Cowtown”; “Panther City”; “Queen City of the Prairie”; “The Paris of the Plains” … Fort Worth, in north central Texas, has a knack for accumulating monikers that attest to its role as a frontier of independence and enterprise. While the town has changed immensely since it was settled, residents have never stopped wearing Western pride on their sleeves. We discovered the town’s nostalgic spirit firsthand on a blistering Sunday when we closed down parts of the 40-hectare Fort Worth Stockyards, the last-remaining example of its kind in the United States, for a MiNDFOOD photoshoot. Longhorn cattle replaced cars on the main street and local ranch hands offered Southern hospitality and mastery to help create unforgettable scenes.
WHERE THE WEST BEGINS
Before Fort Worth was a cattle hub, it was an army outpost, settled in 1849 after the Mexican-American War; it was the northernmost fort in a blockade that defended the short-lived Republic of Texas against the Mexicans and Native Americans. A cattle drive called the Chisholm Trail helped Fort Worth transition into a thriving township, since stockmen often stopped here on the long journey north. In the early 1860s, the Civil War took a toll on Fort Worth, but the town bounced back quickly due to the ever-growing ranching industry as well as the arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1876. “Cowtown” took advantage of its growing status as a cattle-drive hub by furnishing the hordes of passing cowboys with all the recreational facilities that a man with money, guns and cattle could possibly want.
The “Hell’s Half Acre” of gambling dens, dance halls, bars and brothels transformed a military outpost that buffered the new America from hostile neighbours into a bastion of lawless abandon. Crime soared and the Half Acre soon outgrew its nickname to become a two-and-a-half-acre (about one hectare) red-light district. Efforts to reduce the number of murders and robberies were often stymied by the vice industry that made such a large contribution to the town’s coffers. It wasn’t until the beginning of the next century – in part thanks to Prohibition – that the Half Acre lost much of its grip. Fort Worth has since spread into a 900-square-kilometre metropolis, the seventeenth largest in the US today. The cowboys and gunslingers of the bad old days may have cleaned up, but they still ride into the sunsets of our collective dreams. Fort Worth will always be the town “where the West begins”.
The Fort Worth Stockyards are a lasting reminder of “Cowtown”. The collection of businesses flourished with the arrival of the railroad and stood as a lynchpin of the city’s fortunes for nearly a century. The cattle trading district – which also dealt and dispatched sheep and pigs in its heyday – waned in the 1960s as the livestock industry shifted from rail to road for freighting. In 1976, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While it now mainly comprises museums, shops, restaurants and entertainment attractions, the Stockyards hasn’t retired as a player in the livestock game; it still hosts special-breed events and auctions and has turned its attention towards equestrian services. Honky-tonk bars, line dancing venues, heritage architecture and staged gunfights all help satisfy a global appetite for a history and culture that’s quintessentially Texan. M.L. Leddy’s is a legendary shop that brims with handmade leather boots, hats, saddles and full cowboy ensembles. It’s a great place to soak up the Western ambience while you get measured up for a custom pair of boots.
A city whose top summer temperatures average 35˚C and have been known to reach 43˚C, Fort Worth has no trouble finding a good use for its Water Gardens. The two-hectare park, situated downtown between Houston and Commerce streets next to the Fort Worth Convention Center, has served as a “cooling oasis in the concrete jungle” since 1974. Not only does it offer respite from the Texas summer heat, it also frees visitors from the noise, frenetic pace and visual bombardment of the urban surrounds. The Gardens’ architect, Philip Johnson of New York, centred the action around three water features: the aerating pool, the quiet pool and the active pool. The last, with its stair-step amphitheatre that sends water sluicing down into its sunken heart below feels like a futuristic man-made beach. The Water Gardens have starred in a few feature films, most notably the dystopian thriller Logan’s Run. Not for the faint of heart, the narrow steps take visitors between the upper level and the central pool, dropping more than 11 metres over angular planes, the deafening rush of water overpowers all other sounds and the design obscures the boundaries between urban planning and public art.
HIGH AND LOW CULTURE
The Kimbell Art Foundation, which owns and operates the Kimbell Art Museum, was founded in 1936 by Kay and Velma Kimbell. When Mr Kimbell died in 1964, he made it clear that he desired a museum “of the first class”. The Kimbell collection today consists of about 350 works, including The Torment of Saint Anthony, the first known painting by Michelangelo. This well-preserved epic is believed to have been created between 1487 and ’88 when the master was 12 or 13 years old. It was the first painting by Michelangelo to enter an American collection. But the building itself is perhaps the most recognised. The original barrel-vaulted wing, designed by American architect Louis Kahn and opened in 1972, is widely regarded as an outstanding architectural achievement of the modern era, garnering acclaim for its innovative use of natural light, space and materials. The newer Renzo Piano Pavilion – constructed largely of concrete, glass and wood – allows the museum to keep its permanent collection on view while also offering a library and auditorium. Across the way, the Tadao Ando-designed Modern Art Museum floats like paper lanterns in a reflective outdoor pond.
EAT YOUR HEART OUT
Just up Camp Bowie Boulevard through the Fort Worth Cultural District, West 7th has quickly ascended to one of the hottest entertainment strips in the city. The pedestrian-friendly, five-block urban village is lined with a wide variety of restaurants and fashion retailers.
The melding of Mexican culture with that of the Texas settlers eventually resulted in the cuisine known as Tex-Mex, which has plenty of spice, particularly cumin, and works wonders out of beef, beans, shredded cheese and wheat tortillas (as opposed to the corn versions used exclusively south of the border). Fort Worth still has strong Hispanic roots and a number of Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants. One of the most well known is Joe T. Garcia’s, a sprawling complex of tranquil gardens and traditional haciendas, where Tex-Mex staples such as enchiladas and fajitas are served to thousands each week. Popular for its late-night hours on weekends and hearty Mexican dishes is Benito’s, one of the city’s favourite hole-in-the-walls near the Southside district. Everything from the salsa to the menudo (tripe soup) are made from scratch and served in an authentically no-frills space.
If you don’t know what a honky-tonk bar is, Fort Worth will teach you. Billy Bob’s Texas is a giant barn turned bar, roughly a hectare under one roof, that has been voted Country Music Club of the Year 12 times and hosts the biggest names in the genre what seems like every weekend. With real bull-riding shows every Friday and Saturday night; eating, drinking and line dancing; and wall-to-wall neon signs, it’s hard not to spend most of your time inside this dimly-lit havana with your mouth open gawking at what may well be the world’s largest honky-tonk. Fort Worth offers the best of Texas – from modern brilliance to down-home cowboy charm. Saddle up; you’re in for a wild ride.
MiNDFOOD flew with Air New Zealand. airnz.com.au