Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Paris of the Prairies

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting Fort Worth, I got a chance to visit the old stockyards.  When I was a child, the city was nicknamed Cowtown and was the major source of beef for a large portion of the nation.  The holding pens were full of steers, the area hotels were packed with purchasing agents and ranchers, and the cowboys in the local bars drank Lone Star Beer and made million dollar deals.  Well, to be honest, the area had another quality—a certain smell—but the locals knew it was a natural by-product of four-legged gold.

Actually, Fort Worth had a lot of nicknames, and most of them were somewhat colorful.  In the 1870’s, a blue norther ripped through Texas and damn near froze ever last steer in the state.  (For the Yankees among the readers, that is pure Texan and translates to “A blizzard froze the cattle.”) Within months the town was in such a bad way that a Dallas newspaper published a story about a panther taking a nap on Main Street in front of the court house.  If the paper thought the town would take offense, it was wrong.  The townspeople adopted the moniker “Panther City” with a certain amount of pride.  To this day, the local police have a panther on their badges and the panther icon can be seen on local business signs.

When the railroad extended its tracks to the town, businesses flourished and mills, factories, and meat packing plants came to Fort Worth.  It was a fast growing community and was quickly called the “Queen City of the Prairies”. 

This success, however, brought with it a few problems.  Within twenty years, Fort Worth was celebrated for its stock yards—and equally famous for what was called “Hell’s Half Acre”, a red light district just outside the rail head that had been established for the cattlemen.  The Half Acre was infamous for saloons, gambling parlors, cut-rate hotels, and other assorted adult playgrounds designed to efficiently separate a cowboy from his wages.  To the cowboys, the Half Acre was heaven, but to just about everyone else, the town itself was called the “Paris of the Prairies”. 

A newcomer to the town could stand on a street corner of Hell’s Half Acre—now about five times larger than its name indicated—and watch infamous gunfighters, local courtesans, card sharps, cattle barons, railroad tycoons, and buffalo hunters all walk past in just about the time it took to have his pocket picked.  Pick the right day, and you could have seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wander by after they had their photo taken.

The town had more than its share of share of colorful—though violent—characters.  The locals tried to clean the town up, so they hired Fort Worth’s first marshal, a notorious lawman named ‘Longhair’ Courtright.  Courtright did a great job, sometimes arresting up to 30 men in one night.  Unfortunately, the town quickly found that fighting crime also hurt business and so they fired Courtright.  Within a few years, Courtright--now turned to crime--crossed paths with Luke Short and the Half Acre became the location for one of the most famous gunfights of the Old West.

Short, a close friend with such infamous gunfighters as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Doc Holiday, had sold his interest in the Long Branch Saloon of Dodge City fame, and moved to Fort Worth to become a partner in the White Elephant Saloon.  When Courtright tried to extort protection money from Short, a confrontation was inevitable.  The two met on Main Street and Courtright drew first, but he was slowed down when his gun got caught on his watch chain.  Short fired first, blowing the thumb off Courtright’s gun hand, making it impossible for the man to cock his single action revolver.  Courtright then executed a trick shot maneuver known as the “border shift”, tossing his gun from his right hand to his left.  (I’ve seen this trick done successfully on television quite a few times.)  By the time the gun got to Courtright’s left hand, Short had shot him in the chest four times.

But that was the old Fort Worth.  I visited the new city, and while I personally would have enjoyed seeing Luke “King of the Gamblers” Short shoot someone on Main Street, it probably would have been bad for the local business. The area around the old Stockyards is beautiful.  Now the saloons are great restaurants, the old hotels are trendy establishments for tourists, and what used to be adult pleasure palaces are upscale antique stores.  I was impressed.

I guess the only thing that really surprised me was the almost total lack of livestock left in the stockyards.  In a stockyard where there were once thousands of steers, now there was one lonely longhorn—but he had a job.  For $5, you could sit on him for about 15 seconds while you had your picture taken.  And you had to use your own camera.  There was a long line waiting to sit on that steer.

What a business plan--no overhead, no operating expenses, and only a single employee who works for grass.  And that steer earns a larger salary than most tenured professors at Enema U.  And while he is just as full of BS as the average professor, at least he has an excuse.


  1. To be fair, this year the drought of the last couple years has had a God awful impact on the cattle industry in Texas.

    1. The old meat packing companies-Armour and Swift-have long since moved out. The only way that longhorn is going to die is of old age. But move him back in time a hundred years and he'd be sweating like a whore in church.

  2. The Paris of the Prairies <- also known as Saskatoon, SK. (Canada)