Southside Market in Elgin is the oldest barbecue joint in Texas still in operation, or so the legend goes. According to the restaurant’s history, it first began selling barbecue from a market in Elgin in 1886. My first attempt to verify the joint’s backstory was six years ago. I hit a dead end looking for traces of the elusive founder, William J. Moon. I trudged through the weeds of the old Moon family cemetery south of town with current Southside owner Bryan Bracewell. Though I didn’t find what I was looking for, I never forgot about Moon. The hunt resumed in earnest about a year ago, with the understanding that pure clarity was too much to hope for.
The Moon we were seeking was right in front of us at the cemetery, if only we’d known his real name then. The Bastrop County deed records listed him as William J. Moon, but his name was in fact James William Moon. He disappeared from the property and census records because J. W. Moon, as written on his tombstone, died on April 26, 1887, just a year after his market is said to have opened in downtown Elgin.
There are two parts to the Southside Market legend: the slaughterhouse and the market. We’ll begin with the the slaughterhouse, the easier of the two to trace. After his death, J. W. Moon’s elder brother, Theodore M. Moon Sr., who went by T. M. Moon, became the executor of his estate. He controlled the 88-acre homestead, which included the historic structure where animals were slaughtered. It still sits on the property, which the Bracewell family bought in 1968 along with the market. The Bracewells processed animals there until 2002, when they moved to a more modern facility. The Bracewells bought it from Jerry Stach, who bought it from Lee Wilson in 1944, who bought it from Theodore Moon Jr. in 1927. The younger Moon inherited it after T.M. Sr. died by suicide in 1905. That paper trail was easy enough to follow. The market building in Elgin would prove far more difficult.
Let me stop you now if you’re expecting the origin story of Southside Market to be debunked or proved in the coming paragraphs. We simply don’t have access to the records required for either. The census records in 1890 were largely destroyed in a fire. Thanks to the Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, we gained access to archived issues of the Elgin Courier newspaper, though only back to the September 17, 1898, issue. We referred to the property records for Bastrop County and found the 1883 deed record showing J. W. Moon’s purchase of Lot 5, Block 7, the downtown location of Southside Market when Bracewell purchased it. Case closed, right? Unfortunately, building ownership tells only part of the story.
Maps by the Sanborn Insurance Company showing the buildings in Elgin are available for 1887, 1893, 1898, 1905, 1910, 1916, and 1925. There was no building on that lot until 1893, and from the newspaper articles and advertisements we have scoured over the past year, the first meat market was opened at that location by Jim “J. W.” Fletcher in 1919. This was the south-side outpost of the Fletcher family meat markets that began on the north side of town. In fact, their first mention was when the Elgin Courier reported that Oscar Byrd and Jim Fletcher were planning to open their meat market on August 1, 1908, “in the Moon building on the north side.” That was on Lot 19, Block 39, owned by James Samuel Moon, son of J. W. Moon. It’s probably the same building T. M. Moon referred to in his will three years earlier, when he wrote, “I direct the brick building owned by my [sic] on the East side of Main Street, in the town of Elgin, Bastrop County, Texas, shall be renting by my executor.” Sadly for our timeline, the building was not shown on the 1898 Sanborn map.
The Byrd & Fletcher Market got off to a rough start. The horse that was hauling its delivery wagon ran off and crashed it two days before the opening. Three weeks later, they had to find a new horse. According to the Elgin Courier, “The delivery horse belonging to Byrd & Fletcher was struck by a south-bound Katy freight on last Monday and killed.” These were new challenges for Fletcher, but he wasn’t new to the meat business. In early 1900, when R. Walter Davis took over ownership of the Palace Market, he ran an ad assuring the customers that nineteen-year-old “Jim Fletcher still trims the meat at the Palace market.”
Two years later is when George “Bud” Frazier said he became a butcher at sixteen years old for Southside Market (his obituary says he started delivering meat for it as early as 1895 at age nine). There wouldn’t be a market under that name until 1918, but my guess is that given how both Frazier and Fletcher tie into the lineage of Southside, Frazier was referring to his time working with Fletcher at the Palace Meat Market as the beginning of his 69-year run as a butcher for the business. It was the stories Frazier told the Bracewells and stories that were written about him just after his death that helped form Southside Market’s legend.
As for barbecue, the Fletchers didn’t tout their own until 1917, with an advertisement for “hot sausage and barbecue daily” in the Elgin Courier, though a 1910 Sanborn map shows a barbecue oven behind their market in the Moon building. The first mention of barbecue I could find in Elgin was for a public event in 1887. The meat was prepared by Captain Nash, whom the Galveston Daily News described as a “barbecue authority.” He was assassinated in his McDade butcher shop three months later by someone who thought he was wronged by Nash when he was still a U.S. marshal.
Stewart’s Meat Market was the first Elgin market whose barbecue received any coverage from the local paper. When owner Rec Stewart catered a birthday party hosted by the Lawhon family in 1908, a guest said, “if Mr. Rec Stewart furnishes such delicious barbecue all the time, all would do well to patronize his market.” His meat market and attached barbecue oven appear on Lot 7, Block 7, two doors west of the eventual Southside Market, in the 1910 Sanborn map. Stewart’s was one of several meat markets referred to as the market on the “south side” because it was located on the south side of the railroad tracks that ran through Elgin.
Up on the north side of town, there was a brief but concerning loss of interest in barbecue. Both S. B. Oden in the Elgin Meat Market and J. E. Buchanan in the City Meat Market (in the Moon building) across the street had barbecue pits behind their markets. But in 1913 and 1914 both boasted of a strange new piece of equipment. “Meat cooked in a fireless cooker a specialty,” Oden promised in a newspaper ad. A fireless cooker was basically the early-twentieth-century version of a crockpot. Thankfully, I didn’t see the cooking implement mentioned again in connection to an Elgin meat market.
The Stewart’s Market location changed hands to longtime employee E. C. Rasor in 1913 and to Sam Wood, who advertised his hot sausage and barbecued meats, in 1917. It was first called the South Side Market a year later, after W. A. Fletcher & Son came down from the north side of town (we’re talking three blocks here) to add another location, and announced it in the paper on March 28, 1918. It was the final year of World War I and a tough time to be in the meat business. Beef and pork rationing led the Fletchers to put out a call for chickens, turkeys, and fish to sell on “meatless day.” The Elgin Courier announced that “political barbecues are off while war is on.” It printed a report from the Bureau of Fisheries for Texas that suggested replacing beef with porpoise meat, which “has the appearance of venison, the flavor of veal and is the flesh of a fish abundant on the Texas coast.”
The war was over by the end of the year, and Jim Fletcher started 1919 by moving the South Side Market operation from Lot 7 to Lot 5. This is where the business remained until the Bracewells moved it to its current highway location in 1992, but the many transactions had only begun. Between November 1919 and June 1920, this location had four owners. It was purchased from Jim Fletcher by his father W. A. Fletcher (who already owned the family’s north side location) and E. C. Rasor, who sold it back to Jim Fletcher and Walter Davis. Then Davis bought both locations, took control of the north side, and let Bud Frazier take over south side. This was Frazier’s first of two stints owning Southside Market.
A couple of doors west of South Side Market, the man who would take over the brand for decades was just getting started in the meat business in Elgin. Lee Wilson had worked in his father’s butcher shop in Giddings until moving to Elgin and purchasing the old Stewart’s Market on the south side in 1919 with his partner F. W. Thielpape. They called it the New Meat Market. “We make a specialty of good barbecue and the best country sausage,” they boasted.
By 1923, Wilson had left Thielpape and was running South Side Market. Four years later, he purchased the building along with the slaughter plant south of town. Wilson sold the business to Bud Frazier in 1931, and the Elgin Courier described Frazier at the time as “having been associated with the various Elgin meat markets for the past thirty years.” According to Frazier’s World War II draft card, he was working for Wilson again in 1942. The Elgin Courier announced Frazier would stay on when Wilson sold the business in 1944 to brothers Jerry and Edwin Stach, Charlie and Van Zimmerhanzel, and Monroe Stabeno. The Stach brothers bought out their partners four years later, then sold Southside Market and the slaughter plant to the Bracewell family in 1968. Bud Frazier worked with them for three more years, and retired at 85.
In the stories Frazier told to the Bracewells, he said the business would sometimes change hands after a late-night poker game. I’m not sure if that’s how he came to own the place two different times (that we know of), but it sounds possible considering the ownership machinations of the north side meat markets I learned about while researching this story. From 1908 until 1920, the businesses in the Moon building included Palace Meat Market, Fulton Market, and City Meat Market. And of the owners I could pin down, in that time went Fletcher & Byrd > Fletcher & Heller > Swartz > Ligon > Stewart > Stone > Buchanan > Swartz & Wood > Oden > Fletcher > Fletcher & Davis > Davis. Finding all of those names in scanned images of hundred-year-old newspapers is why my eyes hurt so badly right now. In the same time period, Fletcher’s meat market bounced around in different buildings, including going back and forth across First Street.
The Moon name doesn’t show up often in the papers around this time period. Besides the name of the building on the north side, there’s no mention of it in the meat or barbecue business. In 1908, Fannie Moon Duncan shot and killed her abusive husband with the same Colt .45 her father T. M. Moon Sr. used in his suicide. According to reports at the time, her husband had gotten himself and their two-year-old drunk at a bar in town before the incident. A year later, J. S. Moon was injured after falling off of and being run over by his own wagon. But there was a family connection between the Moons and the Fletchers in the 1920 census. Jennie Rutherford, J. W. Moon’s half sister, was living with Jim Fletcher and his family at the age of 52.
When we began this most recent research, I was interested to see if an opening date for Southside Market could be pinned down before 1900. Finding the 1886 date would have been pure luck, given the resources. The second-oldest barbecue joint in Texas is Kreuz Market, which opened January 17, 1900, in Lockhart (though we’re relying on an article written thirty years later for that date). Any date before that would still make Southside Market the oldest barbecue joint in Texas. I know it’s a generous interpretation, but if you follow the through line of Jim Fletcher, who began working at the Palace Meat Market in the Moon building in 1899, and continue with Bud Frazier, who developed Southside’s famous hot guts recipe, and claimed he worked as a meat delivery boy for a business he associated with the Southside Market lineage since 1895, then I’d still give the nod to Southside.
After presenting the research on his family business, I asked Bryan Bracewell for any comment about how he thought it lined up with the legend his family has told. First, he was flattered that anyone cared enough to dig so deeply, but he said it wouldn’t change much about the restaurant’s importance in Texas barbecue history. When we started the research, I had asked him if he was worried we might uncover that Southside Market is definitively not the oldest barbecue joint in Texas. “It is what it is,” he told me. And I guess that’s about where we leave it. We have more clarity than what is currently included in the history section of the Southside Market website, but we cannot prove or disprove that it opened in 1886. All we can do now is visit the Southside Market location we know for sure has been in the same place, along U.S. 290, for the last twenty years, and enjoy a link of the hot guts, whose recipe goes back to when the progenitors of Southside Market were still on the north side of Elgin.
Trey Smith contributed to this reporting.