Oak Hill yesteryear: Honky-tonks and juke joints

March 20, 2012   // 1 Comment

roadhouse1

A look inside what is now the 290 West Club. According to the current owner, the building was constructed in the mid-1800s as a post office on Fitzhugh Road, and was later moved to its current location where it became The Little Wheel roadhouse bar and dancehall.

 

by Kevin Brown

From the 18th Annual Old Oak Hill issue now in stands all over Southwest Austin

Call them honky-tonks, roadhouses, juke joints or dancehalls. Whatever their title, they once constituted the main social centers of Oak Hill and the surrounding hill country. These days they’re getting mighty scarce.

Many of the buildings still exist, now serving as houses or businesses. Commuters pass the places everyday, never seeing the ghosts who are gathered to knock back a few cold beers. The fast pace of modern life doesn’t allow the imagination to see the high-stepping couples or the fiddler sawing out a tune in the smoky, dimly lit barrooms.

There was a time when such places were not only real, but common. After the end of prohibition, taverns and the like began proliferating.  Indeed, the places were so numerous it’s hard to see how so many establishments could support the thinly populated rural area southwest of town. Nonetheless, the joints survived and even thrived, offering a place to visit with the neighbors and blow off some steam.

They were always opened in time for the after-work rush and many opened in the mornings for the more serious drinkers and had a good supply of strong coffee for those looking at the workday. Afternoons found children underfoot as the adults pitched washers or horseshoes, slapped dominoes or shot pool. Weekend nights were not for the faint of heart.

Some of the places people went to dance and socialize weren’t even business establishments. All that was needed was music. House dances, or box suppers as they were sometimes called, could be found on any given weekend, especially in the 1930s.

During the depression, someone would rent The Hall above the old rock store, now the Austin Pizza Garden, and charge a quarter for folks to get a bite to eat and shake a leg to a fiddle band. No alcohol was sold, but the men would wander out to the wagons for a pull on the jug or down a bottle of homemade beer.

The teens could sneak down to the back of Joe Tanner’s blacksmith shop, located where Joe Tanner Road now runs into U. S. 290 west, and meet with the bootlegger who arrived after Joe closed up and went home.

Folks worked hard and they liked to play hard. Not to dwell on fighting as an entertaining pursuit, but scraps were common even into recent times, though rarely disabling or involving many participants. The affrays that became general are, of course, the most vividly recalled, giving the impression that riots were the norm.

Bruce White, who was deputy constable for Oak Hill in the 1930s, made an effort to keep the peace. He said a fight broke out at The Hall once, and before things were under control the brawling men had rolled down the staircase and into the middle of the highway, then called the Fredericksburg Road, where it continued for some time. “They used to find cufflinks in the road for months after that,” White said.

More often than not, the fighters were friends who made up and bought each other a beer when they were through rolling around on the floor or the parking lot.

“[The fighters] never really got it on. They’d kind of push and shove and hold back so it wouldn’t hurt – there was more loud talk and shoving than anything,” said Haskel Hudson, whose family for years ran several businesses around Oak Hill.

Though everyone was welcome at the joints, there were always those who came around to pick fights. Ken and Ann Lightsey moved to the area in 1966. “Mostly it was outsiders just coming in looking for trouble and got smart with the local yokels,” Ken Lightsey said. “Of course, there was a lot of local yokels waiting for something to happen.”

“We would weed out a lot of the bad customers,” said James White, owner of the Broken Spoke, “The worst thing we could do was ban them. It was worst than throwing them in jail, because then they couldn’t hang out with their friends.”

With few exceptions, places were more rowdy than anything. One popular game consisted throwing a pocketknife at each other’s feet to see how close it would stick.

“Several of them hit,” Ann Lightsey said. “You’d see blood running out of their boot.”

It was all just good fun, though many wouldn’t approve of such merriment.  Though there were similar establishments that existed and still exist all over Austin, the following are most notably connected to Oak Hill.

Many thanks should be extended to the people who shared their memories with diplomatic aplomb, thus sparing the innocent from embarrassment and shielding the culpable from prosecution. These persons also know who they are.

The Circleville Inn and the Cottonwood Inn

Located at the corner of Circle Drive and Thomas Springs road across the street from one another, many people would cringe at the pairing of these two roadhouses. Through their proximity, though, they are hardly separable even if they were rivals, as it were, and run by competing owners. Both were of the juke joint vein, with only the occasional pickup band playing. More than a few people spent their evenings wandering back and forth between the two.

The Circleville Inn still exists in the accommodating form of Kelly’s Up in Smoke. Still in the original building, by the time it was remodeled two years ago, it had seen some hard times.

Never known as the cradle of comfort, the Circleville was functional at best. It was heated by a fireplace and cooled by nothing. It got so hot in the summer that Le Ada Friar, daughter of longtime owner Curly Glosson, said she would chill down by sitting in the melted ice of the beer cooler before she restocked in the afternoon.

Founded as Mary’s Place — no one remembers who Mary was — in the hazy era of the post-prohibition, the Circleville got a reputation as a rough joint when owner Clarence Panel got shot and killed in the 1950s. Despite the multiple proprietors who ran the Circleville after that, it’s popularity never slackened.

Glosson took over the Circle in 1972 and personally operated it for nearly a decade before leasing it out. “The Circle was a rough place until Daddy took it over,” recalls Friar. “Then as he got older and couldn’t back it up anymore, it got rough again.”

Warren Dronebarger, who runs several bars in Austin, realized what he was getting when he bought the Circleville in 1998. “I never stepped into there until four years ago, and it was rough even then,” he said. “The county wanted to condemn the place.”

Dronebarger took about six months to fix it up, just in time for a wake for Glosson. Indeed, it was legendary wake. “God, it was packed,” Dronebarger said.

“When [Curly] died, his request was to buy a round of drinks for his friends,” James White said. “They brought the coffin in the bar and put a bottle of Pearl under his arm. Every time someone got a beer, they’d say, ‘This one’s on Curly.’ The funeral director said he never had a request like that before.”

Glosson’s passing marked the end of an era.  Across the street, though, the Cottonwood Inn had long since been laid to rest. Despite the Circleville’s reputation, the Cottonwood was generally regarded as the rougher of the pair. It also had a shorter history.

Dating only to, possibly, the late 1940s, one story often heard but never confirmed said a “Miz” Monroe — no one seems to know exactly who she was — had been running the Circleville and when the lease came up, the owners refused to renew. She got mad and opened the Cottonwood in a surplus army barracks and the rivalry began.

Le Ada Glosson said on the weekend nights the children of the Circleville crowd were sent over to her aunt’s grocery store at the ‘T’ where Thomas Springs Road hits Circle Drive, across from the two bars.

“To keep us kids occupied, they’d sit us by the big picture window at the store and tell us to watch for when the fights start [at the Cottonwood],” she said. “[One time] a fight broke out and the whole bar erupted into the parking lot. It was so funny. This preacher, Brother Hart, stood up with his armes and said, ‘Now brothers, you all stop this. There’s no need for this.” Somebody cold-cocked him. I’ll never forget that the rest of my life.”

The Cottonwood closed after a first fire and leveled after a couple more. The Circleville still survives in its kinder, gentler, air-conditioned form. Ironically, at the height of its notoriety, the Circleville was somewhat family oriented and children were a fixture during the day. Now there’s no admittance to anyone under 21, even with their parents.

Alexander’s

Unfortunately, there is nothing distinctive to mark the spot where Alexander’s once lit up the night along Brodie Lane. The combination gas station/ barbeque joint provided a venue for the Austin blues music scene for 23 years. Alexander’s hosted such legends as T. D. Bell and the Cadillacs, The Storm, featuring Jimmy Vaughn; Paul Ray and the Cobras, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Thunderbirds and W.C. Clark and Southern Feeling. Though occupying the original structure, the Sonic Burger that replaced Alexander’s offers nothing to suggest the legendary status of its previous incarnation.

Kincheonville was the only thing out Brodie Lane in 1960 when Ruth and Thomas Alexander opened their namesake. The small community north of Davis Lane had been founded after the Civil War by Thomas Kincheon and developed by his son in the early 1950s. Unlike other predominantly Black communities, Kincheonville had many Hispanic and Anglo settlers – a precedent that extended to Alexander’s music.

“Basically, we just got out in the country and played a lot of loud music,” said Ruth Alexander, who still lives in the area. “There wasn’t any police to come out and tell us to turn it down. Of course Brodie Lane was country back then.”

Alexander’s was a fairly peaceful place and because of the university crowd they attracted in the 1970s, they were liable to all the pranks of the era. “We didn’t get together to fight. We got together to play the Blues,” Alexander said. “Once I heard some yelling. They were saying ‘Streakers! Streakers!’ I thought they were saying ‘Fight! Fight!’ I went running back and there were two naked people. It was kind of crazy if you ask me.”

Paul Ray, now a disc jockey at KUT, recalls the times he played at Alexander’s as some of the most fun he ever had. He particularly recalled the rib sandwiches “Thomas Sr. and Ruth were so good to us, they’d feed us when they knew we were broke,” he said.

Ray said the Cobras developed a big following playing at Alexander’s, but it was the kids from the neighborhood that he remembers. “They were the greatest dancers,” Ray said. “We called it Soul Bus – not Soul Train. They were so, so good.”

Alexander’s would open early except for Sundays so musicians and anyone else could stop in for a hamburger breakfast, and the occasional weekday morning jam session. “You’d wake up from your hangovers and come around,” T. J. Alexander said.

Alexander, whose band The Mongoose was a response to the Cobras, said just about anybody was welcome to play.  One 70-year-old resident of Kincheonville, known for his skill at riding a bicycle backwards, was a regular. “Old Joe Brown would be singing and he’d doze off for a while right in the middle of a song,” Alexander said. “He’d wake up and start singing again right where he’d left off.”

Alexander’s became a casualty of Austin’s growth. Despite the excellent shows they hosted, a large part of their income came from food and gas sales. When the city widened Brodie Lane, they lost their gas pump. “We were just a small business,” T. J. Alexander said. “Once Circle K and all them moved in the competition was too much.”

Blue Goose, the Little Wheel, and I.V.’s

Everyone who’s been around awhile has heard the story of the Blue Goose out on U. S. 290 west, owned and operated by Amanda Hudson. Sometime in the early in 1960s the powers-that-be decided to survey the county lines. After having been in business for nearly 30 years, it was discovered that the Blue Goose was located in Hays County, which is dry and doesn’t allow for such nonsense as drinking in a roadhouse.

Depending on the version of the story, the building was dragged, dismantled and rebuilt or otherwise moved the 200 feet east into the less restrictive Travis County.  The truth is not nearly so colorful. The Blue Goose was closed and the owner built a new place in the proper jurisdiction. R. I. P. the Blue Goose.

Because of its location halfway to Dripping Springs on the Fredericksburg Road, the Blue Goose attracted a tightly knit clientele of country folk from all over the area. “For a long time, the Blue Goose was the only place they had,” Haskel Hudson, Amanda’s son, said. “It was legendary because of the name. A fellow we hung around with, a doctor’s son, drew a goose out on a board and painted it blue.”

For a woman in the1940s and 1950s, Amanda Hudson was quite the entrepreneur. She personally ran the place and made a good job of it. The male operator of a roadhouse had to be tough enough to enforce the peace, but Hudson had more than grit, she had respect. Plus, there were plenty of loyal patrons ready to watch her back in the event of trouble. Hudson rarely needed help, though. In her regard, misunderstandings were quickly removed to the parking lot.

Unlike many of its competitors, the Blue Goose remained open during World War II. Its heyday was the post-war years when the bar became popular with returning soldiers. For whatever reason, the Goose had a racy reputation, but no one seems to be able to say why. Perhaps it was the subtly suggestive name.

The Blue Goose was really not much more than large house. James White remembers it as being kept particularly dark. When the Goose closed, Amanda Hudson built a new, fancier place named the Little Wheel – sister establishment to the Big Wheel Diner, formerly Vic’s Restaurant, near Hwy. 290 and William Cannon in Oak Hill (now gone) — that had an entry alcove and restaurant kitchen.

The Little Wheel eventually became I. V.’s, which was in business until September of 2000. Now open again as the 290 West Club, the fancy bar, bar back and dancehall are easily distinguishable among the antique doors and hardwood floors.

The 290 West Club is near the Cedar Valley Grocery, seven miles west of the Y in Oak Hill. The original Blue Goose, now a residence, is a several hundred feet farther west, just east of the Nutty Brown Café. It’s not the two-story house by the road, but the large house farther back that sits at an angle to U. S. 290.

Moosehead Tavern

Another of the old roadhouses rested on U. S. 290 near the corner of the Old Fredericksburg Road and once was home to K. C.’s Outdoors. This is surprising to semi-long time residents of the area who remember the location as the Y Grocery, which it was for many years. Now there’s nothing left but a slab.

The Moosehead was a dancehall from its inception in 1936. In fact, it was originally just a dance floor made of boards with no roof or walls. Shell Hudson, who also owned a grocery store next door, finally enclosed the floor and leased the hall just in time for it to close for the duration of World War II.   Somewhere along the way a mounted moose head – not exactly a thriving species in central Texas – was acquired and displayed. The name stuck.

The narrow, long shape of the stone-faced building is a dead giveaway to its origins, although the former proprietors of the outdoor store, Mark and Bobbi Bowles, thought the wooden front near the road the was added when the building was the grocery store. Large doors at the back allowed outdoor access so the dancing could be moved into the shade of the Pecan trees in the heat of the summer.

Other joints depended heavily on jukeboxes or small pick-up bands to provide for the two-steppers, but the Moosehead had more substantial entertainment.  Some big names played on occasion, including Pappy O’Daniel and Bob Wills’ original band, the Light Crust Doughboys. Ernest Tubb also sat in a time or two, according to Shell’s son Haskel, who remembers the Moosehead before it had walls.

“I was the number one big bee on the dance floor,” he said. “[I] still am at 72-years-old.”

Broken Spoke

There’s not much that hasn’t already been said about the Broken Spoke, which is still going strong after 47 years.  With its walls covered with the memorabilia of its substantial existence, the Spoke, on South Lamar Boulevard, has come to represent the ultimate example of a Texas dancehall.

Owner James White is proud of his bar’s longevity. “I got to name it, I got to open it, I got to build it,” he said. “I don’t know anyone else who can say that.”

Like all great things, though, the Broken Spoke had humble beginnings. Needing something to do after he got out of the Army, White came up with the idea of opening a bar/restaurant of some sort. He had had been thinking of some name derived from “wagon wheel,” but ended up combining that with the title of a movie he had seen called “Broken Arrow.” Thus the Broken Spoke.

Initially just a neighborhood bar, White worked sometimes 16 hours a day, six days a week, serving up beer, attracting new customers and offering a place to dance. Like every other honky-tonk, the Spoke started out with just a pool table and a jukebox. Long before the big names like Willie Nelson started playing there, pickup bands would pass the hat.

“Back then, the band figured if you can’t play good, at least play loud,” he said. “It’d get so busy they’d dance right out the front door and dance back in again.”

The bar started gaining fame in the 1980’s, probably thanks to out-of-state University of Texas students taking tales of the Broken Spoke to their hometowns and home countries. And though it now entertains visitors from around the world, the dancehall still retains its down-home feel, from the hand-lettered signs to the sometimes muddy parking lot “paved with beer caps,” as White likes to say.

The Broken Spoke features live music from Tuesday through Saturday and still serves up their famous chicken fried steak. “We were voted the best place to bring a newcomer in Austin — the Capitol was third,” White said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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1 COMMENT

  1. By Leonard Voellinger, February 1, 2013

    I live at Rawhide Tr. and Circle Drive. In about 1980 I met an old man at the Jot-um-Down while pumping gas. He told me that the cinderblock outbuilding behind my house was a honky-tonk in the 1940s. He told me a story of the owner of my property getting kicked out of the Circleville Inn, and opening this joint to compete.

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