It’s practically impossible to wander the red-bricked streets of Sundance Square and not ponder how and when the city of Fort Worth got its start. From the stones underfoot to the distinctive styling of the rooftops overhead; the city speaks volumes. Tough and leathery, with equal touches of western nostalgia, down-home charm, and lasting craftsmanship; Fort Worth has enjoyed all manner of reinventions since it was first established way back in 1849 as a Trinity River military outpost on the borders of the west Texas frontier. It’s a town rife with ghosts; but not the scary kind. These ghosts whisper lonely songs that herald the arrival of tired farm hands; they echo the sounds of the broken wagon wheels carrying hopeful pioneers looking for a fresh start; and they call to mind the ricochets of the final gunshots that marked the end of the Mexican-American War after the Compromise of 1850.
Iconic and rich with history, Fort Worth went through severe growing pains during its initial transformation from a series of forts to a bustling metropolitan area. In fact, at the beginning, it was Hell. Literally. During the late 1800’s, Sundance Square was known as Hell’s Half Acre. It was so named because it had already developed a reputation for being an arduous and demanding area. The city at that time was bursting with the vitality of the emerging American West, but it was also a rough, crude expanse that housed all manner of residents; from the hardworking upstarts looking to start a legitimate life, to the grizzled roughnecks looking for easy money and trouble in fair measure. It was home to both the lawman and the outlaw; both as coarse as the landscape the city was born out of.
Today, Fort Worth is aptly nicknamed Cowtown. The name has significant meaning because one of the city’s first, and most lasting, enterprises was the herding and driving of cattle from Fort Worth’s section of the Chisholm Trail on up through Kansas. In fact, Fort Worth served as the backbone of the Chisholm Trail for many years and established the city as one of the most prominent ranching industries in the country. It wasn’t until the arrival of the railroads, specifically the Texas & Pacific Railway in 1876 that the city truly morphed into the contemporary wonder that many know and love today. Nowhere is that more on display than in Hell’s Half Acre itself.
No longer hellish at all, Sundance Square was originally named after the Sundance Kid, who was a guest and admirer of the area. It’s even said that he often used the location as hideout from his frequent misdeeds. Outlaws aside, the square is now a hotbed of culture, education, and modern conveniences. It’s a section of Fort Worth busting at the seams with the city’s new revitalization. While it may have once been the former stomping ground of Texas legends like Doc Holiday and Butch Cassidy, it’s now the former stomping ground of…well, Texas legends like T-Bone Burnett and Kelly Clarkson among others. In fact, during one of his many trips to Fort Worth, rumor has it that Big Love actor and Texas native Bill Paxton even stopped off at Peters Bros. Hats in downtown to pick his friend Tom Hanks up a Shady Oak western hat; the very same style of hat that was given to John F. Kennedy on the morning of his assassination.
Visitors to Sundance Square today don’t have to worry about outlaws. They can enjoy casual strolls among the area’s art deco buildings and designer landscapes, or they can get their shopping on full steam ahead with distinctive stores like Retro Cowboy or Pappagallo Classiques. The retail shops in the square carry as much variance and diversity as the very city in which they are housed in. It’s just as easy to pick up a t-shirt for the old man at the Dallas Cowboys Pro Shop as it is to find that one-of-a-kind treasure at the unusual, but equally impressive Earth Bones store.
If it’s one-of-a-kind cuisine that fits the bill after all of that bargain-hunting, hungry patrons can take in the freshest in Mexican fare at Cabo Grande, or wallow in the hand-cut, smoky deliciousness of The Mercury Chop House. Of course, no culinary visit to Sundance Square would be complete without a sampling of the best in authentic Creole and Southern flavors at Reata on Houston St. The chicken chile rellenos alone are worth catching the next plane or hopping aboard the first available Grapevine Railroad into Fort Worth.
Once the palette is satiated, visitors can continue their adventure through Sundance Square and indulge in a vibrant nightlife consisting of everything from the authentic Texas soundscapes of the Lone Star Nightclub, to the silky smooth rhythms inside the doors of the Scat Jazz Lounge in the celebrated Woolworth Building. If it’s a good brew that makes you as happy as a clam at high tide, consider The Flying Saucer on 4th St. With so many countless bottles and drafts available, imbibers might even be lulled into imagining that they’re actually hearing the strains of Lyle Lovett or Robert Earl Keen’s signature voices wafting from the legendary Bass Hall across the street. With dozens of visits to the celebrated venue between them, it might not be imaginary at all.
Fort Worth and Sundance Square have a wealth of history hidden in every crook, crack, and crevice of the town’s signature make up. From the tallest buildings to the most unassuming of retail shops, there’s a story around every corner. The richness of Cowtown’s legacy isn’t subtle, but then again, it doesn’t have to be. Fort Worth has earned its place in the pantheon of America’s great cities; it has been carved out of the countryside by the hardest of workers and the loftiest of dreamers. You can still hear the trains running daily in and out of Stockyard Station, and the train whistles carry with them the voices of the very people who had a hand in crafting the city’s legacy. Whether it’s through the music and culture, or the food and the people, there’s something here for everyone to appreciate.
- Richard Dennis
Courtesy of Morris Publications/Where Guestbook Fort Worth
Courtesy of Morris Publications/Where Guestbook Fort Worth