THE WESTERN SALOON is prominent in many western novels and frequently on view in the movies and on television, but it has been ignored by most historians. These two important studies, appearing within days of one another, do much to make up for years of neglect. Elliot West, of the history faculty of the University of Texas at Arlington, has access to many unpublished letters, diaries, reminiscences, business ledgers and library records and a number of unpublished government documents. These sources, backed by a judicious sampling of published references, have enabled West to make a convincing case that the saloon was the social center of the pioneer mining community.
Since many of the mining towns were short-lived, the saloon was often the one and only gathering place for the miners. The news of a strike anywhere on the mining frontier was enough to bring one or many whiskey merchants on the run. Often they first opened their saloons in a tent that was replaced by a rough but substantial building as the community grew. In many instances, the saloonkeeper served food as well as spirits, and in the early days of a strike he rented sleeping space on the floor after the bar was closed.
If there was room, gambling tables were established or a dance floor was opened. Miners' courts were held in the ballrooms until the community could establish organized local government. Cooperative saloonkeepers permitted the pioneer preachers to hold church services in the barroom on Sunday morning (often opening the bar following the final "amen"). The saloon owner, who frequently had the only safe in the early days of a strike, became the cummunity banker. As the community matured, the saloon owner often took the lead in group activities such as firefighting and in hiring a night watchman or a marshal.
From the census records, West draws a composite picture of the saloon owner: a white male, 34.2 years of age, born n a Middle Atlantic or Ohio Valley state (70 percent were native born; German and Irish immigrants made up most of the remaining 30 percent), single and either a former miner or a worker in a business emphasizing service, such as a restaurant or a hotel. Contrary to the common belief that all saloonkeepers got rich "mining" the miners, only a small percent really made it big, according to the records examined by West.
Richard Erdoes tackles a larger task -- the examination of the saloons not only on the mining frontiers but in the cowtowns, railroad camps, logging centers and elsewhere in the West. He Quotes frequently from his sources, which are primarily published accounts. He agrees with West that the saloon was the social center of most frontier communities, and adds to the uses West mentions that it was sometimes a theater or a stage for vaudeville acts.
Erdoes is an artist and photographer who, some years after coming to this country from his native Vienna, was sent to the American West to paint and photograph the landscape and people of the Southwest Plains by Life and American Heritage magazines. He is the author of four books about the American Indians. He knows the West and is an entertaining writer.
West did not have much to say about gun battles in the saloons of the mining frontier -- perhaps they were not as frequent as those in the cowtown bars. Erdoes devotes a chapter to "Death in the Barroom, or Likker and Lead." In it, he mentions many of the famous Western gunmen, including Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Hardin, Ben Thompson, and several whose work did not lead to longevity: Doc Holliday and Jesse James, who died at 35; King Fisher, at 30; Clay Allison, at 37; and perhaps the most famous of them all, Billy the Kid, who lived to the ripe old age of 21. (Erodes follows numerous writers before him in crediting Billy the Kid with killing 21 men, "one of each year of his life . . . 'not counting Mexicans and Indians.' " There is no record of his killing even one Mexican or Indian, and although the Kid may have killed as many as seven or eight men in all, five is a more likely number.)
On the other hand, Wyatt Earp, "a rather cautious man," lived to the age of 81, although in at least one instance his caution flagged. Erdoes quotes from the Witchita Beacon of January 12, 1876: "Last Sunday night while policeman Earp was sitting with two or three others in the back room of the Custom House saloon, his revolver slipped from its holster and in falling to the floor the hammer . . . is supposed to have struck the chair, causing a discharge of one of the barrels. The ball passed through his coat, struck the north wall, then glanced off and passed through the ceiling. It was a narrow escape and the occurence got up a lively stampede from the room."
Demythification is the inevitable result of any serious study of the Old West. Erdoes has this to say about one of the vices these legendary figures picked up in the saloons: "The six-gun heroes usualy drank like fish. The consumptive Doc Holliday kept going with a daily quart of hard stuff. Even the pulpwriters glorifying Masterson and Earp admitted that drinking frequently affected their dignity as law officers and their aim as well. The great Wild Bill [Hickok] was occasionally found lying in the mud in front of a saloon, totally soused and oblivious to the world. Some called him Wild Bill Hiccup."
Erdoes also devotes a chapter to "'Wimmin,' or Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage, or Women, Good and Bad," in which he examines the dance hall, the theater and the brothel as adjuncts to the saloon. Among these women of the West lived and died one Toothless Nell, whose tombstone on Boot Hill had engraved upon it: "Shot and killed in a dance hall in 1874 -- Her last words: 'Circumstances pushed me to this end. But I had a good mother.'"
West wrote a scholarly book, Erdoes a popular history, of the saloon. West's is illustrated with a few photos while there are numerous illustrations by Pyle, Remington, Russell and Seltzer, plus many photos and old prints, in the Erdoes volume. For facts and figures -- West; for entertainment -- Erdoes.