The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum: From Cowboys to Curiosities

Quirky artifacts, wildlife exhibits and vintage Texas charm make this historic establishment a must-see San Antonio attraction.

At first glance, The Buckhorn Saloon and Museum might seem overwhelming: an electric, player piano cranks out tunes that were popular with early-Texan cowboys; award-winning mounts and trophies of notable American hunters line the walls; and the constant traffic flow of downtown visitors keeps The Buckhorn’s bar stools almost always occupied with thirsty travelers.
 

The long, narrow bar made of carved, cherry wood, with its spur-scuffed, brass foot rail and worn, walnut top, adds to the historic atmosphere that has made The Buckhorn one of San Antonio’s most well-known attractions. Along with the legendary bar, a vintage cash register, an ornate, glass chandelier and a hand-carved, cedar frame are original relics of The Buckhorn’s rich past, reminding visitors of the history that unfolded here at the turn of the 20th century.

When avid hunter and savvy businessman Albert Friedrich opened his saloon doors in 1881, the bar housed only Friedrich’s antler collection in a much more modest space on Dolorosa Street, downtown. It was at this location that President Theodore Roosevelt is rumored to have visited while recruiting the legendary Rough Riders. Another legend tells of how Pancho Villa met here for a drink to discuss his plans for the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
 

Most of Friedrich’s customers, however, weren’t presidents or revolutionaries; they were cowboys, ranchers and early-American travelers who simply wanted a beer or a shot of whiskey. In lieu of American money, Albert Friedrich and his wife accepted pelts, skins, mounts and gifts from around the world as currency. The unique Buckhorn Saloon quickly became what is arguably one of San Antonio’s first tourist attractions. The Buckhorn’s eclectic collection of wildlife rarities, prestigious hunting trophies, Texas history memorabilia and array of quirky artifacts continued to grow as the number of years and tourists increased, in addition to the population of San Antonio itself. The saloon packed up and moved its artifacts to a new location in 1922, at the beginning of the Prohibition era.

Despite the alcohol ban, visitors continued to stop in to marvel at the Friedrichs’ display of exotic pelts and mounts and to shop from the curio store’s odd collectibles and quirky inventory like rattlesnake ties and armadillo baskets. Bevin Henges, director of sales and marketing for the museum, notes that visitors are always impressed by the sheer size of the longhorn and animal collections, not to mention Friedrich’s own random collection of vintage coin-operated machines, hunting weapons and Mrs. Friedrich’s collection of door knockers. Some of the museum’s pieces are unexpected (shrunken heads, newspaper clippings from the day the Titanic sank, conjoined farm animals). “I think that’s part of what makes the collection unique,” Henges said. “It’s had 130 years of only the coolest stuff. It’s a museum that’s been refined.”

“Everything that’s in [the museum] has been hand-picked,” Henges said. The Buckhorn Saloon and Museum (plus the on-site Texas Ranger Museum) now annually draws about 150,000 curious travelers, who can be seen taking photos with Friedrich’s iconic, record-holding longhorns and wandering through thousands of Old West artifacts. The wildlife exhibits, arranged by continent or habitat, display hundreds of animals. The Texas Ranger Museum also includes a variety of early-American artifacts representing all aspects of San Antonio’s own rich history, from a Bonnie and Clyde exhibit to a Texas history hall featuring wax figure dioramas.

Today, tourists from all over the world visit Buckhorn for many reasons similar to those of the saloon’s early patrons. Still, the loud wall decor and display of historical artifacts are qualities that have remained constant at The Buckhorn. “We worked with each piece individually, so visitors will sense the authenticity and ‘messy vitality’ of the turn-of-the-century,” said Bruce Shackelford, a San Antonio-based exhibit consultant who oversaw the renovation and placement of the museum upon its final relocation, just five blocks from its Prohibition-era location.
 

The building’s chief architect, Mike McGlone, also felt the need for authenticity. “We spent months pouring over old pictures and documents that detail the layout of the original saloon,” McGlone said. “We wanted The Buckhorn to look weathered, not pristine and structured, so visitors feel that they have been transported back in time.”

The antique bar, however, has improved over the years, now offering seven Texas beers on draft and a much better selection of whiskey. Lone Star and Alamo Beer on draft garner significant meaning at The Buckhorn, as both were once brewed minutes from the saloon doors. In fact, the museum was once a part of San Antonio’s Lone Star Brewery during the 1950s. Despite its changing locales and growing drink selection, The Buckhorn still remains the same. “This collection hasn’t really changed much,” Henges said. “It’s a piece of history.”

Jaimie Siegle
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