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Cattle drive in the National Stockyards Historical District in Fort Worth, Texas

Fort Worth: Where the West begins

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posted February 5, 2019
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For two cities separated by a mere 30 miles and often viewed as one Texas-sized megalopolis, Dallas and Fort Worth couldn’t be more different. In fact, they could be considered the Lone Star State’s yin and yang.

If Dallas is thought of as a sort of southern New York, with its emphasis on arts, culture, food and fashion, Fort Worth is the very embodiment of its proud sobriquet, Cowtown.

Should you need proof of this, just be standing along Exchange Avenue, the main street of the Stockyards National Historic District, any day at 11:30 a.m. or 4 p.m., when a thundering herd of beef on the hoof come careening down the drag, along with several drovers attempting to “head ’em up and move ’em out.”

Well, that may be a slight exaggeration. The small group of Longhorns isn’t exactly thundering—more like moseying—and the drovers don’t have to do much droving. This herd is pretty chill and appears to know just where it’s going.

Where it’s going, for the record, is once around the block and then directly back to the holding pens behind the Livestock Exchange Building, where tourists with cameras anxiously await its arrival. These pampered steers are never going to have to worry about being on someone’s dinner plate.

Fort Worth skyline
Photo by Joseph Haubert

Although the “cattle drive” is one of Fort Worth’s most popular tourist attractions today, it is also symbolic of the city’s role in the industry.

As early as the 1850s, Fort Worth was an important stop on the legendary Chisholm Trail, along which millions of head of cattle were driven north to markets in Kansas and Nebraska. It quickly became a bustling, brawling boomtown and was soon dubbed Cowtown. It’s a name the city enthusiastically strives to live up to, even today.

For tour operators charged with wrangling wannabe cowboys and cowgirls, there is plenty to keep your group occupied. Start with a walking tour of the Stockyards District, with its assortment of shops and saloons.

In the former category, browse for Vaquero boots at M.L. Leddy’s, which has been transforming dudes into dead-eyes with their custom-made clothing and saddles since 1922. Or get your own Stetson at Fincher’s White Front Western Wear and wet your whistle as you shop.

While the cowboys are kicking back over a beer, cowgirls are sipping wine at Maverick’s Fine Western Wear, and on Trunk Show days, they’re enjoying an assortment of cheeses and fruits that won’t be found on any chuckwagon.


There’s an elephant in the room

As for saloons, there’s no lack of them, partner. You won’t want to miss the infamous White Elephant, where cowboy hats line the ceiling, live country-western music is heard seven nights a week, and you can chow down on a bowl of Texas Red Chili and homemade cornbread.

The White Elephant’s main claim to fame, however, is that at its former location in Hell’s Half Acre, a raucous area of town including a saloon that was the site of a famous gunfight.

On the night of February 8, 1887, bar owner Luke Short and the town marshal, Longhair Jim Courtright, got into a dust-up over whether Short should pay protection money to the lawman to keep Short’s gambling games in operation. Angry words were exchanged, guns were drawn, and—in a twist of irony—when the smoke cleared, the sheriff had been bested by the barkeep. Things are a bit tamer these days … if you refrain from ordering the Cowboy Shot, that is.

Book your group for dinner at H3 Ranch in the historical Stockyards Hotel; the restaurant has been named one of the best steakhouses in the Fort Worth/Dallas area. And you know that those accolades don’t come lightly.

Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth
Billy Bob's Texas (Photo by Visit Fort Worth)

One thing no group will want to miss is a line-dance lesson at Billy Bob’s Texas. Originally a cattle barn for the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, at 127,000 square feet, it’s the world’s largest honky-tonk, featuring arcades, casinos and bull riding demonstrations. Yes, bull riding, as in ornery steers with wicked horns. Leave all the bucking and barreling to the pros; the giant stuffed bull providing photo ops for tenderfoots is strictly stationary.

If you’re lucky, a country-western luminary such as Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam or George Strait might be on stage during your visit.

Before leaving the Stockyards area, see how many of the 221 bronze stars embedded in cement on the Texas Trail of Fame you can find. While the stars are modeled after a marshal’s badge, only some of the recipients could be considered law-abiding types. Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp are two.

Other stars include a Texas-born actor (Audie Murphy), a scout (Kit Carson), a hero of the Alamo (James Bowie), a Comanche war chief (Quanah Parker) and a hard-boiled woman pioneer (Stagecoach Mary Fields) who surely would have made good fodder for a novel by Larry McMurtry.

Travel a bit further afield to trace the history of Fort Worth through the Heritage Trail Markers. This series of 22 bronze sidewalk markers detail historic events that have shaped the city since its founding in 1849 as an army outpost on a bluff overlooking the Trinity River.

Your posse will also want to pose in front of the Chisholm Trail Mural, a three-story-tall testament to those all-important cattle drives.


Fort Worth beyond the Wild West

As much as it reveres its storied past, Fort Worth also has one foot firmly planted in its present and future, with many attractions that have nothing to do with a Stetson or a six-shooter.

One of the best is the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens, the oldest such attraction in Texas. Like almost everything else in the Lone Star State, it’s large both in size and spectacle, with more than 2,500 species of plants in 23 specialty gardens.

Groups can take a guided walking tour that goes through the Four Seasons Garden, with hundreds of iris, daylilies and chrysanthemums; along the Native Texas Boardwalk, a raised pathway through the trees focusing on local flora; and to the acclaimed Japanese Garden, with koi-filled pools, pagodas, teahouse and waterfalls, as well as cherry trees and Japanese maples.

Sid Richardson Museum
Sid Richardson Museum (Photo by Visit Fort Worth)

A few years back, a Texas Monthly article chronicled the “culture war” between Dallas and Houston, where fabulously rich oil families continually one-upped each other to endow various arts organizations in their respective cities.

They do their cultural giving a bit more on the down-low in Fort Worth, but the result is the same: financial boons for many of the city’s arts organizations. Legendary Texas oilman Sid Richardson’s philanthropy was such that he has a museum named after him, and what a museum it is, featuring works by noted Western artists Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell that were donated by Richardson from his own personal collection.

At the Kimbell Art Museum, the emphasis is not so much on the West, but on Western civilization, with its European art, and art of the ancient Americas. From the Mayans, Olmecs, Zapotecs and Aztecs to masterpieces by Bernini, Caravaggio, Cezanne, Goya, Matisse, Monet and Picasso, the Kimbell has it covered.

Kimbrell Art Museum
Kimbell Art Museum (Photo by Visit Fort Worth)

This is not to say that the museum slacks on Eastern civilization. Antiquities and Asian, African and Oceanic art are also well represented in this museum that is more concerned with quality than quantity; its collection is made up of fewer than 350 pieces. The building, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Renzo Piano, is an impressive piece of art in its own right.

If your group prefers the mods to the masters, a visit to the Modern Art Museum is a must. With a permanent collection of more than 3,000 works, it’s considered one of the best showcases for post-World War II art anywhere.

Take that, Dallas and Houston.

Finally, no visitors can leave Fort Worth without going to one of the city’s most beloved institutions: Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant. A Fort Worth landmark since 1935, it’s housed in a hacienda-style building with one of the lushest, most beautiful patios to be found anywhere (think flowers, fountains, arches and statues).

Joe T. Garcia's Mexican Restaurant
Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant (Photo by Visit Fort Worth)

At Joe T’s, lines are long, payment is cash only (there is an on-site ATM) and no reservations are taken for groups smaller than 25. If yours is smaller, go and stand in line; the fajitas and sopapillas are worth the wait.

As Fort Worth prepares to host NTA’s annual conference (Travel Exchange) in December, Bob Jameson, president and CEO of Visit Fort Worth proclaims it “a big win for the city.

“With billions in development underway, including the new Dickies Arena and dramatic enhancements to the historical Stockyards,” he says, “we are excited to welcome this vital segment of the tourism industry.”

Top photo: Cattle drive in the National Stockyards Historical District
Photo by Visit Fort Worth


Fort Worth is a favorite

Fort Worth Stockyards Rider
Fort Worth Stockyards Rider (Photo by Visit Fort Worth)

“Groups really enjoy the authentic Texas experience and friendly nature of our city,” says Estela Martinez-Stuart, director of tourism at Visit Fort Worth. “Without fail, every time I reconnect with a tour operator who has visited, they say ‘I love Fort Worth.’”

Why do groups love Fort Worth? Martinez-Stuart says there are four main reasons.

  1. They can experience a cattle drive in the Stockyards National Historic District, followed by a meet-and-greet with the herd drovers who lead the drive.
     
  2. Groups can enjoy a free tour of the Money Factory, one of two U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing Facilities, and see how money is made. Afterward, they can visit Tanger Outlets or the Texas Motor Speedway.
     
  3. Visitors can tour the heart of Fort Worth’s downtown and Sundance Square on themed walking tours. Groups may take advantage of Fort Worth’s WorthSavings card, which offers discounts at various restaurants and shops.
     
  4. They can also arrange a tour and tasting at Fort Worth’s newest destination, Whiskey Ranch, the largest whiskey distillery west of the Mississippi River.

For more information about Fort Worth, contact Estela Martinez-Stuart, director of tourism for Visit Fort Worth or go to fortworth.com.

Top photo by Visit Fort Worth