Q: The wife and I have visited both the Excelsior House Hotel in Jefferson and the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, and although she was born and raised in East Texas and I was, by no fault of my own, born in Shreveport, we’re both partial to the Menger. My question, though, is in regard to these old and reputable establishments’ dueling claims of being the oldest continuously operated hotel in Texas. In all of your knowledge of Texas, stretched truths, and other lore, dear Texanist, what say you?
Terry Files, Portland, Texas
A: The Texanist loves a good old-fashioned mystery. So thanks for bringing this one to his attention. The Texanist, by the way, is also a fan of a good old-fashioned. Lately, he’s been enjoying a version of an old-fashioned that’s fashioned out of rye whiskey in lieu of bourbon whiskey. The tequila old-fashioned is another interesting take on that venerable cocktail that the Texanist will rarely say no to, although he tries his darnedest not to imbibe while on the clock. Now, where was he?
Thanks for reading Texas Monthly
Ah, yes. The curious case of the two historic Texas establishments that each claim to be the oldest continually operated hotel in the state. Of course, there can only be one oldest continually operated hotel in Texas. Not because there’s not room enough for two in these here parts, but because it is logically impossible for there to be two. There can, as they say, only be one.
In search of answers, the Texanist opened his desk drawer, rummaged around through the piles of soup crackers and chopsticks and located his extra-large magnifying glass. He also dug up his old Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker chapeau and is currently sucking on a burled cherrywood tobacco pipe and bellowing thick clouds of smoke—much to the dismay of his officemates. Let’s begin, shall we?
The Texanist did a little poking around and has uncovered some interesting facts. First, he examined the respective claims. The Excelsior House Hotel, in Jefferson, a small East Texas town located on the banks of Big Cypress Bayou, asserts on its website that it is the “oldest hotel in continuous operation in Texas.” The words “Since 1858” also appear on the website.
Next, the Texanist turned his attention to the famed Menger Hotel, located on Alamo Plaza in the heart of San Antonio. According to its internet home, the Menger pronounces itself the “oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Mississippi.” (Note to the geographically challenged—and with apologies to the geographically proficient: the entire state of Texas sits west of the Mississippi River.) A deeper dive into the website reveals that the hotel dates to 1859.
1858 versus 1859; the Texanist has never styled himself much of a mathematician but very simple arithmetic brings him to the conclusion that the case of the copycat claims can be tidily settled in favor of the Excelsior House, thus allowing the Texanist to clock out a little early and congratulate himself for yet another job well done with a quick trip to a downtown watering hole for a tasty old-fashioned.
But wait, is the Texanist really deserving of such self-congratulation? In his pursuit of the truth, did he overturn all of the stones before him? Did he work the phone as diligently as he could have? Did he chase down every available lead? If he were honest with himself, he’d be forced to admit that he turned over only a few stones, made a grand total of two phone calls, and chased down a scant few leads. Badgered by an internal interrogator of his own devising, the Texanist, shamefaced, confesses to very likely spending more time daydreaming about various ways to concoct old-fashioneds than he did actually trying to answer your question.
And so the Texanist, who did not come to be Texas’s oldest continuously operating dispenser of fine advice and arcane Texas-y gobbledygook by shirking his duties, picked up his trusty and comically oversized magnifying lens and got back on the trail. (The word “gobbledygook,” by the way, was coined in 1944 by former Texas congressman Maury Maverick Sr., who, like the Menger, was born in San Antonio in the nineteenth century. And, incidentally, the word “maverick,” referring to either unbranded cattle or an individual with a fierce independent streak, is owed to Congressman Maverick’s grandfather, Texas Declaration of Independence signee and South Texas cattleman Samuel Maverick.) As the newly reinvigorated Texanist’s investigation continued down its winding path, a wealth of additional evidence concerning the origins of the two old hotels revealed itself.
The Excelsior House, the Texanist learned, was constructed by the early Jefferson resident Captain William Perry, a New Englander who was the first to guide a steamboat to Jefferson and also is credited with clearing the bayou for subsequent riverboat traffic. A 2016 article in the Marshall Messenger quotes a former Excelsior House general manager as saying that the original building served as Perry’s home, before he “began taking on boarders in 1858.” “Hmm,” the Texanist thought to himself. “A boarding house is not exactly the same thing as a hotel.” Further, the Texanist noted that a historical marker placed near the entrance refers to the hotel as the “oldest hotel in East Texas”—a very different claim than being the oldest continuously operated hotel in all of Texas, given that, the last time the Texanist checked, the state was also possessed of some non-easterly portions. The Excelsior House may rightfully pride itself with having hosted such illustrious guests as United States presidents Ulysses Grant and Rutherford Hayes, the poet Oscar Wilde, and auteur Steven Spielberg (who was filming The Sugarland Express nearby), but its trademark claim, in the Texanist’s mind, was suddenly looking a little shaky.
The Menger, over the years, also hosted Grant and Wilde, as well as Robert E. Lee, Teddy Roosevelt (who famously recruited Rough Riders at the hotel in 1898), and cattle baron Richard King, among other notables. The historical marker outside the hotel confirms that it opened in 1859 and adds that German immigrants William and Mary Menger had operated a brewery and boarding house at the site as early as 1855. But the fact that the plaque seemed to draw a distinction between the establishment’s brief period as a boarding house and its much longer tenure as a hotel was especially intriguing. Was there a distinction to be made? A distinction that might, in fact, prompt the Texanist to overturn his initial findings and declare the Menger the oldest continually operated hotel in Texas?
To find out, the Texanist reached both establishments by telephone. The employees who answered were friendly and cooperative but, alas, offered little clarity.
Beginning to feel mired in a bog of confusing and conflicting information, the Texanist was faced with questions, more questions, and still more questions on top of still more additional questions. Is a boarding house a hotel? Is a hotel a boarding house? Was the Menger’s beer any good? How much did it cost? And how does bayou clearing compare to advice column writing in degrees of difficulty?
The Texanist had some gumshoeing yet to do. And so he reached out to Liz Carmack, author of 2007’s Historic Hotels of Texas: A Traveler’s Guide, in which both hotels make appearances. The conversation was quite illuminating. In short, Carmack disagreed with the Texanist’s semantics-based supposition that the Excelsior House’s origins as a boarding house might disqualify its early years as qualifying for hotel-dom, explaining that at that time and in that place, providing meals with lodging, as boarding houses do, would have been a common and necessary practice for hotels as well, given that victuals were not as readily available back then as they are today. She believes that in the late nineteenth century there really wouldn’t have been a clear distinction between the two sorts of entities.
Of even more consequence, though, was a factoid that Carmack also mentioned to the Texanist. It turns out that during the lean times brought on by the Civil War, the Menger actually ceased operating as a hotel for a short time. Now, the Texanist is no more a logician than he is a mathematician, but he is pretty sure that operations that cease to operate for a period of time, no matter how briefly, cannot be regarded as having operated continuously during a span of time that includes that hiatus.
The Excelsior House Hotel, therefore, appears genuinely to be what the Menger merely claims to be—Texas’s one and only oldest continuously operated hotel. Case closed!
Thanks for the letter, Mr. Files. Alas, checkout time is upon us. The Texanist hopes you’ve enjoyed your stay and that we’ll see you again soon.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.