INTRODUCTION TO BANDERA, TEXAS - By John Ronan Broderick
GENESIS OF A SMALL TEXAS TOWN
According to Stephanie Day’s superb article, “Bandera History,” written for the local Chamber of Commerce, three men and their families were among Bandera’s earliest settlers in 1852. Shingle makers A.M. Milstead, P.D. “Judge” Saner, and Thomas Odom, along with their families, settled in tents along the Medina River amidst the cypress trees that would furnish the raw materials for their new enterprise. Their roofing materials were much needed by builders, as well as the military, in San Antonio, which was located about 53 miles southeast of the new settlement. Odom would later serve in the Texas State Legislature.
Later that year a veteran of the Mexican War, Amasa Gleason Clark, along with his friend Rufus Brown, settled in the area. Clark lived to be 101 and fathered 19 children and became a walking, talking textbook on the history of the region. He owned and operated a successful business, the Elmdale Nursery, where he grew pear trees. Clark died in 1927. From his middle and surnames, it may be inferred that he was of Irish heritage.
In 1853 a Bexar County surveyor named John James and his partner, Charles de Montel, arrived at the settlement, acquired land, platted it, and laid out the site that would formally establish Bandera as a town. The size was a mere 1.2 square miles. James had performed the same services for the new town of nearby Boerne, Texas, one year earlier. The two men also built a horse-powered sawmill to process the lumber and shingles harvested from the abundant cypress groves along the river.
Presumably, the town took its name from scenic Bandera Pass, north of the town on the way to Kerrville, another Texas frontier town that had its origins in the shingle-making business. The word “bandera” is Spanish in origin and is translated as banner or flag. Some historians believe that a flag was flown at Bandera Pass to signify Indian territory, thus a warning to travelers of potential danger.
In March, 1854, a controversial figure of the Mormon church, Elder Lyman Wight, along with 250 of his followers, arrived in Bandera and set up a furniture factory. He and his polygamous group did not stay long, moving further down the Medina River in 1856 to a spot known locally as Mormon Camp, the site which is now covered by Lake Medina. Shortly thereafter they moved twelve miles south of Bandera, where they joined fellow Mormons who had founded the settlement of Mountain Valley in 1854, in northern Medina County.
The next group of settlers, Polish immigrants, arrived in Bandera in 1855, and they came to stay. They quickly organized what was to become the second-oldest Polish Catholic Church in America, St. Stanislaus parish. To this day, the male members of the parish maintain an active Knights of Columbus group.
Some of the original Polish settlers were skilled carpenters and went to work for James and de Montel and their new partner, John H. Herndon, at the sawmill. Each Polish family was awarded a lot in town upon which to build a house, as well as an option to purchase farmland near Bandera. Many of their descendants continue to reside in Bandera and are easily recognizable by their surnames.
The first African-American to own land in Bandera was a man named Hendrick Arnold, who was a hero of the Texas Revolution. For his scouting and spying services at the Battle of San Antonio in 1835 and the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, Arnold was awarded an immense 640-acre tract of land near Bandera. Although Arnold’s father was white and his mother black, which in that era legally defined him as being black, Arnold was considered a free black man. He was married to a woman named Martina who was the step-daughter of another Texas Revolution hero, Erastus “Deaf” Smith. Her mother was a Tejana widow named Guadalupe Ruiz Duran whom Smith had married in 1822. Since Arnold died in the cholera epidemic of 1849 in Bexar County, he never got to settle on the property given him by the new Republic of Texas. Nevertheless, the town of Bandera later honored Arnold by naming the black cemetery there after him.
In 1856 Bandera County was created out of Bexar County and the town of Bandera was named the new county seat. This was not accompanied in subsequent years by any great growth in the population of Bandera, which even today numbers only 900 souls.
“COWBOY CAPITAL OF THE WORLD”
There are three factors that, when added together, probably account for tiny Bandera being christened with the honorific, “Cowboy Capital of the World.” Chronologically, the first reason came about in 1874, when cattle baron, trailblazer, and drover John Thomas Lytle blazed the Great Western Cattle Trail from its southern terminus at Bandera all the way to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, with 3,500 Longhorn cattle. Lytle’s trail ran west of and roughly parallel to the Chisholm Trail, which went to Kansas. Lytle’s trail was also known by five other names: Western Trail, Fort Griffin Trail, Dodge City Trail, Northern Trail, and Texas Trail. At one time its reach extended as far north as Deadwood, South Dakota.
Bandera’s Great Western Trail Heritage Park has a marker commemorating the town’s role as the starting point for perhaps the greatest cattle trail that ever existed. One has to wonder how much the Great Western inspired the creation of the characters Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates on the popular Western television series, Rawhide, of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
According to the website, Legends of America, “When the U.S. Army successfully concluded the Red River War in 1875, driving the Comanche and Kiowa onto reservations, Lytle’s trail became the most popular path to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska. By 1879, it would become one of the most traveled and famous cattle trails in U.S. history.” Not only was it longer than the Chisholm Trail, it was in use two years longer than the one that has the more recognizable name today.
The second contributing factor to Bandera’s acquisition of this (self-proclaimed?) title has to do with the seven dude ranches which are in close proximity to this tiny Texas town. In the 1920s and 1930s, when automobiles became more affordable, the city dwellers in hot, flat San Antonio were desirous of a cooler climate in which to spend their summers. Lacking a train terminal in Bandera, the automobiles made the relatively short trip to Bandera’s much cooler climate a no-brainer, and the dude ranch industry there began to flourish.
According to the September 30, 1999, issue of Texas Monthly, writer Suzy Banks, in her entertaining, informative, and comprehensive article about the best dude ranches in Texas, entitled “Hey, Dude,” says that “The Hill Country’s grandest temple to the tenderfoot is the Mayan Dude Ranch, a 334-acre retreat” located about one and a half miles north of Bandera. And the BALD EAGLE RANCH situated 10 miles west of Bandera she describes as “swanky southwestern digs, constructed of limestone and cedar, feature log beds and D’Hanis tile floors.” She also notes that “The Hill Country State Natural Area, right next door, is a pony’s playground with forty miles of scenic trails.” Banks also cites the Dixie Dude Ranch, “a 725-acre spread that has unabashedly embraced cowpoke culture [since 1937]. The wranglers are sociable, the activities are Old West, and . . . the atmosphere is decidedly happy.” It is located seven and a half miles west of Bandera. (Note: the Dixie Dude Ranch has, since the penning of Ms. Banks’s article 21 years ago, acquired the BALD EAGLE, merging the two).
Next on Ms. Banks’s list of the best dude ranches in Texas is the Running-R Guest Ranch, ten miles west of Bandera. Of this ranch she states, “By Texas standards, the Running-R is a small ranch, with fewer than 230 acres, but it makes good use of the nearby, rider-friendly Hill Country State Natural Area.” Of the Twin Elm Guest Ranch, which is three miles southwest of Bandera, Banks observes that it “has been honing its cowboy character since it opened . . . in 1939.” She opined that she “especially liked the stables and the corral, which look as if they’d been plucked from a John Ford western.”
Of the final Bandera-area dude ranch to make the cut on Banks’s list is the LH7 RANCH AND RESORT (now known as the Flying L Ranch Resort), which she describes as “PURE HILL COUNTRY: 1,200 acres of rolling pastures, limestone bluffs, thickets of cedar and live oak . . . , and huge pecan and cypress trees along the Medina River.” The Flying L is three and a half miles northwest of Bandera. Under new ownership, the Flying L now boasts an 18-hole championship golf course with a full-service pro shop, the Lone Star Lagoon Water Park, even a putt-putt golf course. Of the eleven dude ranches covered in Ms. Banks’s masterful article about Texas’s best, six of them were located in the environs of Bandera, Texas. That ought to make it clear, even to a tenderfoot who drinks sarsaparilla instead of hard liquor, where he needs to go giddy-up during the hot, humid Texas summers.
Though unmentioned in Ms. Banks’s article, the other two dude ranches in the environs of Bandera worthy of inclusion are Rancho Cortez, advertised as a “cowboy fitness farm” and health retreat, and the Silver Spur Guest Ranch, considered one of the top ten attractions in Bandera. With a total of seven authentic dude ranches, it is easy to comprehend what the primary industry of Bandera is today. It has redefined itself since the shingle-making era of the 1850s as the go-to spot for city-slickers who want to experience first-hand (in luxury) a taste of Texas cowboy history. For this purpose there is no finer destination than Bandera, Texas, located in the Texas Hill Country, a region nicknamed the “Tuscany of Texas.”
The third, final, and perhaps most significant, factor that has contributed to Bandera’s moniker of “Cowboy Capital of the World” is that this tiny little town of barely 900 people has produced, per capita, more world championship cowboys (and one cowgirl) than anyplace else on earth, a total of nine.This last factor is attested to by a monument on the lawn of the Bandera County Courthouse. This memorial was designed by the late artist Norma Jean Anderwald, undoubtedly a descendant of one of the Polish immigrants of the same name who settled in Bandera in the mid-1850s.
According to U.S. Census reports, the population of Bandera has never experienced the growth spurts of its neighbors Kerrville and Boerne, both about 25 miles from the Old West town. In 1900, for instance, the population of Bandera was 419; a century later it stood at 957, with the year 1950 hitting the highest numbers of the 20th century, at 1,325. The estimated population in 2018 was only 901. The 2000 Census report showed the racial makeup of Bandera to be: 94.98% White; 2.51% from other races; 1.78% from two or more races; 0.52% Native American; and 0.21% African American. Hispanic or Latino of any race constituted 21.84% of the population.
Of the 408 households represented, 24.5% had children under the age of 18; 43.4% were married couples living together; 41.4% were non-families; 34.1% were individuals; and 16.2% had someone 65 years of age or older living alone. The age groupings were revelatory, with only 21.5% under the age of 18; the remaining 78.5% were all adults. The median age was 44 years; The male-to-female ratio was 83.3 per 100.The median income for a family was $36,500; for males, $27,604; for females, $17,813; per capita $16,502; about 15.3% of the population were below the poverty line.
Bandera is home to several historic buildings from the 19th century, many of them falling under the heading of Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks or the National Register of Historic Places: the 1855 building on Cypress St that’s the oldest stone building in town; Old Huffmeyer Store from the mid 1870s, located at the corner of Main and Cypress; Schmidtke-Callahan House, at Cypress and Main Streets was constructed in the 1870s of limestone in a Greek Revival architectural style; the 1876 Jureczki House at 607 Cypress St is one of the biggest and most well-preserved Polish pioneer homes in Bandera; the aforementioned St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, built in 1876; and 1881’s Bandera County Jail, no longer in use or open to the public.
The 1890 Bandera County Courthouse, at the corner of 500 Main and Pecan Streets, is a three-story structure constructed of rusticated limestone hewn from a local quarry in the then-popular Renaissance Revival style. It features a distinctive clock-less clock tower and is the focal point of the town square. These days the courthouse grounds also feature an assortment of monuments, statues, and historical plaques, among them a monument to those Bandera boys who were killed-in-action during World Wars I and II. In the same vicinity is a sidewalk display of all the Bandera County cattle brands used to burn the hide of indignant Longhorn steers from area ranches.
At last count there were 16 Christian churches in Bandera, among them, appropriately enough, the Ridin the River Cowboy Fellowship. The denominations represented are: Assembly of God; Baptist; Catholic; Christian; Church of Christ; Episcopal; Lutheran; Non-Denominational; Pentecostal; and United Methodist. There is still no Mormon congregation in Bandera. With a population of only 901, that works out to an average congregation of 56, that is, if every citizen was a church member. But of course, there are all those dude ranch guests who must also be taken into consideration.
ACTIVITIES UNIQUE TO BANDERA
The Bandera 100K trail run and the Cactus Rose 100-mile endurance run, two of the toughest ultramarathons in Texas, are both held annually in the Hill Country State Natural Area, hosted by veteran trail runner Joe Prusaitis. The “Bandera Breakfast Run” is held every Sunday morning, attracting bikers from San Antonio wishing to hit the road on their (mainly) Harley-Davidson scooters.
It has been a tradition since the 1920s (probably with the advent of the dude ranches) that rodeos are held every Friday night from Memorial Day weekend until the start of school in August. Frequently staged historical “High Noon” shootouts are great crowd-pleasers, too, adding to the town’s Old West ambience. Gary Cooper would’ve been proud to meet the Miller Gang there and deal them frontier justice in deadly lead. Four-to-one odds were no big deal to Coop. Where is he now when we need him most?
The Bandera Riverfest is held each June on the Medina River, offering live music concerts, cook-offs, tubing, and kayaking throughout the weekend. On the fourth Saturday of every July, Bandera celebrates the National Day of the Cowboy in a Texas-sized fashion, with country music, barbeque, and rodeos. Labor Day weekend finds the National Professional Bull Riders the focal point of “Celebrate Bandera,” the annual festival that includes the Longhorn Cattle Drive and Parade, Circle of Life Intertribal Pow Wow, Texas pioneer living history exhibitions, and the Lonestar BBQ Society’s Cook-off.
Of the 27 restaurants located within a three-quarter-mile area in Bandera, there is likely none better known than the OST (Old Spanish Trail) Restaurant, considered one of the best in Texas, especially renowned for its homemade pies. The Red Horse Saloon is one of the favorite watering holes, but no self-respecting cowpoke wannabe would dare pass up a visit to Arkey Blues Silver Dollar Saloon, reportedly the oldest continuously operating honky-tonk in the great state of Texas.
“COWBOY CAPITAL OF THE WORLD” REDUX
There is one snag in Bandera’s claim to being the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” There is another American city that also makes the same claim, and that is Oakdale, California. History tells us that there were a lot of claim-jumpers during the great California Gold Rush of 1849. Looks like the descendants of the ‘49ers are still carrying on an old family tradition. Must be something in their genes. (Or is that jeans?) Let’s take a long hard look at the numbers and the definition of the term “per capita.”
Oakdale claims to have 24 world championship rodeo cowboys living in a city that numbers 23,455 (according to the 2018 census estimate). And not all of them are natives of that city; many are what you might call transplants. That works out to right at one championship cowboy per 1,000 in population, right?
Tiny Bandera, with a population of 901 (same year’s census estimate) lays claim to nine championship cowboys, one of whom is a cowgirl, over its entire existence, people who were actually from Bandera. Since the population of Bandera hasn’t changed all that much in over a century, then its per capita is one champion per 100 in population. On that basis alone, Bandera has produced at least ten times the number of championship rodeo cowboys that Oakdale can claim.
Further, there are only two dude ranches in Oakdale versus Bandera’s seven. And there were no cattle trail drives that originated in, or even passed through, Oakdale. C’mon, Oakdale, cease and desist with this 21st century version of claim-jumping!
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