I’m standing in a prime spot on Exchange Avenue, the main street of the city’s Stockyards District. I’ve barely gotten in position when a herd of beef on the hoof comes thundering down the drag, along with several drovers attempting to “head ‘em up and move ‘em out.”
Well, that may be a slight exaggeration. The small group of Longhorns aren’t exactly thundering – more like moseying – and the drovers don’t have to do much droving. This herd is pretty chill and appears to know just where it’s going.
For the record, where it’s going is once around the block for the benefit of the camera-toting tourists, and then back to the holding pens behind the Livestock Exchange Building for more photo ops. These pampered steers will never have to worry about ending up on someone’s dinner plate.
Today one of Fort Worth’s most popular tourist attractions, the twice-daily “cattle drives” (11 a.m. and 4 p.m.) are symbolic of the city’s important role in the industry.
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As early as the 1850s, Fort Worth was a major stop on the legendary Chisholm Trail, along which millions of head of cattle were driven north to markets in Kansas. It quickly became a bustling, brawling boomtown and was soon dubbed “Cowtown” — a name the city enthusiastically strives to live up to even today.
There’s plenty here to keep Wild West enthusiasts occupied. Start with a walking tour of the Stockyards National Historic District, with its assortment of shops and saloons. In the former category, browse for Vaquero boots at M.L. Leddy’s, which has been transforming dudes into dead-eyes with their custom-made clothing and saddles since 1922, or pick out a Stetson at Fincher’s White Front Western Wear, and wet your whistle as you shop.
While the cowboys are kicking back over a beer, cowgirls are sipping wine at Maverick’s Fine Western Wear, and on Trunk Show days, enjoying an assortment of cheeses and fruits that won’t be found on any chuck wagon.
There’s an elephant in the room
As for saloons, there’s no lack of them. My favorite is the infamous White Elephant, where cowboy hats line the ceiling, live country-western music is heard seven nights a week, and you can chow down on a bowl of Texas Red Chili and homemade cornbread.
The White Elephant’s main claim to fame, however, is that at its former location in the Hells Half Acre area, it was the site of a famous gunfight. On the night of February 8, 1887, the saloon’s owner Luke Short and the town sheriff Longhair Jim Courtright, got into a dust-up over whether Short should pay protection money to the sheriff to keep his gambling games in operation. Angry words were exchanged; guns were drawn, and in a twist of irony, when the smoke cleared, the sheriff had been bested by the barkeep.
Things are a bit tamer these days, and that was good news for three men in suits who looked as if they hadn’t gotten the memo on how to dress for a night on the town in Fort Worth. The bartender gave an eye roll, but they redeemed themselves somewhat by ordering cowboy shots (a shot of Forty Creek blended whiskey). He held up a glass in my direction, but knowing that in a Texas saloon one shot usually leads to another, I opted for a bottle of Lone Star instead.
The White Elephant is fun, but a visit to Billy Bob’s Texas is obligatory. Originally a cattle barn for the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, at 127,000 square feet, it’s the world’s largest honky-tonk, featuring arcades, casinos and bull riding demonstrations. Yes, bull riding, as in ornery steers with wicked horns. Leave all the bucking to the pros; the giant stuffed bull providing photo ops for tenderfoots is strictly stationary.
You’ll often find country-western luminaries such as Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakum or George Strait in the house, but even if they’re not, you can get in the Texas spirit by signing up for a line dancing class.
Before leaving the Stockyards area, take the Texas Trail of Fame with its 221 bronze stars embedded in cement. While the stars are shaped like a marshal’s badge, only some of the recipients could be considered peace-keeping types — Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp are two.
Other stars include a Texas-born actor (Audie Murphy); a scout (Kit Carson); a hero of the Alamo (James Bowie); a Comanche war chief (Quanah Parker) and a hard-boiled woman pioneer (Stagecoach Mary Fields) who surely would have made good fodder for a novel by Larry McMurtry.
After you’ve seen the heroes, head downtown to trace the history. The Heritage Trail Markers, a series of 22 bronze sidewalk markers, detail events that have shaped Fort Worth since its founding in 1849 as an army outpost on a bluff overlooking the Trinity River.
Fort Worth beyond the Wild West
As much as it reveres its storied past, Fort Worth has one foot firmly planted in its present, with many attractions that have nothing to do with a Stetson and a six-shooter. The Fort Worth Botanic Gardens is the oldest botanic garden in Texas. Like almost everything else in the Lone Star State, it’s large both in size and spectacle — more than 2,500 species of plants in 23 specialty gardens.
Walk through the Four Seasons Garden (with hundreds of iris, daylily and chrysanthemums); the Native Texas Boardwalk (a raised pathway through the trees for spotting local flora) and the acclaimed Japanese Garden (with koi-filled pools, pagodas, teahouse and waterfalls).
Then there are the museums. A few years back, a Texas Monthly article chronicled the “culture wars” between Dallas and Houston, where fabulously rich oil families continually one-upped each other to endow various arts organizations in their respective cities. Here in Fort Worth, giving is a bit more on the down-low, but the result is the same — financial boons for many of the city’s museums.
Legendary Texas oilman Sid Richardson’s philanthropy was such that he has a museum named after him, and what a museum, featuring works by noted Western artists Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell from Richardson’s own personal collection.
At the Kimball Art Museum, the emphasis is not so much on the West as on Western civilization. From the Mayas, Olmecs, Zapotecs and Aztecs to Caravaggio, Cezanne, Matisse and Monet, the Kimball has it covered. This is not to say that the museum slacks on Eastern civilization. Antiquities, Asian, African and Oceanic art are also well represented and focus on quality over quantity — its collection is made up of fewer than 350 pieces.
The building — designed by internationally acclaimed architect Renzo Piano — is an impressive piece of art in its own right. If you prefer the mods to the masters, a visit to the Modern Art Museum is a must. With a permanent collection of more than 3,000 works, it’s considered one of the best showcases for post-WWII art in the world.
While it’s not a museum, no one should leave Fort Worth without a meal at one of its most beloved institutions — Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant. A Fort Worth landmark since 1935, it’s housed in a hacienda-style building with a lush patio overflowing with flowers, fountains, arches and statues. At Joe T’s, lines are long; payment is cash only (there is an on-site ATM) and no reservations are taken for groups smaller than 25. Go and stand in line anyway — the fajitas and sopapillas are worth the wait.
If you go to Fort Worth:
Where to stay: The Stockyards Hotel. A historic property worthy of its surroundings. Its H3 Ranch restaurant has been voted one of the best steakhouses in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. stockyardshotel.com Omni Fort Worth Hotel. Conveniently located near Sundance Square and other popular downtown attractions. omnihotels.com
Where to eat: Reata is a downtown steak house that has killer cocktails and inventive dishes such as tenderloin tamales with pecan mash. Request a rooftop table. reata.net Clay Pigeon Food + Drink is a bit out of the way, but make the effort for dishes such as pan roasted salmon with lemon dill crème fraiche or any of the prime angus beef steaks. claypigeonfd.com