PLACES Tours of Duty

Where to take guests who want to see the "real" Texas.

You’ve been to Fair Park, Olla Podrida, and the revolving restaurant; you’ve shown your guest the matching gold buildings and the new City Hall. “That’s all very nice,” says he, “but now I’d like to see Texas.”

Many first-time visitors view the glass and glitter as a veil which, if pierced, would offer up appaloosas and allemandes, line shacks and locoweed, bad bulls and badder cowboys. Here’s a Dallas/Fort Worth itinerary to satiate them, and if you don’t have fun along the way too, you may as well turn in your Texas citizenship papers.

Mesquite Rodeo. We have to cheat a little to claim that the rodeo was born in Texas. It’s true that in 1883 cowboys rode wild horses on Pecos’ Main Street for prizes, but a non-prize contest was held in Colorado 14 years earlier. Stick with the Pecos story, though – your guests will expect a few lies.

The Mesquite Rodeo is one of the most successful in the nation, packing in crowds every Friday and Saturday night from April through September. It wasn’t always that way. Producer Neal Gay struggled to make a go of it the first few years, then had two strokes of good fortune: His son Donnie became the national champion bull rider, and the state highway department routed LBJ Freeway right past the rodeo grounds.

It’s hard to watch a rodeo without becoming emotionally involved. Pity for the calf who reaches the end of his rope while running 40 miles an hour. Apprehension for the bull rider who’s completed his ride but can’t find a good place to get off. Embarrassment for the steer wrestler who catches his critter in a flash, twists its neck 270 degrees, but can’t get the big sucker to lie down. Admiration for the wounded bronco rider who picks himself up from a crash landing and walks nonchalantly out of earshot before screaming. And fear for your life when a big Brahma crashes the fence as if he’d like your third-row seat.

The Mesquite affair may not compare with the biggies staged in Calgary and Cheyenne, but the cowboys are right out of the west – from Abilene, Joshua, Hereford, and Comanche. And the bulls are dying to get a piece of them.

Old City Park. There’s no line shack here, but the Dallas County Heritage Society has rounded up about everything else. Inspired by the acquisition of the Millermore mansion, they have since accumulated a splendid collection of old Texas structures: the train depot from Fate, the two-room schoolhouse from Renner, a church from Pilot Grove, a barn and privy from Piano. There’s also a two-story boarding house moved from Carroll ton, where the drummers used to rest up for the all-day ride to Dallas.

Millermore is a stately white mansion with huge pillars, built in Oak Cliff by William Brown Miller, a distant neighbor of John Neely Bryan on the Trinity riverbank. Construction started in 1855 and wasn’t completed until 1862 – not surprising, since the slaves had to go to Jefferson and haul back much of the lumber by ox cart. My favorite building is the schoolhouse, with its wooden blackboards and McGuffey’s Readers.

All of the old buildings have been stocked with period furnishings. A few pieces are out of place, such as the Victori- an love seat in the doctor’s waiting room, but most appear faithful to the day. It’s a shame the village is smack up against the freeway – it brings you back to the present with a thud. Lunch is available at Brent Place . on the grounds, and there’s a nice general merchandise store selling books, candies, and souvenirs.

Owens Spring Creek Farm. I used to find it unsettling to pass this sausage plant on the way to Piano, since there are horses everywhere but not a hog in sight. On a recent visit my fears were laid to rest. The hogs are raised in Iowa and trucked in (2000 a week) for slaughter. The Owens people have graciously turned a good part of the farm into a hodgepodge tourist attraction. The main building near the road now houses a butcher shop, general store, country kitchen, and farm workshop. Each room is crammed with authentic articles from the past, such as a stone sharpening wheel in the workshop and a 7-Up bottle in the general store that warns “for the stomach’s sake, do not stir or shake.”

There are animals everywhere. You may have to lie a little more to explain what some of them are doing in Texas. And don’t get overconfident after talking your way past the Belgian horses: Lurking in the back stall of the Shetland pony barn is a South Texas llama. Watch the Shetland named Nippy; he didn’t get that name drinking Irish Coffee.

Longhorn Ballroom. This is Dallas’ headquarters for authentic country music. They don’t sing songs here about reefers or people who live together without benefit of marriage, preferring to stick to back street affairs and good girls gone wrong, with heavy emphasis on hits from the Forties and Fifties such as “San Antonio Rose” and “Faded Love.” The ballroom is lit with red lights and the focal point is a revolving Schlitz sign over the center of the dance floor. The supporting posts are disguised as Saguaro cacti. Only beer and setups are offered, so brown bags abound.

When you pay your $3 the ticket clerk says, “Have a good time!” And she means it, because that’s what this place is all about. There are no rules on the dance floor, and during a typical number it doesn’t appear that any two couples are swinging to the beat of the same drummer. Some glide around the floor as if on ice skates. Others stake claims to favored spots and cling so tightly they couldn’t be separated with a crowbar. One short, lively old-timer dances and darts around his towering partner like a mongoose around a cobra. The Longhorn is by far the most civilized of the Industrial Boulevard establishments, because owner Dewey Groom relies on a lot of convention business. But there’s no need to test the patience of the regulars, who have probably spent a hard day digging postholes or wrestling big rigs. Get in the swing of things and before the evening is over you may be doing Cotton-Eyed Joes around the floor arm-in-arm with the locals.

The Fort Worth Stockyards. On the night of February 8, 1887, Luke Short and Long Hair Jim Courtright got into a fussing match outside Short’s White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth. Short, pretending to straighten his vest, whipped out his pistol and shot Jim dead. It was ruled a fair fight. The White Elephant Saloon is back in business on Exchange Street, part of an effort to revive the Stockyards area.

The coliseum has been restored and the main building at the Swift plant is now a Spaghetti Warehouse. The Stockyards Exchange Building houses an art gallery called Mule Alley. But one landmark hasn’t changed one whit, the Leddy Boot Company. They’re still turning out custom-made boots at the rate of two per day, as they have for the last 58 years. The only thing that’s changed is that about half of the Leddy customers now want exotic hides – iguana, ostrich, sea turtle, anteater. Leddy has made boots for Elvis Presley, Lorne Greene, Gene Autry, and the former Shah of Iran.

There was a time when 5,000,000 head of cattle a year thundered through the stockyards, but on my last visit I couldn’t find a single cow. One hears that the area still handles 250,000 a year, though, and there’s an unmistakable aroma in the air to support the claim. For a while this was the place where herds were gathered for the long drive north. In later years, most of the cattle wound up at the Swift or Armour packing houses at the end of Exchange Street. If you persevere, you can still find evidence of the rip-roaring days – faded signs advertising L. L. Herring’s Tavern, Bright and Early Coffee, and hotels called the Llano, Traildriver, El Rio, Stagecoach, and Maverick.

Amon Carter Museum of Western Art. Frederic Remington left New England and headed west after being rejected by his sweetheart’s father. The old spoilsport should receive some kind of posthumous award for his contribution to western art. Remington hit the west just in time to record on canvas much of Western history’s greatest art examples. Much of Remington’s work is on display at the Amon Carter Museum at 3501 Bowie in Fort Worth, including some of his best, such as “A Dash for the Timber,” “The Smoke Signal,” “Ridden Down,” and “The Cowboy.”

The Carter Museum also has a couple of rooms full of the works of another pretty fair country artist named Charles M. Russell. Russell had a devil of a time in school in St. Louis because he was always getting caught drawing cowboys and Indians in his notebooks. Finally, hoping to get the wanderlust out of his system, his parents let him take a trip with a friend to the Montana Territory. He never came back. The museum boasts some great Russells, such as “The Medicine Man,” “The Hold Up,” and “In Without Knocking.”

Log Cabin Village. Fort Worth elected to go rustic with this reconstructed village, off University Blvd. across from the zoo. And if you think that if you’ve seen one log cabin you’ve seen them all, take a look at the Harry Foster home here. It has nine rooms and must have been regarded as a log mansion when it was constructed in 1852 in Milam County. It cost $350 to build and $40,000 to restore. There are six other cabins in various sizes and shapes, all furnished with articles from the appropriate era.

In 1869, Sarah Tompkins watched helplessly from her cabin while the Com-anches ran off with 17 good horses; the Parker cabin is here too, built by pioneer politician Isaac Parker. Isaac’s niece Cynthia was kidnapped twice in her life, first by the Comanches, then by the Texas Rangers long after she had adjusted to life among the Indians.

1 find it mildly distracting that modern-day restorers use concrete to fill in gaps between the logs, rather than the mud and straw that was used originally. I asked the old-timer down at the grist mill about it, and he said that it was done because that’s the way the big cheese downtown wanted it. Perhaps it’s for the best – no telling what it would cost to restore the Foster home again 100 years from now.

Sheplers. This monument on Highway 360 between Six Flags and the General Motors plant is advertised as the largest western store in the world. The selling space covers more than an acre, and features 12,000 pairs of jeans and 14,000 pairs of boots. A huge Cherokee totem pole towers over the gift department; the dressing room is a big red caboose. It disturbs me that anything this big could have existed in the area for more than a year without my having noticed it. Not that the western store poses a threat, but who knows what will be next?

The clientele at Sheplers is different than Leddy’s, with hardtops and sedans parked in the lot rather than pickups with bumper stickers claiming, “I’m a lover, I’m a fighter, I’m a wild bull rider.” Most wear boots at Sheplers but they look like they’ve never stepped in anything worse than Play-Doh. But this place is souvenir heaven. In addition to all the memorabilia from the local sports teams, they have agreat assortment of western novelties.Need a gold-plated barbed-wire swizzlestick? How about a cuspidor for yourdashboard, sheepskin seatcovers, a $500Navajo rug, an electric boot dryer, ahorse-collar mirror, a triangle dinner bell,personalized Skoal can lids, drifter accessories, an oil well in plexiglass, or abelt buckle boasting “I’m proud to be afarmer”?

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