Gunfights and Ragtime: The Houston Music Scene of 100 Years Ago

Note: This is a two-part series that timelines through bits of the first century of Houston's nightlife until about the start of what was found to be Houston's oldest running bar.

City Hall and Market House, 1904
City Hall and Market House, 1904
Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

For the first century since Houston's birth in 1837, happenings of music and revelry were advertised word-of-mouth. Music journalism generally consisted of classical reviews, and most of those who could chat about those times have passed, making it harder to find what's left today.

What's left are library reserves of research volumes alongside torn pictures and captions tucked and scattered throughout a small variety of nice, browned scrapbooks. Looking through dozens of those, this is what we found.

Early settlers described Houston as full of saloons and brothels and gunfights. It was a young Southern town with a temperament like the West. Meanwhile, business was booming, ensuring some glitzy elements in Houston's nightlife even then.

Yadon's Saloon was a popular spot. It was at the corner of Congress and San Jacinto and several blocks down from the old Kennedy Bakery building, which became home of La Carafe in 1962. This spot was said to be popular "among locals who had the means to buy themselves drinks," meaning richer folk.

It may have had a piano where two-steps were played; ragtime was growing in popularity even beyond downtown brothels. All the while, gunfights were said to break out frequently at Yadon's.

One reported gunfight on the evening of July 29, 1901, started at Yadon's. Witnesses saw this fight go out north on San Jacinto and west on Franklin before looping the block and ending up back in the bar.

There, a rambunctious gunman by the name of J.T. Vaughn was then silhouetted, gun in hand. Officers fired at him directly, causing him to fall and utter the last words, "I died game."

It was said that Yadon's Saloon then closed for the night.

Another gunfight broke out at Yadon's on the afternoon of December 11, 1901, when a man by the name of Sid Preacher jumped up on a buggy and took out a double-barreled shotgun while debating his gambling practices with an officer.

Just then the shooting began, and everyone with a gun died at the scene.

Preacher had been arrested for gambling troubles several months beforehand, allegedly running a gaming device. After this arrest, his attorney went ahead and advised him, "You arm yourself with a six-shooter and the next policeman who attempts to arrest you without a warrant for any offense, except for carrying a six-shooter, shoot his belly off."

Turned out Preacher followed that advice about as plainly as it was given.

Aside from the glamorized civilian accounts and police reports, there was much advertising for the friendly Bank of Bacchus.


Dick Dowling in 1866
Dick Dowling in 1866

This bar and billiards parlor was opened in 1858 by 20-year-old Dick Dowling, who would go on to become one of Houston's leading businessmen and a Civil War hero for the Confederacy before his death in 1867. The bar was said to be once located across the street from Courthouse Square at the southwest corner of Congress and Fannin, and then about a decade later at the northeast corner of Congress and Main, where it ran for many years.

Bank of Bacchus was advertised consistently in many 19th-century Houston papers as a haven where deposits of cash were to be exchanged for withdrawals of whiskey. It was said to court the city's fancy business elite, and not much music playing.

But early Houston's music ranged from fiddlers, blues, and ragtime with people drunk and sober dancing to rude music, to the local development of civic music including singing societies and then later the development of the Houston Symphony. Each culture and class created its own musical niche in early Houston.

The more high-minded Houston music of the early 20th century was to be found at the Houston City Auditorium, located at the corner of Main and McGowen. The old Houston City Hall and Market House on Travis and Prairie housed some of these shows, too, as did the Rice Hotel.

Come back next week for Part 2: The Houston music scene in Prohibition days.


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