds” from the north, looking for a mild winter climate. Despite its continuing growth, it is still one of those places where if “you blink, you’ll miss it.” And if you do blink, you’ll be missing out of some interesting things, like the several fishing tournaments Jonestown plays host to during the year, or, the annual Texas Chili Cook-off. One other thing you’ll miss is a mighty fine Texas restaurant.

There aren’t a lot of places to get something to eat in Jonestown, but even if there were, True Grits Texas Bar and Grill would still shine. Sitting right alongside FM 1431, it’s no problem to steer your pickup truck off the road in one easy motion and pull up right in front of the place. Don’t let the size of the building fool you. No matter how many vehicles appear to be parked in front, there is still plenty of room inside.

Walking into the restaurant is like walking back into a Texas time machine. Both the exterior and interior of the building are made of weathered wood panels, the roofing is metal, and immediately after you walk in the door, you’re greeted by the owner who loudly proclaims, “Hi Y’all,” in his thick Texas drawl. “Sit anywhere ya want to, but oh, here’s a nice booth right here.” The new owners took over the place a year or so ago, and, while I had no complaints about the previous owners, the new owners have done a great job sprucing the place up a bit, while still retaining its traditional Texas character. The tables are nicer, and diners no longer have to sit in booth seats with ripped fabric, but heck, I never really minded the old look. After all, I go to True Grits for the food, not to sit upon or dine from fine furniture.

True Grits is all about real home cooking. The menu is focused on long-established hill country fare like chicken fried steak, meatloaf, catfish, quesadillas, and steaks. But in keeping with the age Texas hill folk actually now live in, you can also order lemon pepper tuna and pan seared blackened salmon. To each his own I guess. I’m sure it is good, but those selections just don’t seem to fit in with a place like this. In my mind, if I want fancy flavored tuna or seared ocean fish, I’ll leave my beloved hill country behind and visit San Francisco. As for me, on my most recent trip to True Grits, I got the vegetable soup, and classic chicken fried steak with the sides of campfire pinto beans and the green beans with bacon. And speaking of sides, True Grits has an ample selection. In addition to what I ordered, you have a choice of buttermilk mashed potatoes, fried okra, rice and beans, and a lot of other stuff, including, Texas toast. My only argument with the place is that they consider Texas toast a side item instead of throwing it in along with the meal. But I’ll get over it. Life is far too short to worry about something, which in the long run, is as trivial as that.

While waiting for the food, I had time to reacquaint myself with the interior. Old knick-knacks still hang from the wall, and over the beer tub, along with a sign warning patrons that the tub is not self service, were two other signs. One read, “Time spent enjoying beer is not deducted from one’s lifespan,” while the other read “Damn good beer is served here.” My guess is that some people come here to enjoy something beyond the chicken fried steak. Imagine that.

When the food came out, to my delight, the “vegetable soup” was the most beefy concoction I have ever eaten. While there were overly generous portions of potatoes, onions, green beans and corn, the vegetables (or, as my Dad says, “vegebles”) were floating among a heavy, almost gravy-like beef broth, loaded with beef. If this is what it means to be a vegetarian, then count me in. It was so good that I almost wished I had ordered the bowl instead of a cup. My son, Billy, who had accompanied me for lunch, was a bit embarrassed when I kept spilling the soup down the front of my shirt. This seems to be a habit of mine. But, if I can get over not being served Texas toast with my meal, he can get over me embarrassing him (once again). As I noted earlier, life is short, indeed.

As in previous visits, I was delighted when the chicken fried steak arrived. What was served up was of darn good size, and the batter covering the Angus beef cutlet had an appropriate dose of black pepper. To be sure, it was fried up nice and crisp. The steak itself, was covered with delicious cream gravy, and was very tender. The pinto beans were larger than you get at most places, and when the menu said you’d get bacon with the green beans, it was not kidding.

Homemade pies are a big deal in the hill country, and despite the large selection of pies and cakes in the pie cooler, I passed on the opportunity to have any. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m really not a “dessert person,” but if you are, you won’t be disappointed. My friends tell me the pies are great. And, like most folks in the hill country, I trust my friends.

Around Austin, Lake Travis, and the Texas Hill Country, live music is readily available almost any night of the year, and Jonestown is no exception. Texas Grits offers live music many nights of the week throughout the year, featuring, many well-known musicians, including some amazing local talent living on the north shore of Lake Travis.

Well, what do you think? If you are looking for a great place to eat as you are entering the “Gateway to the Hill Country,” with traditional hill country food, friendly Texas hospitality, local music, and that “beer thing,” you may want to slow down and not blink as you pass through Jonestown. You won’t be disappointed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

1877: Famous Cellmates In The Travis County Jail

Today, across the street from the Texas State Capitol Building in Austin, Texas, on the corner of 11th and Brazos, stands the Dwight C. Greer Building. The limestone building, erected in 1933, is the home of the Texas Department of Transportation. From this building, the activities of over 12,000 of the department’s employees are directed, many of whom are located in the Greer Building itself.

But in 1877, there was another building which stood on the corner of 11th and Brazos. And, unlike the 1930’s Art Deco style building which houses state transportation employees today, the building in 1877 was built of stone and looked like a castle. But this “castle” was not built to house kings, queens, or other members of a royal family; it was built to hold murderers, robbers, petty thieves, vagrants and others who broke the law around Austin. It was also a place of execution for those who had been sentenced to hang. The building was the Travis County Jail. And, in 1877, the jail was holding two men in the same cell that would become legends of what we now call the “Old West.” These two men were John Wesley Hardin and John Ringo.

The most infamous killer in the history of Texas, and arguably in the history of the Old West, was Texas-born John Wesley Hardin. Born in 1853 to a preacher, and entering his teens in the years immediately following the Civil War, he loathed what had happened to the South in the aftermath of the war. An angry youth, he was responsible for the deaths of several men by the time he was 15 years old, and, by the time he found himself locked up in the Travis County Jail in 1877, he had killed over 40 men, with several deaths taking place during the famous Taylor-Sutton feud in DeWitt County. But Hardin’s violence was not always triggered by a cause, and sometimes it was trivial. Hardin once shot a man to death in an adjoining hotel room for snoring. Obviously not a man to be trifled with, Hardin’s reputation as one very bad and dangerous man was well known during his lifetime and his nefarious reputation has only grown in the many decades since.

John Ringo was born in Indiana in 1850, and lived in Missouri before his family headed off as part of a wagon train to find a new life in California. Along the way, his father accidentally shot himself in the head with a shotgun while young John watched helplessly. The trauma of seeing his father’s violent death never left Ringo, and he became a troubled, brooding loner who increasingly found strength and solace in a liquor bottle. By the 1870’s, Ringo found himself in the Texas Hill Country. His first arrest was for discharging a firearm on the public square in Burnet on Christmas Day 1874. Later, he became embroiled in a famous feud called the “Mason County War” or, as it was better known in the hill country, the “Hoodoo War,” and was accused of murder. As a result, it was in 1877, that Ringo found himself locked up in the Travis County Jail alongside John Wesley Hardin.

Aside from his brief notoriety in the hill country feud, Ringo was not well known, and certainly did not have anything like the fearsome reputation of John Wesley Hardin. John Ringo’s criminal career had barely begun, while Hardin’s was in its prime. That is why it surprises some historians that Hardin reportedly complained to Travis County jailers that he should not be kept locked up with someone with the disagreeable disposition of John Ringo. As a result of this contrast of their reputations at the time, many contemporary historians have questioned whether Hardin really made such a complaint at all. And, while none of us were present back then to know for sure, I have a different take. In my opinion, it is quite plausible that Hardin made such a complaint. Many of the famous outlaws of that time period were very protective of their reputation, and whether the reputation was based on truth or fiction was meaningless, because either way it maintained their pride and helped keep them alive. Hardin is a good case in point, as he later wrote a book about his life in which he detailed his many killings. While I agree Hardin was probably not physically afraid of Ringo in the Travis County Jail, he might have been afraid of an “upstart” gunfighter upstaging his reputation. The complaint to the jailers, such as it was, might have been a way for Hardin to publicly dismiss the troublesome Ringo, in effect, saying, “Why do you have this nobody locked up in a cell with me?” In any event, both men soon left the jail and went their separate ways.

After being released from jail when all charges against him were dropped, Ringo hung around Texas for awhile, and, for a short period of time became a constable. He eventually moved to Arizona where he befriended the so-called “Cowboys,” a gang operating in and around Tombstone, Arizona, which included the Clanton and McLaury families as well as “Curly” Bill Brocius. Ringo’s legend as a gunfighter has been overplayed over the years, thanks in part to books and Hollywood movies. Ringo, for example, did not participate in the famous gunfight just outside of Tombstone’s O.K. Corral when the Clantons and McLaurys squared off with the Earp brothers and “Doc” Holliday. He was, however, well known to the Earps and Holliday, and had several heated arguments with them. This familiarity with the “Cowboys” and the Earps, some cattle rustling, and the killing of a few men from time to time earned him a place in the history of the Old West. When Wyatt Earp went on his famous “Vendetta Ride,” in which many of the “Cowboys” and Ringo’s friends were killed, Ringo became extremely depressed, and his drinking, which had always been a problem, got worse.

After weeks of drinking heavily, Ringo rode out into the mountains east of Tombstone, and in July 1882, he was found with a gunshot wound to his head, leaning against a tree along West Turkey Creek. Although there has been much speculation that he was killed by Wyatt Earp, “Doc” Holliday, or others, it is more likely that with many of his friends dead, and alienated from and ostracized by his remaining family in California, John Ringo saw nothing more to live for and took his own life.

Hardin spent 15 years in a prison in Huntsville, Texas before being pardoned by the governor in 1894. During the time he was behind bars, he studied legal matters, and upon his release moved to El Paso to practice law. El Paso at the time was still a violent place. It was one of the last cities in Texas that still maintained a wide open frontier atmosphere that had been so commonplace a few years earlier. As such, it remained a destination for gamblers, wanted men, drifters, and questionable women. One of Hardin’s first legal clients was a relative who had been charged with murder.

James Miller, who was better known as “Killing Jim” and “Deacon Jim,” was Hardin's cousin by marriage. Miller, like Hardin, began his murderous ways early, by killing his grandparents when he was not even 10 years old. As an adult, Miller preached every Sunday, and seemed to lead a good, clean life, refraining from the use of tobacco and alcohol. But behind this exterior, Miller was really a psychopathic hit man who enjoyed killing men with his "scattergun," which today we call a side-by-side double barrel shotgun. Miller was soon acquitted, but Hardin was not so lucky.

In 1895, after threatening the son of El Paso’s Constable, John Selman, Hardin was shooting dice in a saloon. With his back to the door, he never saw Selman walk up behind him and fire the bullet into his head that ended his violent life at the age of 42.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve 2010 In The Texas Hill Country

As it has a habit of doing from time to time during the winter months, a cold front blew into the Texas Hill Country today, just in time to get everyone into the Christmas spirit. Although the morning temperature today was still in the 50’s, the rain made it feel much colder. And, on a day like this, most everyone in the hill country should take on an even greater understanding and appreciation of the hardships the Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and early settlers of the hill country faced when the weather turned cold. Actually, one does not even have to go back that far in time, as hill country folk did not even begin to receive electricity until the 1930’s, when the hill country’s favorite son, Lyndon Johnson, made it a reality.

Christmas Eve in the Texas Hill Country is no different than a lot of places around the country I guess, given the ample supply of shopping and outlet malls which cater to the last minute Christmas shopping "insanity" which seems to strike so many people this time of year. But unlike a lot of places, the hill country provides an alternative, should you choose to seek it.

My dog and I headed out into the remote solitude of the hill country this morning in an attempt to distance ourselves from cash registers, blinking lights, wrapping paper, and frenzied people. The cold and rain did not deter us in our quest to avoid the very worst things the holiday season brings, those being, commercialization, greed, the exchange of money, and stressed-out families. Except for the ever-present deer and birds found in the hill country, we did not run into another living thing on our journey, and that, to me, made for a successful day. It was, as it should be.

The quiet solitude of the hill country, the cold rain, and the companionship of my dog, gave me time to slow down, and reflect on the meaning of Christmas one day in advance of the day itself. Instead of last minute scurrying about and standing in long lines waiting to purchase something for someone that will no doubt be forgotten by noon on Christmas; I did something far more important. I took a few hours on the day before Christmas to find a quiet place in these historic hills to truly think about why Christmas Day is celebrated, and what it means for all of us.