Wild West Main Street: Bandera, TexasJune 21, 2011 No Comments
Bandera, Texas looks like a Hollywood set. Billing itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World, Bandera has changed little since its founding in the 1850s. Just an hour outside San Antonio, Bandera was originally a migrant camp for workers at the local mill. Gradually the town built up around the mill, primarily populated by Polish immigrants.
Bandera was also the staging area for the last great cattle drives, and cowboy culture is still alive and well in town. Today the population is estimated at fewer than 1,300 people, but Bandera’s dude ranches, shops, restaurants and museums make it a popular stop for tourists. Dad and I visited for his birthday in May of this year.
Frontier Times Museum
Dad is enthralled by cowboy culture, so we made the Frontier Times Museum our first stop. Founded in 1933 to hold the personal collection of historian J. Marvin Hunter, the Frontier Times Museum is about as eclectic as it gets. A mind-boggling array of primarily Western-themed memorabilia is packed into endless glass cases and shelving units. Other exhibits line the walls and floors.
Although the sheer quantity of items is breathtaking, try to slow down and take it all in. Exhibit collections include saddles, taxidermied animals, arrowheads, typewriters, newspaper clippings, musical instruments, cowboy boots, hats, cooking equipment, safes and old money, among others. Each collection tells a piece of the story of the history of Bandera, Texas, and the entire Old West.
The museum is bigger than it looks, so plan to spend at least a couple of hours. Don’t miss the antique farm vehicles and equipment out back. As of 2011, admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for children aged 6 to 17. Under age 6 is free. The museum is closed on Sundays.
St. Stanislaus Church
Founded in 1855, St. Stanislaus Church is the second-oldest Polish church in the United States. The first church building, a wooden structure, was built in 1859. A limestone convent was added on the church grounds in 1874. In 1876, the current limestone building replaced the wooden church. Although the building has undergone numerous renovations and upgrades, it retains much of the original look and feel. The original church graveyard is in the back.
Our visit was rather interesting. We drove down to the church, just a few blocks away, on the advice of the docent at the Frontier Times Museum. When we got there, the church was closed and locked. As we explored the grounds, a large dog came running at us, full speed, from across the street. I was a bit concerned that we might be attacked, but the dog came to a sudden stop with his nose against my leg. The owner was right on his heels, and he apologized for scaring us.
As I recovered from being startled, Dad asked the dog owner if he knew when the church would be open. I’m not sure what his role is, but the man happened to have keys to the church! He let us in and told us to take our time exploring. The church is gorgeous, filled with stained glass and elegant woodwork. Look for murals, statues and other details. Take a few moments to go up to the choir loft for a bird’s eye view of the sanctuary.
Lunch at O.S.T.
By this time we were starving, so Dad and I decided to break for lunch. The top recommendation in town was consistently O.S.T., so we decided to give it a try. Located on Main Street, O.S.T. stands for Old Spanish Trail. The restaurant was founded in 1921 on the sites of a former grocery store and an old horse corral. The Wild West theme extends to the barstools, made in the shape of saddles, and the salad bar, in a replica chuck wagon.
Through the 1950s, O.S.T. was used as a dance hall in the evenings, drawing a wide range of musical guests. Today the restaurant serves honest food at surprisingly low prices. As is true throughout Texas, portions are enormous, making it easy to share an entrée. Service was fast and friendly, and our meal was delicious.
Historical Walking Tour
If you have time, pick up a historical walking tour map at the Visitor Center or at virtually any attraction, or download one from the Bandera Visitors Bureau website. At 100 degrees, the weather was too hot to do much walking, so we drove to each area, parked and walked a block or so. Free street parking is easy to find throughout Bandera.
The Old Jail, built in 1881, and the connected Old Courthouse, built in 1865, were a particularly interesting stop. Although not currently open to the public, the buildings are next in line for historic renovations. No one could give us an exact timeline, but even the outsides of the buildings and the historical markers are well worth a short visit.
Old libraries are a special favorite for both Dad and me, so we were excited to learn that the Kronkosky Library was built as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1934. Although the library has been renovated and expanded, the original section still has the look and feel of the 1930s.
Most of the other buildings on the tour have been extensively remodeled inside for current business or residential occupants. Nonetheless, the storefronts still bear much of their original flair. If you have some time, stroll down Main Street to see what catches your eye.
Bandera lies on the Medina River, and there is easy river access just outside of town. Whether you prefer swimming, boating or simply picnicking along the shore, take a few moments to explore. Although we did not go in the water, the shady riverbank was an excellent place to escape the heat.
Tips for Parents
Bandera is the sort of place that seems almost lost in time. The 1800s storefronts, dusty streets and welcoming small-town flair make it easy to imagine how life must have been in frontier days. Pedestrian-friendly and relatively safe, Bandera is a wonderful choice for families.
Keep in mind that Texas can be hot and dry. Being from the humid Southeast, it took us several days to acclimatize. When the relative humidity is low, it is easy to get dehydrated before you ever realize that you are thirsty. Make everyone drink more than they think they need, wear sunscreen and a hat, and stay in the shade as much as possible.