San Antonio’s Menger Hotel: Historic and Haunted

History lives at San Antonio’s famous Menger Hotel, and if you can believe the legends, so do numerous ghosts. 

Bearing the title of the oldest continuously-operating hotel west of the Mississippi. the Menger’s story began in 1840 when twenty-year-old German Immigrant William Menger arrived in San Antonio and started the Western Brewery—Texas’ very first brewery—built on part of the site where the battle of the Alamo had occurred four years before. Menger moved into Mary Guenther’s boarding house next to the brewery and ultimately convinced the proprietress to marry him.

By the late 1850s, the Mengers recognized the need for a hotel to serve their successful brewery’s many customers. So, in 1859, the Menger Hotel, a two-story, cut-stone building of classical design, opened its doors replacing the boarding house. A tunnel between the hotel and brewery was created so hotel guests could tour the brewery and sample the beer. The hotel met with such quick success that three months after the grand opening, Menger started planning a three-story, 49-room addition. Menger also constructed an underground cellar with three foot thick stone walls for cooling the beer. During the Civil War, business was slow and Menger opened the hotel as a temporary, makeshift hospital for sick and wounded soldiers. Although Menger died in 1871, his wife and son continued operation of the brewery and the hotel. 

Ten years later, in 1881, Major J.H. Kampmann purchased the Menger and assumed management of the hotel, expanding the number of rooms and adding a cherry-wood bar designed after the Club Taproom pub in London’s House of Lords. The Menger’s version consisted of a two-story bar room, a billiard room, and a reading room. Elegance prevailed with french mirrors, gold-plated spittoons, and mint juleps in solid silver tumblers. Beer was chilled by the Alamo Madre ditch which ran through the hotel courtyard.

Over the years, additional additions and improvements were made—from an ornamental marquee to the Colonial Dining Room, famous for its wild game, mango ice cream, and turtle soup—actually made from turtles caught in the San Antonio River.  Today, after 163 years, the historic Menger is part of San Antonio’s “Alamo Master Plan,” an exciting renovation of the entire Alamo site and its surrounding area, including the Menger Hotel.

Scores of famous guests have visited the hotel, from Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant, actresses Sarah Bernhard and Mae West, Oscar Wilde, Babe Ruth, eleven American Presidents, and foreign royalty. One of the more unusual guests was a 750-pound alligator left behind by a guest who skipped on his hotel bill. Hotel management appropriately named the alligator “Bill” and kept him in the atrium. But no worries, this was over 100 years ago and Bill is long gone.  

Theodore Roosevelt stayed in the hotel while on a javelina hunt in 1892. He returned in 1898 to recruit machete-carrying Rough Riders for his First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry one of the most famous fighting units in the Spanish-American War, praised for their role in the Battle of San Juan Hill.

According to Texas Legend, Teddy Roosevelt lingered at a table in the Menger bar to recruit cowboys returning from trail drives on the Chisholm Trail for his Rough Riders, signing them up on the spot and later drinking and carousing with his volunteers. While it’s true Roosevelt led his Rough Riders on the charge up Kettle Hill and San Juan Heights in Cuba, did he really charge up the Menger hotel’s main staircase on his horse named Little Texas? I can find no evidence that he did, but I’ve heard that story since childhood.

Ah, but I promised ghosts, didn’t I?  Let’s start with the ghost of—who else but Teddy Roosevelt—who is frequently seen and sometimes heard at the Menger’s bar. Reports are that he appears frequently and sometimes talks to staff in an attempt to recruit them for his Rough Riders.

Another ghostly guest at the hotel is the apparition of Sallie White, a nineteenth century chambermaid murdered by her husband. Reports of a ghostly Sally with her hands full of towels and sheets have been reported on the third floor of the original section of the hotel.  Guests have been shocked to see her walking through walls and closed doors. 

Cattle Baron Richard King, founder of the giant King Ranch enjoyed his own suite in the Menger in the 1800s. At the end of his life in the 1880s King requested to move to his private suite in the hotel and died there in 1885.  The hotel’s King Ranch Suite is the site of numerous sightings of Captain King’s apparition.

If you want an historic luxury hotel experience, The Menger Hotel in San Antonio awaits you and who knows, you might just get lucky and spot a friendly ghost! But don’t let Teddy Roosevelt talk you into joining the Rough Riders, the Spanish-American War is over.

This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with the Texas Brave and Strong podcast —tidbits of Texas history you never learned in school.  It’s the best little podcast in Texas.  Thanks for listening and be sure to check out my new novel, GONE TO DALLAS, The Storekeeper, 1856-1861.  Available on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and Ingram Sparks.

Ya’ll come back.

Longhorn Cattle: The Living Symbol of the Old West

The man and the little girl leaned against the corral fence looking in at the cattle. 

“Are these the ones we want to buy?” the child asked. “I like their long twisty horns.”

“Yep. These are the ones we want. Their horns set them apart from other cattle. Notice how no two Longhorns are like. Colors and color combinations run the gamut from solid to speckled. I’m planning to leave this auction with a bunch of these Longhorns—some cows and at least two bulls. We’re starting us a Longhorn herd. You know these are the real Texas cattle.”

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“Well, their ancestors were the first cattle to set their hooves on American soil almost 500 years ago when the Spanish first arrived. The Spaniards brought their cattle from the South of Spain so they’d have hides, meat, and milk in their Catholic missions. Used ‘em to pull wagons, too. So Longhorns have had a long time to adapt to living here in Texas. They’re the cattle breed that started Texas ranching. In fact, your ancestors were Longhorn cow chasers back before the Civil War.”

“Why do you call them cow chasers?”

“Back then, there were plenty of wild Longhorns down in Mexico. Six generations ago our family came to Texas and saw the opportunity to gather some of the wild Mexican cattle, bring them back to Texas, breed them, then trail drive them to markets to satisfy a growing demand for meat across the country.  They had to hunt and chase the cattle to gather a herd. Learned how to handle them with the help of Mexican vaqueros or what we call cowboys today.”

“I want to be a rancher when I grow up.  Look at that brown and white speckled bull, Dad, how wide do you think his horns are?”

“He’s got about a six. . . or maybe seven foot span. About average for a mature bull. But I’ve seen horn spans as wide as nine feet. Looks like he might weigh about 1200 or 1300 pounds. Nice sized bull, a lot of good meat on him. One reason I want Longhorns is they’re fast breeders.  Heifers can conceive before they are six months old. Cows can deliver a calf every 11 months and do that long into their teenage years. That’s a lot of new cattle from one cow.”

“More cattle means more profits, right?”

“Yep, and profits mean we can stay in business. Another reason we want Longhorns is that over the centuries they’ve developed a natural resistance to common cattle diseases and they can avoid parasites like the screw worm. Guess you could say they even treat themselves for screw worms.”

“How do they do that?”

“Well, it’s kinda gross. When a Longhorn calf is born, blow flies lay eggs under the calf’s tail and in its navel. The cows lick ‘em off to keep from getting worms. If a cow gets infested and can’t reach the worms to lick them off, it’ll go stand in water for hours and drown the worms.”

“ Lick ‘em off! Yuck!” The girl wrinkled her nose.

With a laugh, the man said, “May sound yucky to us, honey, but it works for the Longhorns. Helps keep the cows healthy and veterinary bills down. We’re gunna raise our cows on grass, no chemicals or supplements for them.  That means we’ll have extra healthy beef. Longhorn meat is lean, tasty and a nice red color—lower in cholesterol than a skinless chicken breast—actually offers more nutrition per calorie than other beef.

“Dad, why aren’t there more ranches with Longhorns? The ranchers around us don’t raise Longhorns.”

“Well, let me tell you a bit more about the Longhorn’s history. As I said, before the Civil War, Longhorns were THE Texas cattle. When the war started, the men went to fight and the cattle ranged freely, so after the war, the men returned and found a vast number of cattle across the state. Estimates are as high as five million head.”

“WOW! That’s a bunch of cows.”

Yep, but these cows were worth only $3 to $4 a head in Texas; however, demand for beef in the eastern states was high and cattle could be sold there for 10 times the Texas price. This potential for profit started the era of large herds being rounded up and taken to market along routes like the Chisholm and Shawnee Trails. Giant ranches were started. For instance, at its peak, the Goodnight Loving Ranch in West Texas covered 1.3 million acres and grazed more than 100,000 cattle. Ranches spread onto the Great Plains grazing lands of Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Longhorns ruled the cattle industry. Of course, Texas Fever created some big problems.”

“What’s Texas Fever?”

“It’s a disease caused by ticks and it can kill cattle. Longhorns can spread it, but they are immune to it. As early as the 1850’s—out of fear for their cattle—ranchers in Kansas and Missouri had started blockades to keep Texas cattle drives out of their states and their state legislatures passed laws attempting to banTexas cattle. Got pretty nasty for awhile and many drovers diverted their herds. Finally, in the 1870s, railroads came to Texas and rail heads were created in the state for the shipping of cattle.

“What happened then?

“Barbed wire!  Barbed wire changed it all.  When the range was fenced by farmers and sheep ranchers, the free range was cut off. That limited access to water, shut off free grazing, and blocked the cattle trails to market. Imported cattle were brought in. Herds got smaller. Longhorns lost their popularity. I’m hoping that will change and that Longhorns will be in demand again for more than just dude ranches and show herds.”

A grin bloomed on the little girl’s face. “We’re trying to bring the Longhorns back. I like that.”

The man’s smile matched hers. “That we are, sweetheart, that we are. They’ve been overlooked for too long. The Texas Longhorn is a living symbol of the Old West. What do you say we go buy us a few?”

“Yes, sir! We better hurry. I can already hear the auctioneer.”

A Bowl of Texas Red

What five letter word stands for Texas just like an oil man in a stetson hat or a rodeo cowgirl? C-H-I-L-I . . .Chili. Yep, when you find a steaming bowl of authentic, spicy chili on the kitchen table or on a cafe menu, the chances are pretty good that you’re in Texas. Chili is a passion in Texas.  Some would even say a bowl of the thick, meaty stuff can be a religious experience!

But’s what the history of Texas chili?   Most people are in agreement that chili started in Texas, but as to the definitive beginnings of chili . . .well folks argue about that just like they debate the best chili recipe.

We do know that in the latter half of the 1800’s “Chili Queens were dishing up bowls a’ red or chili con carne —that’s chili and beef— from booths on the Military Plaza in San Antonio. At the same time, wild long horn cattle were being brought up from Mexico by cow-chasers to stock newly-formed Texas ranches. With beef and wild chilis readily available, the combination of the two ingredients made its way into many a Texan’s bowl.

When the Chicago exposition of 1893 rolled around, some Texans from San Antonio set up their booths offering Texas chili. It didn’t take long for the word about this tasty new concoction to spread and chili parlors began to pop up across the country—some cooks making traditional chili, others expanding on the recipe.

Did you notice I haven’t said anything about beans? When it comes to chili, don’t add beans or even whisper the word beans over your chili bowl or some native Texan will say, “ Hummp, might be goulash, but’s sure as heck ain’t Chili!”

However, beans on the side are traditional.  During cattle round ups or cattle drives to market, chuck wagon cooks would often have a pot of beans on the cook fire for some extra protein for hungry cow chasers.

By the way, the term cow chaser or cow catcher was an early term for cowboy and generally denotes those who collected wild Mexican cattle and then drove them to early start-up Texas ranches. Mexican cowboys were skillful cow handlers and made up about a third of the first Texas cow chasers. In Spanish, they are Vaqueros (which translates to cow boys). The word buckaroo evolved from vaquero.  Anyway . . .back to chili.

According to The Chili Appreciation Society International, In the 1800s Texas prisons served their residents chili on a regular basis and prisoners rated the quality of their jails based on the quality of the chili served.  Some prisoners even asked for the recipe when they were released.

By this time, households had begun preparing their own chili with the advent of commercially-available spices. 

by 1895, Lyman T. Davis and a ranch cook developed their chili recipe and took it by wagon to the oil boomtown of Corsicana, TX where they sold it for five cents a bowl next to the Blue Front Saloon. Accompanying crackers were free.  Subsequently, Davis opened a meat market and sold the chili in brick form.  By 1921 he was canning his chili under the name Wolf Brand Chili, named after his pet wolf, Kaiser Bill. Two Corsicana business men bought Davis’ chili business in 1924.  The two were savvy marketers. They customized model T Ford trucks with cabs shaped like cans of chili. These cans on wheels were painted with the Wolf Brand label. As if this weren’t enough to draw attention, a live wolf was caged in the back of each truck. They built a brand and sold a lot of chili because the Wolf Brand chili can still be found on grocery store shelves. 

Chili was a staple in many households during the Great Depression.  It was cheap and high on protein. Paired with crackers, it made a meal.

Jump ahead several decades for the start of chili cookoffs— a civilized way to settle the best chili recipe debate. The State Fair of Texas launched the first recorded chili cookoff in 1952. Naturally the rules included NO BEANS!  If you’ve ever heard of Terlingua, TX, you know the chili cookoff lives on with Texas beer a key ingredient (replacing water) in many winning recipes.  

Talk to a Texan today about Chili and you’ll often find yourself in an enthusiastic discussion about their chili memories.  Here’s one of my chili memories.  I grew up in a small Texas town.  When I was in the seventh and eighth grade, I looked forward to the one day a week I could take 30 cents (the cost of a school lunch) and spend it across the street at a local root beer stand. For 15 cents, a small bag of Fritos would be split down the side, a big spoonful of chili would be ladled in, and the crunchy, spicy mass sprinkled with grated  cheese and a bit of chopped onion.  Sheer heaven! Along with this “Frito Pie” came a 15 cent Frosty mug of root beer containing a scoop of vanilla ice cream. For a middle schooler, life didn’t get much better!

As you can imagine, I cheered when in 1977 the Texas State Legislature voted to make chili the official state dish of Texas—in recognition that “ the only real ‘bowl of red’ is that prepared by Texans.”

Just remember, as “The Chili Song” sung by William Clark Green says,“Don’t you put no beans in my chili. If you put beans in my chili, you don’t know beans about making Texas chili!”

This has been Laurie Moore-More saying, “Enjoy your bowl of Texas red.”

The Great Beefsteak Raid

The white-haired man and the young boy sat side by side warming themselves in front of the fireplace.  The man turned to the boy. “Robert, did I ever tell you about the time I rustled cattle?”

The boy’s eyes grew wide. “Grandpa, You were a rustler? I thought rustling cattle was a bad thing.”

“Yep, usually is. But in this case it was a good thing and at the behest of General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War.”

“Robert E. Lee, he’s the general I was named for . . .”

“Right and a fine man he was.”

“What’s behest?”

“Behest means an order or command.” The old man smiled, “Let me tell you about it. It was quite an adventure.  Way back in the Fall of 1864—more than three years into the Civil War—things were not going well for General Robert E. Lee and our Confederate army. General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army had Petersburg, Virginia under siege. By September of that year the siege was in the third month and supplies were short for us Confederate troops. I was one of the troops who had established a ten mile defensive line surrounding Petersburg.”

“Petersburg is on the James River, right.  Dad and I fish there sometimes.”

“Yep, good catfish fishin’. Petersburg was important because it had four rail roads and two roads making it the heart of Southern supply lines, especially for Richmond, where the Confederacy was headquartered.

“General Grant’s strategy was to strangle the Southern supply lines—to cut off shipments of food, weapons, ammunition, uniforms, too. Not that the Confederacy had many uniforms to ship. We were a ragtag bunch. At the same time, he was cuttin’ off our supplies, Grant worked to maximize supplies for his own Union troops at the major supply depot and his field headquarters over at City Point, Virginia, that’s where the James and Appomattox rivers come together. It was about eight miles behind Union lines. I’ve been told that 2,900 tons of supplies arrived every day from trains and from ships at the City Point Harbor.”

“Gee! That’s a lot.”

“Yep. You like bread and butter, right?”  The boy nodded.

“Well, the City Point Bakery turned out 100,00 loaves of bread each day. All this kept the Union soldiers well fed and well supplied while we Confederates were sittin’ around our campfires with growling stomachs. I remember being really hungry and worried about how to stay warm ‘cause winter was comin’. Sure would have liked some of that bread and butter.

“Needless to say, the food situation was pretty desperate. I remember being on sentry duty on September 5th, when one of our Confederate agents and scouts, a guy named George Shadburne came back from a reconnaissance trip behind enemy lines and reported to General Wade Hampton— he was Commander of the Cavalry Corp. of the Army of Northern Virginia— that there were 3000 cattle—intended to feed Union troops—being held at Coggins Point, just five miles from Grant’s headquarters. I overheard him say that he believed the beeves were guarded by about 120 soldiers and 30 unarmed civilians.”

“That’s a lot of cattle. Those are the one’s you rustled?” The boy’s voice  was eager.

The old man patted the boy’s knee. “Don’t get ahead of me now. I’m comin’ to that. General

Hampton recognized an opportunity to harass the enemy and get some food for us. General Lee liked the idea and gave us permission to go after the cattle. Hampton gathered a force of some 3000 of us soldiers including (and I quote) “several certified Texas cattle thieves”. . . or, cattle rustlers as we’d call them. I’d never been a rustler. Valued my neck too much. Didn’t want to swing by it from a tree. But, I was a Texan, so he figured I’d at least know how to handle cattle. We found some shepherd dogs to help as herders.”

“How’d you get past enemy lines?” The boy’s attention was complete.

“Well, on the mornin’ of September 14th, Hampton led us around the Union’s left flank, then turned us southwest toward Wilkinson’s Bridge on Stony Creek, where we cold-camped for the night. Next mornin’ we moved northeast at a quick march to where Cooke’s Bridge had spanned Blackwater Creek—that is, until the Union troops burned it.  FIgurin’ the enemy wouldn’t expect an attack from this direction, Hampton ordered our engineers to build a new bridge over the creek. By midnight, we had crossed the creek and were within 10 miles of the cattle at Coggin’s Point.

“Hampton divided us into three groups. Group one, that was my group—under the command of General Thomas Rosser, would launch the attack at Sycamore Church, the central point of the Union camp and the spot closest to the cattle. Group two would go to the left to offer us protection from the Union forces close to Petersburg, while group three rode to the right to provide support for us as we rounded up the cattle and then skedaddled back the way we’d come.

“It was 5:00 a.m. on the 16th when we burst into the Union camp. Sure surprised the troops there! We were surprised, too. There were more than 300 soldiers in camp instead of the 120 the scout had estimated. Took about three hours to get in control of the situation and round up the herd. We captured 304 Union prisoners along with their new Henry repeater rifles.  Also rounded up eleven wagons. A bunch of non-combatant Yankee herders changed allegiance and came back with us to help drive the 2,486 cattle we rustled. And can you imagine, all this happened just five miles from Grant’s headquarters?”

“Were you scared?”

“Robert, any time you ‘see the elephant,’ you have some fear.”

“Seeing the elephant means going into battle, right?”

“Yep. Anyway, the march back to our Confederate camp was across the new bridge we’d built over Blackwater Creek. When we’d had crossed with our new wagons, prisoners, and all those beeves, we dismantled the bridge so, any Union troops chasing us cattle thieves couldn’t cross the creek.”

Laughing, the boy said, “Weren’t many left behind to chase you, were there?”

The old man grinned, “Nope. The raid was successful, but we lost ten Confederates, forty-seven were wounded. One of those was my cousin Jack (he recovered), and four soldiers went missing. We lost a few stray cattle on the road back to Confederate territory, so we ended up with a total of 2,468 “Confederate cattle. 

“But there was a problem. Wasn’t any fodder to feed the captured herd, so it was necessary to slaughter them immediately and with little or no salt to use as a preservative, we needed to cook and eat two million pounds of meat. There was so much meat in the short term that we Johnny Rebs could eat our fill and have a bit to trade in private exchanges with Union sentries for other items which union troops had and we Southerners didn’t. We had some fun taunting the Union sentries, invitin’ them for a steak dinner or simply “mooing” at them. Couldn’t eat all that beefsteak fast enough and raw beef spoils fast. Before long, our Confederate food shortage was desperate again.

“You know, when President Lincoln heard about our raid, he called it, ‘the slickest piece of cattle stealing’ he had ever heard of. Story is that shortly after our cattle rustling raid, Grant was asked when he expected to defeat Lee. He supposedly said, ‘Never if our armies continue to supply him with beef cattle.’” The old man chuckled, making new wrinkles on his face.

“Several ‘certified Texas cattle thieves’ and the rest of us who were part of the raid, have stories to tell and braggin’ to do about the great “Beefsteak Raid.”  The old man laughed again. It’s a bit of cattle thievery which didn’t justify hanging.

The old man stood. “All this talk has made me hungry. What do you say we go to the kitchen and rustle us up a couple of steaks?” 

Jumping to his feet the boy said, “Make my beefsteak rare!”

In a final note:

Prince Georges County, Virginia holds a steak dinner each year commemorating the Great Beefsteak Raid.  Want yours rare, medium or well done?

Kings of the Road

The next time you’re tempted to complain about traffic, stop and think about traveling to Texas in the early to mid-1800s when the rush was on! Compared to today, travel was certainly slower and more difficult at best. Train travel wasn’t available yet on the routes to Texas. So, unless you were a single person coming on horseback, you needed a covered wagon. 

Wagons of the time had to be strong, solid, and made of seasoned hardwood. Smaller than the old Conestoga wagons, they were straight sided with a flat bed measuring about ten feet wide and with sides about two feet high. The slats had to be well caulked to handle water crossings and the double canvas cover needed to be well oiled to be waterproof.

You could plan on packing about 2,500 pounds, evenly balanced. With a full load you’d need four ox teams—that’s eight oxen. Plus you’d need good luck to deal with rough roads and river crossings. Add water barrels, an extra wheel, a couple of tar buckets for greasing wheels, some tools and spare parts and you’d be reasonably well equipped.

Wondering why oxen instead of horses were needed to pull the wagons? The weight of the wagon, the terrain to be traveled, plus the fact that oxen could forage for their food—while it was necessary to carry supplementary food for horses—all that combined to made oxen a necessary choice. But you had to take care of your oxen. Most likely you’d pass through a few towns on your trip and having your oxen’s cloven hooves re-shod would probably be necessary. Damaged hooves could bring infection and death. If you lost an ox, you were in trouble. Some travelers even carried small leather bags which could be tied to a damaged hoof to help protect it, hopefully until a blacksmith could be found.

Once your wagon and oxen were purchased, it would be time to load up the wagon with most every thing needed for the trip—from clothing to food to pots and pans. Not to mention the things you’d need upon arrival in Texas.

Travelers generally walked beside their wagons rather than riding to avoid adding extra weight to the wagons. Men walked leading the first yoke of oxen and the women and children walked behind—often gathering dry kindling and tossing it into a cowhide sling under the  rear of the wagon.  

Every wagon train needed a captain who could lead the way and be responsible for the wagon train and its travelers. Ideally, you’d find a captain who’d made the trip before. Decisions would need to be made by the group before starting. One common question was whether or not the train would travel on Sundays. Travelers in some trains voted to make Sunday a day of worship and rest, other trains chose to travel on Sundays, perhaps taking an extra hour at midday for hymn singing and bible reading.

Key to the trip were the roads. . .or, rather the TRAILS. Travel was on dirt trails which generally had been cleared by the military. A class one road was 30 feet wide when cleared and had tree stumps no higher than six inches. A class two road (more common) had stumps no higher than twelve inches. As you might guess, it was important to check the clearance on your wagon!

Many travelers to Texas from the Southern states and other nearby states, traveled the “Trail of Tears,” which consisted of the dirt trails and waterways used during the official “Indian Removal” from the southeastern U.S. to a new “Indian Territory,” which had been established by the US government in the early 1830s (in what is now Oklahoma). Although these trails were pretty well traveled, one still had to deal with fallen trees, washed-out areas, water crossings, and in some cases, heavy wagon train traffic—especially at the ferry crossings where there were actually wagon train traffic jams!

As to travel time, while wagon trains might aim for twenty miles a day for the first day or two to settle the oxen into a routine, the travel goal would drop to fifteen or so miles daily (if the roads were good) to keep from wearing out the oxen. Healthy oxen were key to a successful trip. Travel days would be lost due to problems with the trail, sickness, weather, break downs, deaths, and long waits at water crossings.

If you traveled through Indian Territory along the Texas Road to the Red River’s ferry crossings into Texas, you’d pass Choctaw and Chickasaw farms, where the people lived much like the settlers in Texas, and you’d have the opportunity to buy food and other items from farmers and from an occasional small village store.

Life on the road developed a pattern. Up before dawn to dress, cook and eat breakfast, gather and yoke the oxen, and begin the day’s travel. Eat a cold midday meal during a short break, then back on the trail. Circle the wagons at the end of the day, unyoke your oxen, build your campfire, cook and eat supper and also prepare a meal which could be eaten cold at midday the next day. Refilling water barrels, bathing and laundry could be done if camps were made by creeks, rivers, or lakes. Hunting and fishing were occasional activities to supplement the food pantry. If berries, grapes, wild onions and other edibles were spotted along the trail, the women would stop to harvest, then hurry to catch up with the wagons.

The final stage of travel to Texas was crossing the Red River and moving down the Preston Road which went from Denison to Dallas to Waco and on to Austin. There were several ferry crossings on the Red River. In the 1840s, the Coffee Crossing at Preston was a busy ferry across the river. Later, the Colbert Crossing, just seven miles away, attracted huge numbers of wagons. In 1853, Benjamin Franklin Colbert, a Chickasaw, had been granted a ferry license by the Chickasaw Nation. His ferry was a flat bottomed boat poled across the river by his slaves. Colbert also had a large plantation on the river and his river crossing became a station stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail stage coach  trail in September of 1858 when stage coach travel started in Texas.

It’s true that traveling to Texas was easier than taking the Oregon Trail to the West Coast. Settlers heading to the far West had a longer distance to travel. In addition they had to traverse the prairie, where the fierce Comanche and other tribes roamed and attacked wagon trains. They also faced the desert, mountains, and the challenges of those terrains. Nonetheless travel to Texas was no picnic as wagons dealt with lake, river, and deep creek crossings, traversed the mountains of western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma and faced endless miles of the dark green tunnel created by the Cross Timbers forest—a tangle of stunted, interwoven trees dense with under growth and twisted vines. What Washington Irving (who traveled there) described as the Cast Iron forest.  Travel to Texas wasn’t easy. Graves marked the route.

The decade of the 1850s was a mad rush to Texas and the state’s population doubled and almost doubled again in this decade. Individuals and families in search of land and opportunity poured into the new state and entire plantations were moved to Texas as the Civil War loomed and planters feared invasion of the South by the Northern army—rightly so as it turned out.

While many new residents of Texas traveled by ship to Gulf Coast ports, especially Galveston, wagon trains were the kings of the road!

During the holidays, podcast posts will be every other week. Check back for new posts.

Remember to check out my novel, Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper 1856-1861 on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads and other popular book-buying sites. Thanks for listening! This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with the Texas Brave and Strong Podcast, the best little podcast in Texas. Ya’ll come back.

The Back Story of the Texas State Fair

Let’s talk about Fletchers’ corn dogs, fried butter, roller coasters, Big Tex, football and prize hogs.  Have I conjured up the Texas State Fair for you?

Join me for a whirlwind trip through the 135 years of the Texas State Fair’s history—hitting just some of the high points. Then, I’d like to transport you back to the very first fair held in Dallas and the tiny log cabin village that started it all way back in 1859 — 27 years before the Fair’s official beginning.

The State Fair of Texas runs for24 daysand welcomes about 2.5 millionpeople annually. The food and midway rides are big attractions, but there’s more to love. Visit and you’ll learn more about the state’s history through exhibits on agriculture, livestock, science, art and culture. Plus, there’s the Texas Auto Show and football at the Cotton Bowl.

The first fair in Dallas—an early precursor to the State Fair—was in 1859 (more about it later). This first fair—a county fair—was  followed by a smattering of fairs. In 1862 the Confederacy chartered or approved a state fair and there were a few fairs during reconstruction in the 1860s and  later in the 1870s.

By 1886 the desire for a major fair in Dallas was so high that the following year, two rival business groups held competing State Fairs in Dallas with overlapping dates. Neither fair met expenses—although one fair claimed 100,000 attendees despite the town’s population of about 38,000. However, fairs were good for the town’s business.

One of these 1887 fairs also had tremendous impact on the culture of Dallas. 

Mrs. Sidney Smith, wife of the fair’s director was in charge of the Ladies Departmentand boldly decided to include an art display. This was the very first exhibition of art in Dallas (and quite possibly in the state of Texas!)

The first art show consisted of paintings by a local artist—JR Onderdonck—and his students. Now understand that in those days affluent ladies had an art teacher who offered art lessons at your home and painted a bit on your canvas during every lesson until eventually you had a completed painting.

The art show was well received and the next year,1888, paintings were acquired from New York—an amazing accomplishment because few New York artists had much interest in sending their canvases to Texas. The prevailing attitude was “Texans won’t buy paintings!”

This small beginning established a tradition of art exhibits at the fair and Texans not only wanted to look, they wanted to buy. For a number of years in the 1920’s there were more art purchases at the State Fair than at the National Academy Show in New York!

Exposure to art was still new to many Texans and one young visitor was reported to have exclaimed to his friends, “Hey, these are hand painted!”

Thanks to the State Fair, an arts community grew and prospered. Paintings were displayed in a special room of the library and ultimately a city art museum was created. Beau Arts balls were held. At one ball, the head of the University of Tulsa arts program attended as a Hopi Indian dancercomplete with a live snake. That might qualify as Dallas’ first performance art.

By 1890, Dallas was the largest city in Texas. Horse racing was a popular event at the fair and the largest money maker.  Attractions included cattle sales, balloon ascensions, farm machine displays, baking and other contests for ladies, even jousting tournaments.

In 1903 state laws banning gambling killed racing, and the loss of revenue forced fair management to sell the Fair Park site to the city—with agreement that the fair would continue on the site.

In the early 1900s, auto racing and stunt flying joined the list of attractions. And by 1905, attendance had jumped to 300,000. It reached a million in 1916.  In 1918, toward the end of World War One, the fair was cancelled and the fair grounds became a temporary army camp.

The 1920s brought the arrival of New York shows to a new Spanish Baroque style Music Hall where the first performance was Sigmund Romberg’s the Student Prince. The decade of the 20s ended with the beginning of the Texas-OU football rivalry in a new 46,000 seat stadium which replaced the race track and became known as the Cotton Bowl.

In a major event in 1936, one hundred years after the eighteen-minute Battle of San Jacinto successfully ended the Texas Revolution, Dallas won the opportunity to host the Texas Centennial Celebration.

The Texas Centennial drew six million people over six months to enjoy the exhibits and beautiful art deco buildings which are today’s architectural treasures and make Fair Park a national historic landmark.

You’d probably never guess that the 1946 exhibit that drew long lines of folks at the fair was  Borden Milk’s brand symbol—Elsie the Cow!

1951 saw the debut of Big Tex—a 52 foot tall second-hand Santa Claus figure redesigned as a cowboy.  The decibel level went up in the 50’s when Elvis Presley performed at a Cotton Bowl concert. I’ll bet the excited screams of teenaged girls could be heard all across the city.

The 1960s began a decade of pro football in the Cotton Bowl.

In the 1970s the Cotton Bowl hosted the World Music Festival with lots of big name talent.

Friends of Fair Park was established in the 80s, The Texas Star, a 212 foot high ferris wheel was installed and an 18-million dollar bond offering was approved in support of the fairgrounds.

The African American Museum opened in the decade of the 90s and the first round of the World Soccer cup was played in the Cotton Bowl.

The 2000s have been eventful. Fears of the COVID virus caused cancellation of the fair in 2020.  Big Tex burned, was repaired, and returned in 2021 to once again call out, “Howdy Folks,” to visitors.

That ends our whirlwind tour of The Texas State Fair’s history…Let’s turn attention to the tiny log cabin settlement on the Trinity River that started it all in 1859 and how the fair came about.

I did a tremendous amount of research on early Dallas for my new historical novel, Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper 1856-1861. Let me tell you a bit about the book because I’m going to use it to share with you what Dallas was like in that time period and a bit about the first fair—the one that started it all.

Gone to Dallas is an historical novel with a Texas twang. Let’s start with the first sentence in the book . . .“Sara’s husband was a disappointment in life, but she had to admit he was a handsome corpse.”

Foremost, the novel is the story of Sara, a young woman who travels from Tennessee to Texas in a wagon train in 1856. Through a twist of fate, she arrives in Dallas as a widow determined to open a general store in the tiny log cabin village.

It’s a tale of migration, betrayal, death and determination— a  page-turning, inspiring fictional story rooted in fascinating, true historical events and featuring a strong female protagonist.  Reviews indicate that readers—regardless of where they are from—enjoy the combination of fiction and historical fact. The former CEO of the Alamo says “Sara’s story is compelling…a recommended read.” The Director of the Stockyards Museum in Fort Worth says, “Sara was fascinating—a strong and enterprising young woman. She had the grit and moxie that Texas women are known for. A good fictional read with real historical events thrown in—an interesting twist.” A Canadian reader says, I was hooked at the very first sentence!”

That gives you a quick introduction to the book which is available on Amazon. . . .let’s look inside for an historically accurate description of the village that birthed the State Fair.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a settler bringing your wagon into Dallas in 1856, after months of travel  from Tennessee. . .

Sara could sense the excitement of the group of settlers who led their wagons down the Preston Road and into Dallas the next morning. But as they got closer, it was obvious from the muttering Sara could hear that their jubilation had turned to dismay. Dallas was not what the travelers had expected. Sara looked at the dusty, potholed trails forming a square around a squat, two-story brick building set in a scattering of trees. Maybe a courthouse? The structures on the square were mostly low, rough log cabins hunkered down in the brown earth. There are more vacant lots than buildings. Some of the buildings had business signs, others appeared to be homes. A two-story log hotel with stables, a couple of two-story brick buildings, and a two-story log boardinghouse—according to the sign swinging in the wind— rose above the simpler cabins and were the dominant structures. There were numerous log cabins and sheds randomly scattered away from the square. A network of dusty, winding foot paths connected them to each other and to the square. Hens and a couple of ragged roosters pecked at the dry ground, and two hogs were rooting at the edge of someone’s small garden plot. Clothes hung haphazardly on a rickety looking clothesline. There were a couple of horses tied in front of the courthouse and only half a dozen people in sight on porches or on the streets of the square. A lone wagon sat in front of one of the cabins. A mongrel dog was asleep in the shade it cast. Sara could hear distressed conversation from the wagons around her. Hearing the ruckus, a few people began to come out of the scattered structures.

Soon a tall, black-haired, deeply-tanned man in a suit and derby hat came into the street and shouted, “Welcome to Dallas! Please come forward so you can hear me and I can greet you.” Sara’s first impression was that he had the look and sound of someone in authority. Wonder who he is?

Sara and the other travelers gathered around him as he shook hands and welcomed them. “I’m Alexander Cockrell and I offer the land here.”

Ah, the man in charge.

The Johnson twins stepped out of the group. Horace shouted, “This ain’t Dallas. The Peters Colony man promised Dallas was a real town.”

“Dallas is a real town, young man. We are the county seat. We’ve got a courthouse, a church, some schools, a hotel. Almost 450 people.” He gestured toward the square. “There’s a general store, a sawmill, a weekly newspaper. I’ve even built a new wooden toll bridge across the Trinity River.” Cockrell smiled. “Settlers here have great prospects.”

Horace frowned. “Don’t look like it.”

“On the contrary, Dallas is growing. A large group of two hundred settlers has come from France, Switzerland, and Belgium to establish a colony on the limestone cliff just across the river.” He pointed to a bluff in the near distance. “They believe there is no better opportunity in Texas than that offered by Dallas.”

John Henry looked at Sara, wiggled his eyebrows, and grinned. “Sure sounds like a land promoter. This is his one chance to make a sale before folks move on down the road.”

The Dallas of 1856 doesn’t sound too impressive, does it? Yet a mere three years later the town put on a successful fair attracting 2000 people

Here is a version of the first fair mixing lots of facts woven into a fictional framework:

Sara was not sure where the idea came from, but talk turned to having a Dallas County fair. A planning committee was formed. When Ira Webster approached Sara about joining the committee, she thought of Sarah Cockrell’s behind-the-scenes philosophy. Sara suggested Daniel could represent the store.

Daniel was pleased but hesitant. “I’ve never been on a committee. I wouldn’t be sure what to do.”

“Daniel, you’re smart and you’ve made good suggestions and solved problems here at the store. If you like, we can discuss ideas for the fair before the first meeting.”

After the first committee meeting, Daniel bounced back into the store full of enthusiasm. He was hardly in the door before reporting. “The Cockrell representative immediately volunteered use of empty land on the eastern edge of town for the fairgrounds, you know, at the intersection of Commerce Street and the Preston Road. There’s also space there for a campground for those coming from outside of town. The sawmill manager agreed to donate sawdust to cover as much of the fairgrounds as possible to keep down the mud or dust, whichever it might be. The committee also voted to collect money from local merchants for canvas cloth, and Ira Webster agreed the saddle shop would make a tent for exhibits.”

“So it was a good meeting?” Sara could guess his answer, based on his obvious excitement.

“Yep. We already decided on the categories for competition. We’ll have a livestock competition with prizes for the biggest hog, prize bull, and strongest ox. Ladies can enter their best pies, cakes, and biscuits in baking competitions. We set up a subcommittee to choose judges from around the county for each competition.

“We’ll meet again in a few days to agree on a list of exhibits and activities. Can we talk about some ideas before then?”

“We can.”

As the county-fair planning meetings continued, Daniel came back with frequent reports. The committee agreed that exhibits for ladies would include needlework, carpets, quilts, and shawls. Plows and tools would be exhibited for the men. One exhibit table would hold the most unusual insects that Ellie’s class had collected and Mr. Reverchon had mounted.

The list of activities kept growing. There would be music, a demonstration from the dance club established by Edouard Charles Beaulieu, and a Maypole. Gerard Fave had agreed to try to make a wooden merry-go-round for the children, who would also be offered pony rides. The big event on the first day would be a potluck picnic supper featuring a roast bison cooked by the T-Lazy-R Ranch cow chasers. Supper would be followed by demonstrations of roping and horsemanship featuring the ranch’s Mexican vaqueros and cow chasers Jellie and Zollie. A jousting tournament would end the riding demonstrations.

Benjamin asked Sara to order two flagpoles, one large US flag, and a Texas flag of equal size, all paid for by the cotton brokerage. Adolph Gouhenant offered to make a large “Dallas County Fair” banner. With Sarah’s permission, Daniel agreed the store would pay for two large poles to support the banner. Not to be outdone, Virgil West volunteered to provide the prize ribbons.

It was to be a four-day event. Spring dates were set, with alternate rain dates agreed upon.


Two days before the county fair opened, wagons full of families began to arrive. Others came on horseback, a few on mules. The camp area filled up and, by the first day of the fair, had spilled over to the very edge of town.

On opening day, Dallas woke to warm weather and a cloudless sky. At the appointed time, the Dallas mayor and five district commissioners stood by as district clerk Edward Browder cut the entrance ribbon. The politicians were almost trampled by the excited crowd.

Who would have guessed that the county fair the small log cabin village of Dallas created, would grow into the fabulous and successful State Fair of Texas?

Trading with the Cherokee

Beginning as early as the 1830s, settlers coming into Texas from Illinois, Missouri, and the southern states most likely traveled along what was known as “The Trail of Tears.” The Trail of Tears was made up of over 5000 miles of land and water trails taken by native American tribes during the US government’s “Indian Removal” project. This massive undertaking starting with The Removal Act of 1830, forced the relocation of the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole (among others) to a newly-declared Indian Territory just west of the Arkansas border in what is now Oklahoma. During this removal process, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 native Americans were relocated and that some 15,000 died along the trail, thus the name—“The Trail of Tears” or as the Cherokee called it, “the trail where they died.”

In my new historical novel, Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper, 1856-1861, my main character—Sara Darnell— and her new husband join a wagon train traveling across Arkansas along “The Trail of Tears” to Fort Smith, located on the Arkansas/Texas border, and then southwest into Indian Territory, and down the Texas Road to the Red River. This route carries them through Indian territory and across land belonging to several of the Civilized Tribes—who lived much like the settlers would live in Texas. Small farms lined the road and many tribal members supplemented their livelihood by selling supplies to the travelers. I want to share a brief excerpt from Gone to Dallas to give you a taste of an experience travelers might have had on the Texas Road to the Red River.

To set the stage for this scene, let’s read a paragraph from earlier in the book:  At Fort Smith, Arkansas, Lieutenant John Thomas Hill told them, Youll certainly see Choctaws and Chickasaws on your trip. Youll also touch the edge of the Cherokee Nation as you leave Fort Smith. Young Cherokee bucks will follow you for a while . . . Theyll show up in costume asking to trade. Seems like its a game to them. Thats fine, but they are notorious livestock thieves. They lurk along the Texas Road, all the way to the Red River, stealing horses. Best to guard your horses and milk cows.”


Before setting out from Tennessee, Morgan and Sara knew that the trail to Texas would take them through Indian Territory. A merchant selling them supplies had said, “Once you’re in Indian Territory, chances are you’ll be visited by Indians, especially the Cherokee, who want to trade. Best to have somethin’ to trade.” Lieutenant Hill had echoed this when they met him at Fort Smith. Sure enough, they were startled one morning when the wagon line ahead of them came to a sudden stop. Young Daniel Pollard came running down the line. “Dozens of Indians ahead, Pa says to stay calm. Most likely want to trade, like we heard.”

Sara felt her heart pounding in her chest. Dozens of Indians? She forced herself to take a few deep breaths and unclench her fists. Morgan saw her fear. “It’s okay, honey. You heard what Daniel said, they’ll just want to trade . . . like the couple with the berries.”

“Somehow this feels different. I guess because there are so many.”

In a few moments, they heard Captain Pollard call for the wagons to circle. After the wagons pulled into place, the men stood by their wagons. “Stay calm and no brandishing of weapons,” Pollard called out. Most of the women disappeared into their wagons. Sara stood by Morgan.

“Get in the wagon, honey, where you’ll be safe.”

“No, I’m not about to miss this.”

Everything went quiet as the Indians approached. Sara could hear the soft thud of their unshod horses’ hooves as they rode closer and closer to the circled wagons. A light wind swirled the dust around the horses’ feet as they came forward. The only other sound was a murder of crows cawing in the trees. Out of the corner of her eye, Sara saw Captain Pollard step outside the circle to face the approaching Indians. One of the Indians rode forward to engage Pollard. He dismounted, and Sara heard him say, “Trade,” as he gestured toward the wagons and pointed back to the waiting Indians.

Pollard nodded and said, “Yes, trade.” Sara exhaled without realizing she had been holding her breath.

As the remaining Indians started toward the wagons, Pollard and the Indian walked into the circle. The Indian wore a blue US Army coat with no buttons over a bare chest partially covered with what Sara thought might be a breastplate. Made of rows of small, tubular bones strung together horizontally, the garment extended from his shoulder blades almost to his waist. His legs were clad in deerskin pants with decorative beadwork along the outer side seam. Ornate beadwork also covered his moccasins. He wore three feathers in his long, braided hair, which Sara thought looked greased. His skin was the color of oak, and his silver earrings dangled at least four inches and swung as he looked around the circle. He turned and motioned the rest of the Indians forward. A dozen or more scattered to the various wagons.

A short Indian, dressed in a fringed buckskin shirt and breeches, approached Morgan at the front of the wagon. Hearing a noise, Sara looked back to see another Indian rummaging through things in the back of their wagon. She turned and ran to the rear of the wagon to face a big man with braids down to the middle of his chest. He was wearing a torn frock coat, derby hat, and loincloth. He had a different but not unpleasant smell. Cinnamon . . . He smells like cinnamon. Embarrassed by his partial nakedness, Sara was speechless for a moment.

Meanwhile the Indian had pulled a hand mirror out of an open box. He waved it at Sara, then held a large, cloth sack of what looked like blueberries out to her. “Trade?”

Sara’s momma had given her the mirror for her sixteenth birthday. Sara shook her head vigorously and reached for the mirror. “No, something else.”

He frowned. “Trade!” he said more forcefully, holding the mirror out of her reach. Tucking the mirror under one arm, he took a berry out of the bag, ate it, and pushed the sack at Sara, indicating she should taste.

Ignoring the berries, Sara looked for something else to barter with. Holding up one of Morgan’s shirts, she offered, “Trade?”

The Indian shook his head and began looking at himself in the mirror.

Reaching into a small box which had been tucked into a back corner, Sara pulled out a large, pleated paper fan. She unfolded it, revealing colorful painted flowers. She fluttered it back and forth, generating a bit of breeze. Then she held it in front of her face, peering over the top. She definitely had his attention. Folding it back up, she dangled it in front of him. “Trade?”

“Trade,” he agreed, setting the mirror down. He then handed the sack of berries to Sara. He turned, opened the fan, and walked away fanning himself. Sara tasted the berries. Mmm, sweet. Well have cobbler tonight.

Sara returned to the front of the wagon just as Morgan had concluded his trade. “A package of tobacco for these deerskin moccasins. I think they’ll fit you, honey.”

Morgan was right. Soft and colorful, the beaded moccasins were a perfect fit. Sara was touched that Morgan had bartered for something for her instead of for himself. He can be so thoughtful. Sara hooked her arm around his waist and looked up at him, “Thank you.”

A few days later, a second visit by a group of Indians started much the same but ended differently. Trading was underway when old man Thornton, the grandpa of the Thornton family, flipped his false teeth out of his mouth and into his hand. As Sara watched, the young brave, who had been offering him a buffalo bone necklace as his barter item, took one look at the teeth, shrieked, and ran for his horse. Eager to expand the joke, old man Thornton then began to hold the teeth, clicking them open and closed as he walked among the Indians. It only took a few moments for this to cause minor hysteria among the Indians, who mounted their ponies and dashed away in a cloud of dust. At the end of the day, an older Indian  appeared, asking to see the “didanawidgi.” Sara was in the group that gathered to hear his conversation with Captain Pollard. It took a while for Pollard to explain that old man Thornton was not a medicine man and the false teeth were not magic, just an invention of white men for those who had lost their teeth. Old man Thornton made the rounds of all the wagons that night reliving the incident and announcing that it was the high point of his life.

And that ends a brief reading from Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper 1856-1861 by Laurie Moore-Moore.  Gone to Dallas is available as both an ebook and paperback on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ingram Spark, Smashwords. and Kobo.

This has been the Texas Brave and Strong podcast. It’s the best little podcast in Texas. Ya’ll come back!

Moving West: Squirrel on the Menu

One morning this week I sat with my coffee looking out a window into our backyard as two squirrels raced around and around and around the trunk of a big cedar elm tree. It reminded me of the time I ate squirrel stew. I can almost hear you. “Squirrel stew? Yuck!”

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Braggin’ Rights

Texans can claim an impressive list of things to brag about—what we call braggin’ rights. Things like the biggest, the first, the only, etc. . . Let’s take a look at six things for which Texans rightly brag.

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