Bandera, Texas: Cowboy Capital of the World

BANDERA, Texas – (By Michelle Leigh Smith for Realty News Report) – As the White Range Rover pulled up to the front of the re-envisioned 11thSt. Cowboy Bar in Bandera off State  Highway 16. A Longhorn named Redneck bellowed a long, resonant welcome to his home, a place where the cattle count far surpasses the population. The Great Western Trail began here in 1874, 50 miles northwest of San Antonio and, a million whiskey lullabies later, proudly still attracts cowboys from far and wide.

After three and a half hours on the road from Houston, the sight of a huge 2,000-pound animal in front of the bar seemed nothing short of appropriate. “Nice steer!”  Redneck similarly welcomed travelers who flew in from Little Rock, Nashville, Midland, or drove over from Mathis or Marble Falls to christen cowboy history under the twinkling white lights in Bandera County. Couples two-stepped under the same trees whose shade brought the first permanent settlers to Bandera in 1855.

New owner De Foster responded, “That’s the way we do things around here.”

Foster manages singer Gary P. Nunn from his office behind the bar, in a limestone and leather compound that he leases from Robert Earl Keen. The beautiful limestone and wood one-story stone building originally belonged to W. Preston Gray, Keen’s father-in-law.

Foster was emotional as he looked at the crowd of more than 500 and saw so many friends from decades before. They came to helped their friend celebrate a long-awaited dream.

Foster recently bought the 11th Street Cowboy Bar from owner James McGroarty, with the help of ranch broker and land specialist Mason Hunt, who also happens to be a proud member and former head of the Tejas Vaqueros, with whom Gary P. Nunn has a special relationship. According to Hunt, “The state of Texas and the Texas Hill Country in particular is full of multi-generational land owners which makes our relationships unique and special. The lessons for Hunt, his family and his clients are “that we are only here for a short while and we are privileged to be the caretakers of the land during our time here.”

The road to the purchase of the bar began with the Tejas Vaqueros, a fraternal organization founded in 1967 that provides scholarships to Hill Country youth annually through its 500 members.

“Mason had called and said he wanted to have a fundraiser for Tejas Vaquero Legacy Preservation Foundation in April, with Gary P. Nunn, Kevin Fowler and Cody Johnson,” Fowler recalls. “He asked me if I could come in and do the public side of the event?  I took a look at the Cowboy Bar and the place was one of the most complex venues I’ve ever been in. I thought about, ‘how do you lay out tables and chairs and give everyone a VIP experience? How do you keep the large dance floor?  It took me a while to figure that out, and then he hired me to do the public relations.

“I got a proclamation from Gov. Greg Abbott. They read it on stage, and it was Gary P. Nunn’s largest grossing show in history. We had Kevin play the next night. This was the most amazing place I’d seen in Texas because it’s funky, yet it has a storybook feel to it. There are so many opportunities with this place and room to grow.  You wouldn’t have that in Luckenbach.

“11thSt. Cowboy Bar has a magical aspect and I knew I wanted to go with that.  We put in an offer at 10:30 that morning and they accepted it that afternoon.  Two people who saw the show offered to buy us out of our contract the same day.  I had managed Gary P. for six years, so I’d had the opportunity to throw 300 shows across the state.

“I’d seen the whole experience with all these other entertainment venues, for better or worse, so I was pretty well versed,” says Fowler. At the time, he did not know about the connection with Robert Earl Keen. “I’d heard he had a place in Bandera but at the time, I didn’t know this was the place he talked about in the song Feeling Good Again.  The words about standing down on Main St., refer to Arkey Blues, another Hill Country legend.”

“Standin’ down on Main Street, Across from Mr. Blues”

Foster will have another chance to test his theory on the upcoming Hunter’s Weekend Nov. 5-6 with Kevin Fowler.

It’s very wise marketing to have quality entertainment for the prospective ranch owners previewing $54.5 million, 2,269-acre spreads in nearby Boerne in Kendall County, listed by Dullnig Ranches/Kuper Sotheby’s or for something smaller, the 310 acres in Mico, in Medina County, listed for $6,449,000 by Charles Beever III of Phyllis Browning Land & Ranch Co. Highly improved properties with gated entries, main estates of 9,000 SF of living space, luxury finishes, and the requisite back porch and patio overlooking deep pools and rushing waters.  In addition to the main home, there are several other homes and barns are located on the ranch, with excellent road systems. Just like on Yellowstone.

“The hotels, the RV parks, the dude ranches all do a really good job of supporting all the people who come through,” says Foster. “We’re only 22 minutes from Kerrville. What this town is built on is the huge Cowboy Mardi Gras, where 20-25,000 people attend to see 150 floats. It is a wild time, set for Feb. 10-12.  From Sept. 30-Oct 2, Rumble on the River Biker Rally will bring in more than 50,000 visitors. We’ve got all kinds of shows coming up.”

‘Let’s Go to Luckenbach, Texas’

One luminary in the crowd was Guich Koock, who co-founded Luckenbach with local rancher Hondo Crouch.

“I think what De Foster, and his partners Melinie Ivey and Sasha Sutton are doing with 11th Street will bring a lot of attention to Bandera and it’s going well,” says Koock.  “It’s fun to see the people coming into town on horseback. De and his partners are keeping the country charm.  Mason Hunt has been a tremendous asset to Bandera as well, as has Melinie, De’s partner, who left her job as a CEO to move there after an 18-year run.”

Guich appeared on Carter’s Country and Johnny Carson who asked him, “Just where is Luckenbach,” and Guich replied that a student at Luckenbach Junior High had put a pin and a string around a globe and measured, proving that Luckenbach was in the exact center of the world.”

“I sold my half of Luckenbach several years ago, but we got it off to a good start,” he laughs. “We had the World’s Fair there in ‘73, we got front page on the WSJ, four pages in Sports Illustrated and three pages in some Greek newspapers with photos. We offered 10-cent parking; I think it was the cheapest place in the country to park – we had 60,000 people. Guich put on four more world’s fairs to the Fredericksburg Fairgrounds because of the overwhelming response.

“They’ve forgotten the magic,” says the sixth-generation Texan.

“I was disappointed in the modernization of Luckenbach,” lamented Koock, who drove in after opening an art show with Crouch’s daughter, Becky Patterson. “It’s gotten so commercial.  The beauty of Luckenbach has always been in its simplicity and that is changing.  They’ve torn down the feed store and built a tourist trap – it kind of misses the point. The people in control now have forgotten the magic.”

Crouch’s exhibit showcases the art and talents of a fifth-generation Texan whose father was the legendary developer of historic tiny-town Luckenbach, made famous by Waylon Jennings’ classic song, ‘Let’s Go to Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)’.”

In Bandera, preservation of history, bingo and Friday Night football with the Bulldogs take precedence over most everything. Best Western recently opened a top shelf hotel and bar at 711 Main. The median home price is up 20.4 per cent over this time last year, at $391,333. Cielo River Ranch and Elk Mountain in Pipe Creek boast five to eight-acre spreads, most with seven to ten fireplaces and multiple water wells along the Medina River in nearby Pipe Creek off Texas 46.

The Tejas Vaqueros

Mason Hunt, a member of the Tejas Vaqueros, brokered the sale of the Bar to Foster earlier this year.  He and his wife Rochelle joined Foster and his stunning partner Melinie Ivey to welcome famous hatter Michael Malone, who did all the western hats for Tombstone, Quigley Down Under and Lonesome Dove. Rugged Individualists seem to be right at home in Bandera, relishing the lack of pressure and open space.

Hunt says he continues to have all kinds of requests, but mostly people are looking for retirement places, larger ranches, and small businesses opportunities. “I am most excited about the future increase in activity around 11th Street Cowboy Bar,” says Hunt. “I sell luxury ranches that continue to increase in value in Bandera County due to proximity to San Antonio in the great lifestyle afforded here in the county.”

“Luckenbach is still nice but it’s so different than when we first built it,” says Kooch. “It was all covered with mud dauber nests when we bought the town.  Now it’s full of Luckenbach T-shirts and key chains and it’s full of new stores and cheap money-making schemes.”

Chauffeur for J. Frank Dobie

At St. Edward’s High School in Austin, Koock worked as the driver for author and folklorist J. Frank Dobie. His access to Dobie influenced his intellectual interests and led to his acquaintance with many prominent Texans, including Tex Robertson, who hired him to work at Camp Longhorn. At Camp Longhorn, he befriended Cactus Pryor and Hondo Crouch, with whom he remained friends. Koock, whose mother was Mary Faulk, sister of Texan author and famously blacklisted radio entertainer, John Henry Faulk. studied history and English at Texas A&M. Koock was later awarded a Lomax Fellowship from the University of Texas to collect Texas folklore from South Texas ranches.

In 1970, Koock teamed up with Crouch to buy the town of Luckenbach, Texas, for $29,000 from Benno Engle in 1969. “That included a pick-up truck, an egg route, a bar, a blacksmith shop, a feed store, a general store, all the merchandise like Argo starch and Kellogg’s cereal. It sat on Snail Creek and Grape Creek. With the help of its owners, Luckenbach became a must-see destination in Texas and hosted five World’s Fair celebrations. It was in a Holiday Inn in San Antonio that Steven Spielberg’s casting director, Sherry Rhodes, spotted Koock and recruited him for a supporting role in Sugar Land Express (1974) with Goldie Hawn.  Koock invited Ben Johnson, the entire crew and Daryl Zanuck to Luckenbach.  There’s a saying about Crouch and Koock that rings true for the Hill Country. “They knew he needed to do everything he could to ensure that among the unpredictable ways of the world, there would always be steadfast welcoming embrace of Luckenbach.”

Down the road sits tiny Bandera, a town now offering a Dollar General, Sonic, the requisite Dairy Queen, a McDonald’s, Snowflake Donuts, and Cowgirl Coffee Company, with pastries and Keto-friendly fare at 807 Main. There’s an equine therapy habitat for horses run by Harrieth Stewart, a treasured transplant from Finland who owns Historical Bandera Rides, focused on safe horsemanship. She came to the United States to run the New York City Marathon in 2012, but Hurricane Sandy canceled the race, and Stewart, who loves horses, headed south to soak up some equine culture.

“That’s when I found Texas,” she says. Once she discovered Bandera, “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’” She enjoys Steak Night at the 11th St. Cowboy Bar on Wednesdays, where guests bring their own protein to grill on one of three open pits.

According to Bandera’s Chamber of Commerce, many Apache and Comanche Indians and Spanish Conquistadors lost their lives in bloody battles in Bandera Pass (12 miles north of Bandera on Hwy 173). Legend has it that, for years, a red “bandera” (Spanish for banner or flag) was flown at the site to define the boundary between Spanish and Indian hunting grounds. A mill that sawed cypress shingles was established here in 1853. Early settlers included Lyman Wight’s Mormon colony, which arrived in 1854. In 1855 sixteen Polish families immigrated to Bandera to work at the mill.

Events like the one Foster and his team produced are vital to the Bandera economy.

The local economy declined after 1900; a series of floods destroyed sawmills, gins, and businesses, and the cattle drives ceased. Until the San Antonio highway was constructed in 1936, Bandera remained relatively inaccessible. Other roads remained unpaved as late as the 1950s.

In 1920, Cora and Ed Buck began taking summer boarders at their ranch on Julian Creek. Other families soon parlayed their property into dude ranches, and by the 1930s Bandera had become well known as a resort with riverside camps, restaurants, dance halls, and rodeos.


Sept. 19, 2022, Realty News Report Copyright 2022

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