The Buckhorn Saloon and Museum: Freakiest Attraction in San Antonio

by Gray Cargill on July 3, 2013

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Have you ever had a nightmare where you were in a carnival funhouse, surrounded by bizarre creatures, and you couldn’t find the way out? Where you wandered through room after maze-like room with tilted angles and strange sights, looking for the exit and not finding it? I had that experience at the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum. . .only it was no dream. It was real.

I visited the Buckhorn Saloon primarily to see the Texas Ranger Museum. When I walked through the front doors of the Saloon, it was like being transported to the Old West. There was a long, carved wooden bar with a beautiful back-bar made of marble and cherry wood, chandeliers overhead, and double staircases leading to the second floor. I could almost imagine Miss Kitty making a dramatic entrance down those stairs in that long, sweeping skirt of hers. (That’s a Gunsmoke reference, for those of you born after 1975.)

 

The Saloon

 

Then, I noticed the antlers and racks and horns on the ceiling—dozens of them. Maybe hundreds, I didn’t count. Animal heads protruded from every wall. Make no mistake about it: Many animals have died to make this attraction.

 

Antlers on ceiling

 

But it’s not like they were killed yesterday or even last year. This collection has been in existence since the late 1800s, when the original owner of the Saloon, Albert Friedrich, started collecting antlers and horns from customers in exchange for a beer or a whiskey. Why? Because not all travelers passing through San Antonio had a lot of cash. The growing collection became a popular attraction on its own, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

Animal heads

 

Pass through the entrance, guarded by a large, stuffed steer, to the Buckhorn Museum, where you’ll find room after room after room of stuffed animals–not teddy bears, but a taxidermist’s dream. There are over 520 species represented here, including sealife. The famous collection includes a 78-point buck and a black marlin weighing over 1,000 pounds. It’s like its own little Natural History Museum, and there is an effort made to describe the animal’s habitats and habits. I imagine local teachers probably bring their classes here on field trips to teach them about wildlife.

 

Steer

 

I get a little queasy at my local Texas Roadhouse when I’m seated at a table beneath an animal head. So having to look at so many dead animals in such a small space was overwhelming for me. After awhile, the rooms started to feel a bit stuffy, and I began to look for the way to the Texas Ranger Museum.

Instead, I stumbled across the part of the Museum that’s really freaky.

 

Sideshow

 

There is a section of the Museum dedicated to the carnival sideshows that used to travel from town to town in the western US a hundred or so years ago (think P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill). This part was a real freak show–literally. I’ve never seen so much weird shit in one place in my life. I saw stuff I wish I could unsee. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you what I saw, so I’ve included the photos below to prove it. WARNING: THIS SECTION IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART:

 

Fiji Mermaid

River Raptor

Cone Head

Shrunken Heads

 

And as if that weren’t bad enough, they even had instructions on head-shrinking for all those do-it-yourselfers wandering through:

 

Head shrinking instructions

 

Along with the Sideshow freakishness is the “Carnival of Curiosities”, which is devoted to screwing with your mind using optical illusions. There were rooms tilted at crazy angles, displays that defy gravity, and so on. If you were to visit with a companion, there are several great photo opportunities here, but alas, as a solo, I couldn’t take advantage of them. Besides, I was starting to feel a little dizzy.

 

Defying gravity

 

So you can see where it felt like I was in a nightmarish carnival funhouse. Especially when I couldn’t find the exit to the Texas Ranger Museum. I kept following the signs shaped as fingers pointing in the direction I was supposed to go in, but they kept leading me around in circles. Three times I went around those upstairs rooms, surrounded by sneering wolves and snarling bears, bug eyed shrunken heads and creepy fiji mermaids before I finally figured out I needed to go back downstairs to get to the Texas Ranger Museum.

And how was the Texas Ranger Museum?

 

Texas Ranger Museum

 

Refreshingly normal, compared to the Buckhorn. If you have an interest in law enforcement and history, as I do, it’s worth a visit. The history and timeline of the Texas Rangers is fascinating and many former Rangers are profiled here, along with the criminals they pursued and some of the high-profile cases they were part of. You can learn about John Coffey “Jack” Hays (who coincidentally was an ancestor of my Spanish Missions tour guide), Stephen Austin (“The Father of Texas”), William “Big Foot” Wallace (a descendant of Scotland’s William Wallace of Braveheart fame), the relentless John Hughes, Ray Martinez (a Ranger who helped take down University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman in 1966), and the Hamer brothers (four of whom became Texas Rangers).

 

Bat Masterson's pistol

 

There are hundreds of artifacts on display, like badges and guns (including a pistol of Bat Masterson’s, which convinced me that men of that time period had exceptionally small hands), but mostly photographs and documents and newspapers. To bring the history to life, they’ve created “Ranger Town,” a replica of what San Antonio might have looked like at the turn of the century. It includes replicas of a jail, a saloon, a blacksmith and livery, telegraph office, and more. Because Frank Hamer was instrumental in ending Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree, there is a Bonnie and Clyde section of the museum, complete with a bullet-riddled 1934 Ford V8 Deluxe (not the actual car, mind you, but a replica).

 

Replica of Bonnie and Clyde's last car

 

I know it’s a huge claim to say that the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum is the freakiest attraction in a city where there is also a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, but I stand by this claim. After all, the 100+ year-old Buckhorn Saloon is the real deal. The Texas Ranger Museum is not freaky at all and is a highly worthwhile stop for a true sense of Texas law enforcement history. If you have a passion for history as well as for the bizarre and unusual consider the Buckhorn and Texas Ranger Museums a Texas Twofer.

Know Before You Visit:

Where: 318 East Houston Street.
When: 365 days a year. Museum opens at 10am, closing time varies.
Cost: $18.99 (covers both museums). There are discounts for seniors, military and members of AAA. You can also download a discount coupon off their website.
Food/beverages: The Saloon isn’t just for historical purposes. You can actually grab a drink and/or bite to eat here.

theboywander July 10, 2013 at 2:46 am

I’m not sure that’s the place I’d be picking for dinner after all those animals and the freakshow!

Gray Cargill July 10, 2013 at 5:27 am

Me either, but I did see people eating (or at least drinking) there. Maybe they hadn’t gone upstairs yet….

Jonathan Look, Jr. July 3, 2013 at 11:52 am

San Antonio does have some freaky attractions. A friend of mine calls Buckhorn Saloon “The Dead Zoo”.

Gray Cargill July 3, 2013 at 7:11 pm

Heh. “The Dead Zoo.” Yeah, that pretty much says it all.

Jason's Travels July 3, 2013 at 11:49 am

We’ve got a place, oddly enough called The Buckhorn Exchange, much like this here in Denver. It has the first liquor license in the whole state, a lot of animal heads on the wall, and some great, albeit bizarre, food – rattlesnake, quail, elk, and the such. All kinds of different meats. It’s so tasty you have to get a reservation. Funny it’s so similar.

Gray Cargill July 3, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Wow, that is freaky, Jason. But do they have Fiji Mermaids???? 😉

Cella July 3, 2013 at 9:14 am

Fascinating, and just down the road from Austin. One of these days I’m going to take a day trip to SA.

This post did make me wonder if you’ve been to a) the “Bodies” exhibit, and b) the Bass Pro Shop flagship store at the Silverton Casino. Both are worth a visit.

Gray Cargill July 3, 2013 at 11:32 am

Yes, just down the road. You should do it! I am way too squeamish to visit the Bodies exhibit. I would probably faint. 🙂 I haven’t made it to that Bass Pro Shop, but I’ve been to one in Nashville.

bruisedpassports July 3, 2013 at 7:04 am

O my word- that ceiling is quite something. Bookmarking this for our trip to the US 🙂

Gray Cargill July 3, 2013 at 11:26 am

It is, isn’t it?

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