Back in 2016, after Herold “Buddy” Abel Jr. of San Marcos died at the age of 76, Erin Abel wrote a touching obituary about her father, a welder by trade. Naturally, she provided details for his visitation and funeral services, but added: “Buddy’s feelings would not be hurt if no one showed up to the previously mentioned events, but he would definitely insist everyone ‘come drink a beer’ to celebrate his life immediately afterwards at Riley’s Tavern.”

“Buddy was a fixture,” says Joel Hofmann, owner of Riley’s Tavern, an antique bar and honky-tonk that’s been inconveniently located in the woods of Hunter, between New Braunfels and San Marcos, for nine decades. Hofmann recalls Abel standing at the end of the bar, right inside the door—part greeter, part sentinel—evening after evening. “Riley’s was filled with folks Buddy liked to hang around with. A lot of them came out to remember him.”

Such gatherings, whether bittersweet or joyous, have never been uncommon at Riley’s Tavern. Since it opened in 1933, an uncountable number of people have enjoyed hanging out there, making friends and memories. But the bar’s story actually begins, roughly, around 1885, after the cotton-growing community of Hunter had welcomed the International and Great Northern Railroad and a post office. Galloway Saloon opened to serve cold beer to Hunter’s growing population (which never topped two hundred) and lasted until Prohibition criminalized the business of intoxicating liquors in 1920.

Thirteen dry years later, after Prohibition’s demise, Hunter resident James Riley leased the old saloon building, and then he drove to Austin and obtained the state’s first license to sell alcohol. He was just seventeen when he opened his beer joint, Riley’s Place, on September 19, 1933. It turned out, folks were so thirsty that Riley’s could stay open around the clock, at least for a few years. “World War II came in and then they put a curfew on these places, they had to close,” Riley said in a 1983 interview with the Austin Chronicle. “That tickled me. I got some sleep that way.”

By the time Riley bought the building, in 1942, he’d renamed it Riley’s Tavern. For the next 49 years he enjoyed a reputation for running a respectable business, friendly enough that Lyndon Johnson once stopped in while attending college in San Marcos. But ill health forced Riley to close shop in 1991, and he died the following year.

Riley’s Tavern was shuttered until 1995, when Rick and Donna Wilson of Austin purchased it. They decided to keep the name because, as Donna Wilson told the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung in 1996, “It was Riley’s for so long, why change it?”

But change did come to Riley’s. For one thing, the new owners started redoing the building’s floors and discovered old newspapers dating to the 1940s used as insulation. With clear epoxy, they sealed clippings from those newspapers atop the Formica-top bar. (It actually turned out pretty well.) After the Wilsons cleared an outdoor space for live music, college-aged crowds began driving in from New Braunfels and San Marcos, reportedly topping eight hundred on some nights. Despite successes, Riley’s closed at least twice in the late 1990s while the Wilsons worked through licensing issues and noise and parking complaints.

In 2004, Hofmann, then a 25-year-old part-time guitarist from San Marcos, heard that the Wilsons wanted to sell the rowdy Riley’s Tavern. Hofmann also worked at his family’s supply store, which had opened only four years after Riley’s, in 1937. “The whole idea in this was to have a more stable footing in the music business without having to be a musician on the road so much,” he says, although he also notes the bar had recently received its permit to sell hard alcohol, which is a whole other animal than just selling beer. Even though he’d played the bar, he kept an eye on Riley’s for signs that its crowds might be more trouble than they’d be worth. “I hemmed and hawed about it for months,” Hofmann says. “But every time I went in there, it looked like they weren’t doing the things they used to do that caused the complaints.”

Hofmann bought the place, and at first he maintained the status quo. After all, some of Hofmann’s customers—Buddy Abel, for instance—had much longer histories with Riley’s. “I was glad to see him when I first took over. I had an instant ally,” he says.

But Hofmann, who still loved playing music, soon began knocking out the back wall and expanding the building enough for an indoor stage and dance floor. In 2006, Riley’s Tavern became a proper honky-tonk.

The list of performers who’ve played on that stage is fairly lengthy with very familiar names, but some of Hofmann’s favorites include Johnny Bush, Janie Fricke, Butch Hancock, Junior Brown, and Linda Gail Lewis.

“The first time I went there, I drove up and had the feeling like going back in time,” says Lewis (sister to the late Jerry Lee Lewis), who’s been singing and playing boogie-woogie piano since she was fifteen. At her most recent Riley’s appearance in early June, she packed the place.

A month later, the legendary Moe Bandy did the same thing. “The people are so nice there,” Bandy says. “They dance and they listen to the artist and they’re responsive. You remember that.”

Although Hunter is now unincorporated and not found on every Texas map, Riley’s Tavern is listed in the National Register of Historic Places—an acknowledgment of the cultural importance of America’s rural bars and honky-tonks.

Open every day, the building still looks like something from the nineteenth century and the inside smells like it, since smoking is allowed. There are exposed wood beams, two pool tables, and lots of neon. The walls are green and faded like the color of old mint. Some of the beer signs survive from James Riley’s era. The scribbling on the walls and ceiling began during the Wilson years. Tacking dollar bills to the rafters became a thing after COVID. There’s still one of the most original bar-tops in Texas to be found here, but there are no bathrooms inside. (The facilities are located at the far end of the beer garden.)

Mostly, Riley’s has an awful lot of memories because for a long time it’s been one of the best places in the central Texas countryside to listen to good music, dance, and just hang out.

Dale Watson, who started playing Riley’s around 2000, says, “The history of that place I think is one that the locals are proud of and pass it along to the next generation. I think that in itself is the symbol of its significance.”

On September 30, Riley’s Tavern celebrates the ninetieth anniversary of its founding. There’ll be plenty of live music, including from the Joel Hofmann Band, a big cake, and history to be found in the photographs and old band posters competing for wall space. There’s also a small plaque on the front wall at the end of the bar, just inside the door, that reads, “In memory of Buddy Abel, March 7, 2016.”