A year shy of its fiftieth birthday, the original Shoemaker’s Barbecue was demolished in downtown Dallas in 1975. At the time, Texas Monthly mourned the demise of “one of the city’s historic barbecue places” to make way for a tower that was never built. The former site of the restaurant, a block east of the George L. Allen Sr. Courts Building on Commerce Street, is now a parking lot. The name Shoemaker’s might not ring a bell, but the way it served barbecue became a model for barbecue joints in Dallas and farther afield.

When Reuben Shoemaker opened his small establishment in 1926, there was sawdust on the floor to keep customers from slipping on the grease. He cooked massive beef navel plates, with the bones still in, from the belly section of the steer. Beef and ham were the only meats available. They came piled on a bun, then mopped with a thin sauce before being served. A table in the middle of the cramped dining area held pickles, onions, relish, and spicy peppers so customers could dress their sandwiches however they liked before squeezing into one of the school desks that lined the wall. There were no barbecue combination plates, no ribs, and no other tables. It was a bare-bones way of serving barbecue that was copied all over town, complete with the free pickles and onions.

Influencing barbecue styles hadn’t really been in Reuben’s plans when he and his wife Ruth arrived in Dallas in the 1920s. He was the first of his six siblings to leave their East Texas farm in Wood County near Winnsboro. He didn’t know much about barbecue, but Ruth’s brother, Julius William Cain (who went by Willie, Will, and Bill) had already opened a barbecue joint in Dallas around 1918. As the Dallas Morning News explained in a 1956 article, “After his brother-in-law, veteran barbeque man Bill Cain, showed him that hickory smoke and a spicey [sic] sauce could make plain beef in to a more profitable commodity, Shoemaker entered the business.”

The first Shoemaker’s was successful, and soon Reuben’s brothers followed him to Dallas. Herbert Shoemaker opened his own shop on Jackson Street. RT Shoemaker traveled from Winnsboro to Dallas a couple days a week to learn the trade from Reuben, according to RT’s son Tom, who worked in the barbecue joint, “off and on from the time I was 3 years old.” RT finally committed and chose a location on South Lamar Street before settling in at 1100 Main Street. In the 1947 Dallas directory, there were four Shoemaker’s locations, and all of them were downtown. Tom estimates that at the peak there were as many fourteen locations operating in Dallas, but they were all owned by one brother or another rather than operating as a unified chain.

Despite the high concentration, “There was no rivalry of any kind,” Tom said. “All the people from the courthouse and the Dallas Times Herald, which was right near [Reuben Shoemaker’s joint], they all ate with him.” The restaurants were nearly identical in menu, ambience, and service, so location rather than reputation made more of a difference in which folks visited. “The customers that usually ate with Uncle Rube, they very seldom ventured to one of the other places,” Tom said.

Uncle Rube loved his own supply as well. Reuben Shoemaker retired in 1969 and handed the reins to his nephew Buck Raley, who ran it with his wife Evelyn until it was demolished in 1975. On Reuben’s last day at the helm, he told the Dallas Morning News, “There was only one day in all those years that I didn’t eat lunch at my own place. I had a bad cold and had to go out and find some chicken noodle soup. But the next day it was back to barbecued beef.” He lived to age 95.

Tom Shoemaker is retired at 85 and lives in Milam near the Toledo Bend Reservoir. He left his dad’s barbecue business for a job in the corporate world, but still remembers many details about the menu. Sausage later joined the beef and ham on offer, and the beef remained navel plates until the end. They cooked briskets only on occasion, but Tom doesn’t have fond memories of those. “They called them ‘points’ at that time,” he said. “They came in barrels. It was a bloody mess when you had to unpack them. That barrel was just full of blood.” Thank the meat packers for modern cryovac.

A generously stuffed chopped brisket sandwich from Mac’s Bar-B-Que in Dallas.Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Shoemaker’s didn’t season the meat before it went on the pit. That flavoring came with the sauce that was applied with a mop to every sandwich before it was crowned. “If I recall, the sauce at that time was nothing but water and vinegar and black pepper,” Tom said. They added ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and a few other things later. Tom has a more involved recipe (see below) hanging on his refrigerator at home. That’s what he makes when he cooks barbecue.

When I talked to Tom recently, he was preparing for his own baptism. “I’m pretty sure that I was baptized back when I was 2 or 3 years old, but I’ve got nobody to verify it,” he said. At his age, he joked, “I just want to make sure.” The whole family was getting together, and I asked if there would be barbecue. “Of course,” he said. “I’m expected to do the barbecue for that too.”

Along with details about the Shoemaker’s restaurants, Tom rattled off the well-known pitmasters who learned barbecue from his family. He remembered JD Stanley, who went back to Tyler to open Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Que, and Red Bryan, who worked for Reuben briefly. Every time I saw school desks inside an old barbecue joint, I’d thought they were copying the original Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas. It’s famous for the desks in the dining room, which require some maneuvering to safely eat in. Red Bryan’s son Sonny opened it in 1958, but by that time, Reuben Shoemaker had already served more than three million barbecue sandwiches, according to a 1956 Dallas Morning News article, many of those to customers sitting in his dining room’s school desks.

The same sort of desks can be found at Ernie’s Pit Barbeque in Greenville, opened by Shoemaker’s alum Ernie Carroll in 1948 with a similar menu and décor to Shoemaker’s. Amarillo barbecue man Gary Williams also mentioned Shoemaker’s when I spoke with him several years ago. “I moved here in 1950 when I was ten years old,” Williams told me. “I started working for Dub’s [owned by H.G. “Dub” LaRue] in downtown. They had started in the forties. They were trained by Shoemaker’s in Dallas.” He said both Dub and a man named Bingo learned barbecue from the Shoemaker family. “Bingo’s and Dub’s here were both in little tiny shacks. [Dub’s] had about nine school chairs and a dirt floor. It had pickles, onions, relish, and yellow peppers,” which mirrored the condiments at Shoemaker’s.

The Bingo that Williams referred to was the one from Tom & Bingo’s Bar-B-Q, which still operates in Lubbock. At one time, the pair had six locations in Amarillo, Abilene, and Lubbock. Williams just named the wrong partner. Tom Clanton and Gaston Ray “Bingo” Mills were distant cousins from the town of Quitman, not far from Winnsboro. Clanton went to Dallas to work for Shoemaker’s when he was thirteen, according to Ian Timmons, the son-in-law of Dwayne Clanton, who learned the business from his father Tom. Dwayne passed away in 2017, and Timmons now runs Tom & Bingo’s.

Timmons told me the family legend is that Tom Clanton got fired from Shoemaker’s for not cleaning up the sawdust on the floor. A story told by Visit Lubbock explained what he did after hooking back up with Mills in Wood County:

The teens had bought a cow from their grandpa and were going door to door in Tyler, Texas, trying to sell the meat. After having one door after another shut in their faces, they decided to barbecue the meat, of which they sold every last bite to the same people that had shut their doors on them just hours earlier.

The boys saved their money and moved to Amarillo about 1946. Ten years later, when the Amarillo Globe-News profiled their restaurant, Bingo Mills was running what the paper called, “one of the least ostentatious business establishments imaginable.” The original in Amarillo had, “ten school-type chairs with writing-board arms in the small front room of the establishment. In the center is a table on which the sauces, relishes, pickles and onions, as well as straws, are placed,” read the description. There was sawdust on the floor too.

By then Tom Clanton had moved to Lubbock. Going beyond the beef and ham sandwiches, he added Bingo burgers to the menu and sold them at seven for a dollar. The legendary Tom & Bingo’s location on 34th Street in Lubbock is the only one left. You can still sit at a school desk to eat your beef or ham sandwich, and they’ve added sausage too. The sawdust is long gone, but the condiment table sits right in the middle of the restaurant. A meal there today isn’t all that different from what it would have been like to eat at Shoemaker’s, although they smoke briskets rather than navels. Oddly enough, you can also have a similar experience in California.

After RT Shoemaker’s wife passed away, he married Sybil Browning, who already had two kids of her own. Joe Jack Browning was one of them. He worked at Shoemaker’s with RT but then joined the Navy during World War II and was stationed in San Diego. “He went to back to Texas after the war, and it was too hot,” his grandson Todd Browning said. In 1947, Joe and his new wife Lila opened The Barbecue Pit on Market Street in downtown San Diego. Lila’s sister Mella and Mella’s husband Ed Jenson were also partners. They installed some school desks, threw some sawdust on the floor and some beef on the pit, and cooked the Shoemaker’s way.

Todd Browning said the beef sandwich is still the most popular item at the two remaining locations of the restaurant. The relish bar is well-stocked with raw red onions, tomatoes, pickles, jalapeños, pepperoncini, yellow peppers, and sweet relish. “My grandpa, he always said you have to have pickles on your sandwich,” Browning remembered.

That same relish bar can be found on the counter at Mac’s Bar-B-Que in Dallas. Billy McDonald is the second-generation pitmaster there and proudly declares, “I’m still cooking barbecue like my parents did.” His dad, Bill McDonald, was from the Winnsboro area, and he learned on the job at Greenburg’s Barbecue in Dallas, which has long since closed. Billy said the Greenburgs were from the same area of East Texas, near the Hopewell Cemetery where his grandparents are buried on the west side of Lake Winnsboro.

In Quitman and Winnsboro today, there aren’t any signs left of their long barbecue heritage besides all the headstones in the Lee Cemetery south of town. What barbecue joints remain don’t look anything like a Shoemaker’s. I drove out of town on Texas Highway 37 looking for the intersection of FM 14 just south of Lake Winnsboro. That’s where the community of Mutt and Jeff was located. It was never incorporated, and only a few houses remain on the northwest side of the intersection, but at one time this place had a reputation for producing pitmasters.

Frank X. Tolbert wrote about the food and characters of Texas for the Dallas Morning News, and he often returned to Mutt and Jeff. In a 1963 article, he incorrectly claimed Reuben Shoemaker was from the tiny community. He also mentioned JR Bailey (Reuben Shoemaker’s nephew) of the Golden Steer, Buck Raley, who worked for Shoemaker’s, and Dudley Niell, who cooked barbecue at the Saddle & Spur inside the Statler Hilton hotel. In 1977, when Niell retired and Shoemaker’s had closed, Tolbert again wrote about the place, saying, “Some of Dallas’ greatest barbecue cooks, especially a select but vanishing group at cafes in downtown Dallas, come from an East Texas hamlet called Mutt and Jeff in Wood County.” At one point, there was even a Mutt & Jeff Barbecue stand in Dallas, such was the barbecue reputation of the town.

“That was a little wide place in the road down in Wood County,” Tom Shoemaker remembered when I asked him about Mutt and Jeff. He knew the place, but his family never claimed to be from there. He said they were from Stout, which was about three miles east of Mutt and Jeff. Bill Cain, from whom the Shoemakers originally learned, may have been from Mutt and Jeff. In the 1910 census, before he moved to Dallas, his residence was listed on the “Quitman and Winnsboro Road,” which would have roughly followed Highway 37.

Cain Barbecue, which I mentioned earlier, opened in 1918 and was the precursor to Shoemaker’s. Details about the place and its menu are hard to find. There was sawdust on the floor, at least in 1941 when a cigarette dropped onto the floor and started a fire that took 90 minutes to extinguish, causing $8,000 worth of damage, according to a Dallas Morning News report. Bill Cain also received a patent for a barbecue oven design in 1933. We can guess what his smoker looked like from the drawings he submitted with the patent, which showed a brick structure with shelving for the meat above a fire and a “juice collecting and discharging trough.” It was a sort of hybrid of a direct and indirect cooking pit.

Bailey’s Bar-B-Que has remained in downtown Fort Worth since its opening in 1931.Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

It was probably thanks to Cain’s sister Ruth, who married Reuben Shoemaker, that Cain was comfortable teaching him the barbecue trade. Cain had another sister who also brought her husband into the barbecue fold. Tommie Cain, born Effie P. Cain, married James Thomas Bailey in Wood County in 1923. By 1930, they were living in Dallas and managing a second location of Cain Barbecue. A year later, they moved to Fort Worth to start Bailey’s Bar-B-Que, which is still open on Taylor Street downtown.

“We had sawdust on the floor and school type desks,” said Brenda Phifer, who now runs Bailey’s Bar-B-Que. The desks and sawdust are long gone, but the table full of sweet relish, pickles, onions, and barbecue sauce still sits in the middle of the tiny dining room. She has added ribs to the menu, but the beef, ham, and sausage sandwiches are what most folks come in for. Phifer said they used to cook navel plates. “They used a forklift getting them off the pit,” she said, but now it’s all brisket smoked over oak.

Bailey’s one-story concrete block building is painted maroon and topped with a simple pitched roof. Phifer said Bailey, who was her father’s uncle, built the place after taking down the tin shack that was on the site when he bought it. “Bailey said they were fixing Model Ts out of this building when he took over,” she said. Surrounded by the towering buildings of downtown Fort Worth, Bailey’s looks like it’s from another place and time.

If you want a barbecue experience like the Shoemakers provided, this is the closest option in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Get the sliced beef rather then the chopped, and do add the sauce, just be aware that the bottle labeled “spicy” really is. Bailey’s isn’t the place to dissect the sandwich components for individual assessment, or to examine the smoker ring on the brisket. It’s a barbecue sandwich shop that also happens to be a modern-day window into our barbecue past.

Shoemaker’s Modern Barbecue Sauce

Tom Shoemaker offered this recipe for barbecue sauce that he still makes to this day. I asked him if we could publish it, and he said, “It’s certainly no secret, and I’m not in the business anymore.” Then he read me the ingredients from a copy of the recipe that’s tacked to his refrigerator.

5 ½ cups water
3 cups ketchup
1 ½ cups apple cider vinegar
1 ¼ cups Worcestershire
2/3 cup yellow mustard
1/3 cup Frank’s hot sauce
15 ounces tomato sauce
1 small can tomato paste
1 cup honey
½ pound brown sugar
1/8 pound butter
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic power
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
1 bay leaf
1 clove of garlic, minced

Tom said to bring it all to a boil, then let it simmer before serving it. He also admits this recipe is “a long way from what we used to use.”