Mapping Texas Barbecue History
The Smokehouses and Barbecue Pits of the 19th Century
When it comes to Texas barbecue’s roots, Central Texas meat markets get all the glory. The German and Czech immigrants who built the fires at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Southside Market in Elgin, and Prause Meat Market in La Grange were indeed barbecue pioneers, but their stories are often elevated because those joints are lucky enough to still be in business. Their current existence reinforces the bias of a simple barbecue genesis story, but the birth of commercial Texas barbecue covered a lot more ground. Want proof? We’ve got it for you.
The barbecue as an event has been an American tradition before the U.S. even existed. These were massive and usually free. But the sale of barbecue as a menu item didn’t begin until after the Civil War (see here for the first documented Texas barbecue joint in Bastrop in 1878). The first newspaper advertisements selling barbecue were from butchers and meat markets that were diversifying their selection to include the barbecued meats along with the fresh stuff. A July 19, 1888 report from the San Marcos Free Press provides clues into the motives of those entrepreneurs, and lauds the newfound level of access to barbecue:
That was a happy thought of one of our butchers, since adopted by the rest, to furnish our people barbecued meats. It helps the butchers to sell all the meats, but aside from that consideration, now that they have started, they ought once in a while to give us some of the best going in the same style. People should no longer have to wait for barbecues in order to enjoy barbecued meats.
Many old barbecue advertisements, like the one below from Bastrop in 1889, are accessible through The Portal to Texas History archives, which we used extensively in the research for our nineteenth century Texas barbecue map. In a search for any-and-all barbecue advertisements of that era, we found barbecued meats for sale in the Central Texas towns of Bastrop and Caldwell, but also along the Red River in Denison and way out west in El Paso. The map continued to fill in once we found the University of Texas collection of Sanborn maps.
The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company created maps of cities all over the country. Building locations, materials, and adjacent businesses helped define the fire risk for their customers. Lucky for us, Sanborn maps were produced for towns all over Texas in the late 1800s, and they considered barbecue pits and smokehouses to be hazardous. When our team of interns poured over those maps, they found dozens of meat markets with smokehouses and barbecue pits/ovens/furnaces built out back. Those early barbecue producers stretch from Texarkana to San Angelo. Between these maps, and the advertisements, it was clear that barbecue was popular all over Texas.
The final sources we used were city directories. Pitmasters were denoted within the listings, and barbecue stands showed up in the business directories along with other restaurants. John Jefferson’s barbecued meat stand in Waco circa 1894 and William Connell’s two years earlier in Fort Worth were just a couple of those early listings. They help mark the transformation from barbecue as a meat market side business to the focus of a stand-alone restaurant.
After a thorough search of these historical records, we mapped and catalogued every location we could find into the map below. It’s a full listing of the documented barbecue joints of nineteenth century Texas.
Did your grandfather or great, great aunt run a barbecue stand somewhere between Texarkana and Brownsville in the 1800’s? Did you come across a 19th century advertisement for barbecued meats not reflected in the map above? If so, please leave a note in the comments section and we’ll research the location.