Welcome to Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital of the World!” “Not to be confused with Dodge City,” the tourist bureau warned me, “they’re just the ‘Cattle Queens.’” Cowboys versus cattle? This was a lot for a city girl to handle, but I had my cowboy boots on, and I was ready. Bandera gains its enviable title by claiming the most cowboy stars per capita in the world. After my day trip, I discovered that this rugged Western influence permeated all of Bandera, giving it an almost tangible spirit and pride.
Bandera is a popular tourist destination with a colorful main street of sweet souvenir shops and gift stores, but the town’s atmosphere also reflects its strong history. Bandera was founded by the Polish in 1852 and has been the stompin’ grounds for many different civilizations including Native Americans, Mormons, and Mexicans. So, as you might expect, Bandera has a broad range of cultural traditions and celebrations, as well as many sight-seeing opportunities. The Frontier Times Museum, the largest privately owned museum in Texas ($5 admission), overflows with artifacts from Bandera’s multicultural history. It also houses some of the strangest things I have ever seen: a two-headed kid goat, a shrunken head, and dressed-up fleas . . . as in the insects. That was worth the admission fee.
After a visit to the museum and a trip to St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, the second-oldest Polish church in the United States, I was ready for some Texas barbecue. I walked into the locals’ favorite, Busbee’s, to find a warm atmosphere of long wooden tables, extensive windows, Texas flags hanging overhead, and pictures of famous Busbee’s fans tacked on the walls. Hey, if Busbee’s was good enough for the Dixie Chicks, it was good enough for me. I feasted on juicy pork ribs, moist cuts of meaty brisket, and two sides of corn on the cob and coleslaw. The slaw was especially tasty, fresh and crispy, not weighted with salt and thick dressing.
The owner of Busbee’s, Joe Davis, sat down and we chatted about Bandera’s biggest tourist attraction, dude ranches. Now hotels may park your car, but Bandera’s dude ranches take things a step further: They park your horse. Dude ranches like the Hill Country Equestrian Lodge know how to treat their visitors, all of their visitors. The Equestrian Lodge not only boasts a serene setting, horseback riding lessons, and spa treatments, but it also provides clean, well lit horse stalls with fresh bedding. Other dude ranches offer activities like camping, fishing, and golf lessons. Bandera has been known, internationally, for its dude ranches since the 1930’s. The industry was a smart alternative to the declining ranching economy at the start of the 1900’s. Ranchers began advertising for guests, and soon Bandera was a tourist resort.
But tourism does not keep the locals from enjoying Bandera’s attractions. Late afternoon I noticed a thick, ominous looking door between the General Store and the Lonesome Dove gift shop. Curiosity got the better of me, so I opened the door, traveled down a dark, musty set of stairs, and found myself in an underground honky-tonk: I’d found the infamous Arkey Blues Silver Dollar. The Silver Dollar is the second-oldest dance hall in Texas. Locals dressed in cowboy hats, boots, and suspenders gave me funny looks as I jumped onto a tall bar stool in my light pink button-down and argyle sweater. I ordered a beer and took in my foreign surroundings. Music sang out of a juke box by day and bands played by night. Animal heads adorned the walls, bare lightbulbs provided dim lighting, and footprints in sawdust covered the floor. Pool balls collided, bartenders chatted, and everyone enjoyed themselves. A trip to Bandera would not be complete without taking this all in; it’s the quintessential Texas experience.
I’ve lived in Texas for three years now but never fully understood the cowboy spirit. After my day trip to Bandera, I think I’m starting to get it.