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