The End of an Era
Mourn the passing of the smoky, blue-collar tavern
In the little town of Leon Springs, TX, alongside a dry creek and nestled behind a grove of oak trees off Interstate 10, there used to stand a cinder block tavern called the Silver Fox. This little dive was not visible from the highway. It’s like that little shack in the movie A River Runs Through It where the gal says, “So, how did the possum get in the tree?”
Anyway, I used to enjoy stopping in this joint to grab a beer and talk to its owner, the late Kathy, aka the Silver Fox. She was a barkeep of the old school, mainly because she herself was ancient. They didn’t have cars when she was a girl, something she almost never failed to remind me. There was lot of repetition at the Fox. I think that’s what made it appealing. It was safely and comfortably consistent, like your childhood feather bed.
Nothing had changed about Kathy since 1985—not her denim broom skirt, not her silver conch belt, not her 1985 Lincoln Town Car with innumerable dents and certainly not the décor of the Silver Fox. The un-ironic shag carpet, which smelled of smoke, the vintage posters on the wall of Farrah Fawcett, the linoleum bar, the bar chairs made of pleather—it spoke to another era.
The year 1985 must have been a magical one at the Fox, as they saw fit to freeze time at that year, and it must have been near Christmastime because there were blue Christmas lights on at the Fox all year around. Those lights somehow made me happy and depressed at the same time.
And since the Fox was stuck in 1985, there were no craft beers to be found, even though craft beer’s first boom came in the late-1990s. No, the Silver Fox was a mainstream pale lager type of bar. Lots of Bud, Lone Star and for the younger crowd on Thursday nights (by young I mean in their 50s), the occasional Miller Lite. There was one old WWII veteran named Troy who exclusively drank Schlitz out of a can. He used to bring his wife with him until she died. Then he started bringing his little white dog, Popcorn, until he died. There aren’t many health department types that come around the Fox. Part of its appeal is that you have to know it’s there to find it—and the fuzz never knew where to find it.
The Fox was a beer-drinking place. Not much wine flowed in this joint. It was an odd mix of goat farmers, local blue-collar folk and the newly rich people from a nearby ultra-nice subdivision called the Dominion (that’s where George Strait lives, a former regular at the Fox). So the parking lot was half beat-up pick up trucks and half Jaguars. It was a pretty eclectic cross section of people.
You could still smoke in the Fox, despite a recent law against it, which went largely ignored. You could still play pool for 50 cents. There was a jukebox in the corner that plays Hank one song and Bon Jovi the next. There was very bad karaoke on Thursday nights. The men’s restroom broke years ago so everybody used the women’s. There was a fading local newspaper article framed on the wall featuring the Silver Fox, (check the byline…yep, I wrote that). There were still real bar fights at the Fox. My usual game plan in this situation was to stop, drop and roll. It works for fires too, I hear. It works for a lot of things, actually.
But one thing that makes me nostalgic about the Fox is that it had Hall of Fame permanent Point-of-Sale materials in it. Point-of-Sale materials, or POS as we call it in the industry (yes I am aware that POS is now texting shorthand for a vulgar saying) are the marketing items provided by the breweries and distributors to bars: neon signs, metal tacker signs, cardboard stand-ups, flag streamers, table tents, posters, etc. And the beer industry has created some really good—and some really bad—POS over the years. But it seems the late 1970s through the 1980s were the golden age of legacy beer industry POS. You seasoned beer guys know what I’m talking about. Every old authentic beer tavern had two items in particular: 1. An over-the-bar circular Clydesdale lamp which is perpetually broken, and 2. The Coors sparkly rocky mountain spring water scene with simulated running water (engineered by the Germans, built by the Chinese, enjoyed by cowboys at the Silver Fox). The 1980s represented a sort of POS arms race between the large U.S. breweries. POS got evermore elaborate and expensive.
And the breweries even created regionally focused POS. The Fox had a Miller Lite LiTexas neon which alternatives between “LiTe” and “xas” (but the “xas” was always burned out), the ID Age Check calendar still on December 23, 1985, and since this bar was about three miles from George Strait’s house, the life-sized Bud Light cutout of the singer, signed by the legend himself. And, of course, no honkey-tonk worth its salt can be without a vintage Coors Light Elvira Mistress of the Dark standee, particularly popular at Halloween circa—when else?—1985, which invariably someone vandalizes in the right places with a magic marker. The Silver Fox had it all in spades. Kathy seemingly never refused a request by a beer salesman to place POS in her joint, nor did it ever occur to her to throw any away. It became difficult to navigate the Fox without knocking over a standee or bumping your head on a neon. We didn’t get many fire marshals visiting the Fox either.
But everybody loved Kathy, and she was somewhat of a local celebrity. When we had a flash flood in 1998 and the dry creek alongside the Fox flooded and Kathy suddenly had two feet of water in her bar, we all pitched in to replace her coolers and clean the carpet. When it happened again a few years later, we did it again. No flood insurance for the Fox.
So I was saddened to get a call a few years ago from a friend who reported that Kathy had passed away in her sleep. She went the right way. No nursing home or painful illness for the Fox. She simply lay down and faded away. Without Kathy’s personality and social glue, the Fox is now just a boarded-up cinder block building with a faded “For Sale” sign on it.
Bars like the Fox are fewer and farther between today, more’s the pity. Wisconsin seems to be the only place where they still thrive. They have fallen victim to the flight to the suburbs, smoking bans, strip mall pub chains and DUI crackdowns. They probably peaked around Christmas of 1985, at the exact moment when time stopped at the Silver Fox. Oh, it’s not all bad. There’s a great revival of gastro-pubs popping up out there, and a great new generation of taverns that focus on craft beer, particularly draught. But the days of the smoky, dim-lit, blue-collar tavern with Naugahyde chairs and ceiling tiles stained brown with nicotine seem to be on the wane.
It also saddens me that the golden years of elaborate POS are over as the big brewers focus on cutting costs. And it also makes me scratch my head and wonder: How did Coors make that sparkly flowing mountain spring water look so real? And what ever happened to Elvira?
They don’t make signs like that anymore, and they don’t make bars like the Fox.
Harry Schuhmacher is the editor of Beer Business Daily and Craft Business Daily (craftbusinessdaily.com). He blogs at beereditor.blogspot.com and tweets at @beerbizdaily and emails at email@example.com.