Forget the Alamo; Remember the Buckhorn!
If you grew up in Texas, chances are your family took a trip to San Antonio to visit that shrine to Texas Independence, the Alamo. For many, the next stop was the Buckhorn Hall of Horns, home to the world’s largest collection of antlers, a place chock-full of cultural and natural oddities, and as quintessentially Texan as that downtown mission fortress.
The Hall of Horns originated in 1881 as part of Albert Friedrich’s Buckhorn Saloon. Frontiersmen brought antlers, horns and trophy heads to trade for drinks, and Friedrich mounted them around the bar, eventually covering entire walls and sections of the ceiling. His father made chairs for the bar out of cattle horns, which became famous around the world for their beauty and novelty. For early Texans, just in from the untamed western part of the state, the Buckhorn meant civilization: a place to get their mail, an informal meeting place, a clearinghouse for information, and a trading post where a multi-point rack of antlers meant 50 cents worth of whiskey and beer — comfortingly human after the travails of harnessing the frontier.
Over the years, the Buckhorn became a popular place to drink and admire the collection of horns, which grew to include a world record 78-point whitetail buck. Although the saloon was moved around downtown San Antonio several times, the cherry back bar and all of the horns were always taken along. The Buckhorn was able to survive Prohibition by converting into a museum and soda fountain, thereby allowing entire families to view the horns after the taint of alcohol had been removed.
When the Lone Star Brewery built a new plant just south of downtown along the San Antonio River, it bought the Buckhorn, relocated it next to the brewery, and expanded the collection greatly. It now includes examples of game animals from around the world, as well as exotic fish and fowl, all stuffed and mounted in the cozy confines of the museum. Since the collection is not particularly scientific in its display, the effect is more that of a huntsman’s lodge, albeit a very busy one. In addition to the multitude of wildebeests and big cats, some pieces defy taxonomy: a two-headed calf, an eight-legged lamb, and the legendary jackalope.
The collection veers from the kitschy to the historical. Included in this eclecticism is a Spanish colonial style church made from 50,000 matches, rattlesnake art, and a famed buffalo horn chair made for Teddy Roosevelt. A wax museum depicts significant events in Texas history. The centerpiece of the saloon is an ornate, 400-pound cedar mirror carved for the Russian royal family. There are also numerous Indian artifacts, including a Mayan war club and traditional peace pipe. These are contrasted with the prized antique guns that helped subdue the natives and capture many of the museum’s animal specimens.
Some may consider the Hall of Horns hopelessly out-of-date, but the overall effect of the place is startlingly historical in this day and age of strip malls and disaster movies. Time seems to have passed by this curious relic of old-fashioned tourism.
Lone Star beer, the unofficial “National Beer of Texas,” is served liberally at the saloon. Visitors can drink it in the live oak beer garden and finish absorbing the museum’s curiosities, a necessary move sometimes when the enormity of the collection gets to be too much. An enormous man-made lake has a pleasant cooling effect on hot days, and on weekends, German oom-pah-pah bands play, lending a festive air to the place.
Although Lone Star is no longer brewed on site (Stroh’s bought it and moved the operation to Longview), it’s still the same grainy lager it has always been. It may lack the cachet of Shiner Bock or modern microbrews, but it remains a satisfying alternative to the national brands — just as the Hall of Horns is a pleasantly rewarding diversion from modern tourist meccas.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission: $5 adults; kids 6-11 $1.75; under 6 free. Address: 600 Lone Star Blvd. Free parking; complimentary beer and root beer.