Steve’s Place, Thorndale, TX
We gassed, braked and steered our way through the backroads of Milam County. With Olle reading the map and Chris keeping the pick-up steady 65 at the wheel, we soon found ourselves in Downtown Texas, Texas. We’re on the hunt for a little-known honky-tonk that we’ve heard tell of for a long time. We don’t even know its name, so we call it the “Dream Place” because it sounds to us like the ultimate honky-tonk.
Now that we’re finally here, there’s not even the rubble of an old beer-joint. Not a sign of anything close to honky-tonk life: no beer bottles, no grated vinyl stools, and no worn down wooden floors. I guess it will remain nothing but a good story and a dream. A destination too common to be cherished. Chris parks by an old iron bridge spanning across the San Gabriel River and we step out to have a couple of cold longnecks we’ve brought along for the ride. Another loss, another toast. We let the winter sun warm us and after a quick deliberation, cram ourselves back into the truck and head down to Thorndale.
We come upon Steve’s Place, located on the outskirts of the business blocks on an unpaved road named West Salty Street. The street name alone conjures up all kinds of country. On the other side of the dirt road is an old pool hall closed for renovation—indefinitely by the look of it. The building next door, abandoned and carved out, is barely standing. This is a town in decay, but there seems to be at least a couple of local stores still open for business. A few signs of hope while passing Main Street. We park the truck on the side of the bar, right by a stack of barbecue wood.
As we enter, George Jones and Tammy Wynette are singing “We’re Gonna Hold On” from the TV-set standing all dusty and worn on the top of the refrigerator. The old gang of regulars sits at the table close to the wood-fired cast iron heater. They lift their heads to look at the three silhouettes entering through the creaky door.
Daylight is fading, and the inside is poorly lit. Dust from the bar swirls in the last rays of light coming through the windows close to the ceiling. Kim comes to our rescue. Lone Star for Chris and Pearl for me and Olle. Different joints call for different beers. This is our Pearl spot. But just in case, we happen to have a bottle of the crazy crow tucked away in Chris’ pick-up.
Steve’s Place used to be a mechanic shop back in the 30s or 40s, before its destiny as a bar began. There are two ample rooms which hold the bar’s necessities. In the back room, there’s a path cutting through a pile of junk, leading to two separate washroom facilities, both erratically adorned with torn out nudie magazine pics and old posters that might keep one happy for a while. The main room in the front holds domino tables, slot machines, the bar, and in the corner by the entrance, a fanless griddle for frying $3 Saturday burgers. There’s no jukebox, so the old TV-set serves double duty as a radio, receiving signals through a satellite dish.
The sun brought us a beautiful winter’s day but with the winds now coming from the north, the temperature has dropped from 55°F to 35°F within an hour. We all sit huddled close to the heater. I walk out to get the bourbon for some extra heat and take the time to check out this old neighborhood. Right across the street from the bar, next to the pool hall, I find a ’64 Cadillac with flat tires sitting deserted in the dust. A painted sign on the wall behind it advertise for hay, grain and feed from Thorndale Merc. Co. This is farm land indeed. Right by the rail road tracks stands 6 shiny silos in the late afternoon sun, waiting.
A train horn blows and I see a passenger train slowly roll into Thorndale. Amtrak’s Texas Eagle still goes through here on its way from Chicago to El Paso. If you feel the need to head west and jump onboard, you’d better do that in Taylor, 15 miles down the road. There’s no passenger train stopping here. The sound of the brakes and the steel wheels against the tracks is loud and cuts through the air like a shrill cry for mercy. I’m all gone by the time the last car has passed, and back in the comfort by the fire I hear the train honk it’s horn a last time before leaving this tiny town.
Kim at the bar is fast to bring me a set-up with ice and Dr. Pepper. Not my standard set-up, but it’s what I had the last time I was here, so that’s what I’m getting now. I thank her and send back the soda unopened and fill a cup with enough spirit to go around for the three of us. My friends are in full conversation about old cars and trucks and I notice that one of the regulars is following Chris’ expositions with silent nods. Maybe Chris’ hard earned knowledge about the subject earn some respect around here. The TV-set sound is low and husky and it’s hard to make out some of the tunes. But this one I clearly hear as we pour down the bourbon: Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys telling us melodically to Get With It.
The place look like it hasn’t been fixed up in at least three decades. I stick my finger in a bullet-sized hole in the wall and old, dried-out cement falls into flakes of sand. The beer signs are covered with so much dust I don’t think the owner dares to light them up. The only neon sign on is a Lone Star Light sign, toggled up in some kind of fly snapper cowboy voodoo altar. As far as I know, there are no ghosts hanging around this joint, except maybe one or two local drunks who’ve survived their own measured time.
Kim comes over with another round of beers. She tells us they’re gonna serve chili next Saturday and invites us back. She warns us that Saturdays start early, so get here quick before the food is gone. We tell her we’re usually not up too early in the mornings, but promise to drop by later. She also tells us that some Saturdays they serve barbecue and sometimes the owner comes to flip burgers. We might get lucky!
We actually did go back the following Saturday. Behold, there stood a tubby man in the prime of his years, flipping some of the best burgers we ever had. Juicy, rare burgers with plenty of jalapeños. They went down really smooth with a can of cold Pearl. But today we’ll head on home for some cooking of our own. Once again, we walk through the creaky doors, this time towards the dark outside where we leave transient footprints in the dirt of West Salty Street.
Downtown Texas, Texas is a community established by proclamation in 2009, located about 6 miles northeast of Thorndale, Texas. The area is also known as Apache Pass.
Almost Out of Gas is a platform for projects surrounding Texas culture. Wine, spirits, beer and cook-offs with great food bring people in communities together, and we are compelled to seek out and document the social and cultural impact of the true “social networking” of the common man—that is the lifestyle we feature. We know the host of these get-togethers is the main draw, and we are intent on bringing you the same beauty we see in the rickety, creaky and sometimes forgotten gathering spots: the Texas Honky-Tonks.
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