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Life IS history in the making. Every word we say, everything we do becomes history the moment it is said or done. Life void of memories leaves nothing but emptiness. For those who might consider history boring, think again: It is who we are, what we do and why we are here. We are certainly individuals in our thoughts and deeds but we all germinated from seeds planted long, long ago.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saloons of the Old West

With yesterday's day in history highlighting the beginning of canned beer let's step back in time today to the saloons of the old West. Times were hard, the trails were dusty and R&R (rest and relaxation) did not come by way of a luxurious Resort Hotel! 

"Giving up drinking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times." -- Mark Twain


The first place that was actually called a "saloon" was at Brown's Hole near the Wyoming-Colorado-Utah border. Established in 1822, Brown's Saloon catered to the many trappers during the heavy fur trading days.

Staying in line with the beer mentioned yesterday, saloons served up volumes of beer along with the vat upon vat of whiskey. It was served much different back in the Western days - not ice cold in a frosty mug nor with a sudsy head. The beer was never ice cold, usually 55 - 65 degrees. The beer had to be knocked down in a hurry before it became too warm or completely flat. Finally in the 1880s, Adolphus Busch introduced artificial refrigeration and pasteurization to the U.S. brewing process. That feat launched Budweiser as a national brand.

This photo available for photo prints and downloads HERE.
Who were the frequent visitors to the Western saloon? Doctors, lawyers, Indian Chiefs? Not sure about the Indian Chiefs for Indians were notorious for not being able to hold their liquor, but the doctors and lawyers by all means were regular patrons. Who else moseyed up to the bar? Let's see - fur trappers, cattle ranchers, sheep herders, gunslingers, soldiers, prospectors, miners, cowboys, lawmen, as well as outlaws, railroad workers and of course, the ever present gamblers.

Gambling at the Orient Saloon in Bisbee, Arizona, c.1900. Photograph by C.S. Fly.
Source: en.wikipedia.org
Watering holes, another name for the saloons, were the places to meet and greet after a dusty ride or reaching the end of the trail after a long cattle drive. There were also the times when morning brought along a time and place to wait out the gunfight at high noon. Action was coming down and all the cowboys wanted in! Let's have another drink, boys...it may be our last! Much different from what is portrayed by Hollywood, many of these cowboys did not get up, brush off the dust and walk back up to the bar for a celebratory shot of whiskey or beer.

Settling the Dust [LS cowboys drinking at the Equity Bar, Old Tascosa, Texas] by Irwin E. Smith, 1907.
Erwin E. Smith Foundation, Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on deposit at the Amon Carter Museum, Ft. Worth, Texas, LC.S59.122
A rough-and-tumble past accompanied the saloon. The sound of the swinging doors reverberated as they whipped open when the tough cowboy entered with a huge chip on his shoulder. It was not unusual for fights to break out. All you had to do was simply look at someone the wrong way (or so was thought) and you could be picking yourself up off the floor...or hopefully there was still enough life in you to get up. Along with the rough atmosphere also came the saloon, dancing girls and piano tunes. Due to the culture of the times, respectable women did not frequent the saloons. Only the saloon girl or "shady lady" would ever step her foot through a saloon door! This tradition lasted until after WWI, thus, the ladies were fiercely behind the Prohibition movement.

Front Street, Dodge City, KS, 1874, with Robert Wright and Charles Rath's General store, Chalk Beeson's Long Branch, George M. Hoover's liquor & cigar store, and Frederick Zimmermann's gun & hardware store.
1874 Dodge City, Kansas
Source: en.wikipedia.org

What was the beverage of choice in the saloon of the Old West?


In those hard scrabble days, the whiskey served in many of the saloons was some pretty wicked stuff made with raw alcohol, burnt sugar and a little chewing tobacco. No wonder it took on such names as Tanglefoot, Forty-Rod, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning, Red Eye, and Coffin Varnish.

Also popular was Cactus Wine, made from a mix of tequila and peyote tea, and Mule Skinner, made with whiskey and blackberry liquor. The house rotgut was often 100 proof, though it was sometimes cut by the barkeep with turpentine, ammonia, gun powder or cayenne.

The most popular term for the libation served in saloons was Firewater, which originated when early traders were selling whiskey to the Indians. To convince the Indians of the high alcohol content, the peddlers would pour some of the liquor on the fire, as the Indians watched the fire begin to blaze.

But the majority of western saloon regulars drank straight liquor -- rye or bourbon. If a man ordered a "fancy" cocktail or "sipped" at his drink, he was often ridiculed unless he was "known" or already had a proven reputation as a "tough guy." Unknowns, especially foreigners who often nursed their drinks, were sometimes forced to swallow a fifth of 100 proof at gunpoint "for his own good."
Source: Old West Legends: Saloons of the Old West
Belly up to the bar, boys! The drinks are on the 'ouse!


Kraemer's Saloon in Monroe County, Michigan.
This photo available for photo prints and downloads HERE.