'Back in the Day' at Mynars Bar in West, Texas
An Excerpt from "Texas Dives: Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State"
Texas Dives: Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State (Texas A&M University Press, tamupress.com) is a laid-back tour of Texas, by way of 12 understated watering holes. The book has no other agenda than to set the record straight about the people who own, work at, and patronize neighborhood dives.
The following excerpt, reprinted with the gracious permission of Texas A&M University Press, is a visit—actually, two visits—to Mynars Bar in West, Texas. The first drop-in inspired the creation of the book. The second call was something altogether different. The authors, Anthony Head and Kirk Weddle, are grateful to Tonya Morton and Juke for the opportunity to share this story with you.
-Mynars Bar, West-
Nine years had passed since we first pulled off I-35 toward the hamlet of West. Back then, weary from the day’s work, Kirk and I came across Mynars Bar, a faded brick building holding up the street corner of East Oak and North Roberts. We were thirsty. We walked into the bar.
At first glance, it looked like everything was lumbered with ancient wood, including the floor, probably original but still shining respectfully, as well as the long, straight, powerful-looking bar. High overhead, the wooden ceiling and its spinning fans helped complete the appearance of an Old West saloon—except for the dozens of dollar bills hanging from its boards like a colony of bats.
A country-western tune was playing on the corner jukebox as a right neighborly looking gentleman drank his beer at the far end of the bar. And there was a sweet aroma in the air, one that occurs naturally when just the right proportions of elements find each other—those elements being a soupçon of cigarette smoke, a preening waft of beer, and the aroma of about a century’s worth of time. Admittedly, the scent is not for everyone, but for others, like me, it produces a comforting sense of nostalgia.
A small, well-kempt woman smiling at us from behind the bar took a drag off her cigarette and asked in a voice sweet as peach pie, “Just passing through?”
“We should write a book.”
That’s what I said. I meant to say it to Kirk, but I think that’s how I answered the woman.
Her name was Linda McWilliams, one of the bar’s owners, who, after serving us a couple of Shiner Bocks—this was a beer and wine, cash-only bar—told some pretty good stories, like how a local cop from the 1920s and 1930s (nicknamed “High Pockets” because of his NBA-worthy height) used to warn her grandfather, who owned the place at that time, when a raid was about to happen. “That’s when they were running the moonshine,” said Linda of the area’s once-thriving underground booze network, “and so High Pockets would warn my daddy’s daddy that the agents were coming and to get rid of the moonshine. So they’d drink it.”
Linda lit another cigarette and opened a Dr Pepper for herself. She told us that a flock of chickens once saved the bar, and then she explained how all that money came to attach itself to the ceiling. The other gentleman listened closely and nodded along with the stories. Appreciatively, he bought a round of beers for the whole bar, all three of us. His name was E. J.
“We really should write a book.”
So now, nine years later, we open the screen door and walk into Mynars again. It’s Friday afternoon. We see Linda smiling pleasantly, greeting us like no time had passed. She hadn’t changed that much, and neither had the bar—same old gas pump by the front door, same old icebox at the end of the bar, packed with bottles of Shiner, Bud, and Corona. There was a familiar mélange of beer, smoke, and history being swirled around by the ceiling fans. The dollar bills up there had multiplied, though.
Standing beside Linda is her brother and Mynars co-owner, Rick Mynar, who is built solidly, is deeply tanned, and has a sincere smile.
Nearly every seat at the bar and the mismatched tables is taken. I hear a Mickey Gilley tune playing. Conversations are loud—bolstered with end-of-the-week enthusiasm and cold beer that’s priced to respect a customer’s intelligence. Since Kirk’s already off with his camera, I suggest we three retire to someplace quieter. Rick buys me a beer and then leads us through a door at the left of the bar to the dance hall. We sit together at a four-top. Linda pulls out a pack of cigarettes and asks, “Will this offend you?”
Carry on, I implore them both.
“Back in the day,” Rick begins, pointing toward the other room in order to orient me, “that part used to be a grocery store. Behind this wall, way, way back, was a mortuary. The place next door used to be a bar. Back behind the pool table, that place used to be a bar too.”
Rick says that their grandparents, John and Rosie Mynar, bought the place in 1923 and ran it as a grocery store during the dark days of Prohibition and the Depression, back when High Pockets would give John Mynar fair warning about moonshine stings. After John passed away, it was Rosie who turned the grocery into a beer joint. But times were very tough for Rosie, especially while raising a family of twelve on her own.
“Back in the day,” Rick continues, taking a quick sip of Coors Light, “when Grandma had this deal, the bar was financed by a bank in New York. She couldn’t make the payments—they were just a couple dollars a month. She told them, ‘I can’t make it. I don’t want it. Y’all can have it.’ They said, ‘Just pay what you can. We don’t want it either.’ That’s how it all went down, way back when.”
Linda smiles at her brother when he talks. They’re a tight unit, complimentary of each other, both grateful to have real family sharing in the labors of the family business. They share another thing: They both like hearing stories of the bar every bit as much as they like telling them.
Linda leans forward and says that Rosie raised chickens and, it turns out, those birds were the reason Mynars Bar survived. “She’d take eggs to town and sell them to make the bar payments. Her egg money saved the bar.”
Actually, both of them will tell you that the true hero of Mynars was their father, John and Rosie’s son, Felix Mynar. Felix was only ten when John died, but he’d absorbed a lot from his old man and began proving his mettle at a young age. Hard work was going to be part of his life, so he figured the best thing to do was to just meet it head on. In springtime he’d help plant the family’s farm crops, then he’d go with a friend to California to work on a dairy farm. In the fall, they’d return to West in time to harvest the crops.
Felix also took an interest in his mother’s bar and learned pretty quickly just about everything he needed to know about running it. Eventually, he took it over for Rosie, outright buying the place in 1977. He’d get up at five, tend to the farm, and then work at the bar till midnight, six nights a week. But every Sunday after church, he’d spend the day at home with his wife, Haddie, his kids, a pot of guinea soup, and whoever stopped by for supper.
“Daddy always said, ‘If you can’t make it in six days, you can’t make it in seven,” Linda says, explaining why Felix closed the bar on Sundays.
Day after day, year after year, Felix kept the family business running, spending as much time serving beer and telling stories on one side of the bar as he did playing dominoes and telling stories on the other side. All the while, another generation of the family was taking an interest in the bar. At first, Rick admits, his attraction was purely financial. “Back in the day, we lived out there on a farm, and on top of the hill there was a friend of mine. We called him ‘Junior.’ We’d pick Junior up and come up here and we’d sweep the floor. I was probably ten. Daddy gave us fifty cents apiece. We were rolling.”
With time, Rick came to appreciate how his family’s bar had become an important gathering place in West, and, he tells me with deep sincerity, he realized how important it was to keep the business going.
“When Ricky got old enough, he was always coming over here and helping Daddy,” Linda says, picking up the story. “Daddy was getting tired toward the end. Ricky just took over more and more of the business. I was working in Waco as an office administrator for a doctor’s office. I’d occasionally come over here and visit. But when Daddy got sick, I started working behind the bar.”
Brother and sister bought Mynars in 2003, a year before Felix passed away.
When we all return to the barroom, the crowd has grown. It’s even louder. I can’t pick out which song is playing because so many animated conversations are taking place over the top of the music. Some serious dominoes are being played in the back, and now and again an aggressive slam of a domino on the tabletop sends a sharp clap through the air.
Kirk finds me. We get a couple beers. He looks at his camera and says he’s already taken hundreds of images. It’s odd, we agree, that our last visit here was a quiet encounter in a corner bar that ignited the idea for this book. Now we see the other life Mynars leads, one of a higher amplitude—like a Fourth of July family gathering. In fact, the scene before us is complete with young kids drinking sodas, eating chips, and amusing themselves while the adults drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and amuse themselves.
“It’s all good until about seven o’clock. Then they got to go,” Rick says of the children, who are, it must be said, well behaved.
“Now, about 5:30, I don’t mind.”
“That’s the way it’s always been. It’s a good family bar,” says Joe Mynar, whom I’ve just been introduced to. Joe’s a cousin to Linda and Rick. He’s a farmer and rancher. Like the kids sitting at the next table, he was well acquainted with Mynars at a young age. “I came in here when I was nine or ten years old. As time went on, I used to stand at the end of the bar with my buddy, when I was nineteen and twenty, and look at the table with Felix and all his buddies.” Joe points across the room to a nearby table. “There were lots of people, but as time went by they dwindled down. I told my buddy that that was going to be us one day sitting at that table. And here we are.”
These days, Joe knows the bar pretty well, like how if the screen door up front starts moving on its own, rain is on the way. Rick nods and assures me, “When that screen door opens, in three days it’s gonna rain.”
Plus, Joe’s seen more than one person ride through the bar on horseback, grab a beer, and head back out.
“Back in the day, they’d ride horses in here,” Rick confirms.
And while Joe swears there ain’t never been any shootouts in the bar, he’s got a good story, one that happened back in the day when Felix ran the place, back when it can truly be said that times were different. “I can still see the West cop Tommy—a good friend, a good friend to all of us—come in this bar and it was closing time. And he said, ‘Goddamn, what the fuck y’all think y’all doing? It’s closing time! Midnight!’ I can still see Joe, a buddy of ours, pull the gun out of Tommy’s holster, walk outside with it, and shoot it three times up in the air. Felix goes, ‘What the fuck, Joe, are you doing?!’ The cop goes, ‘Y’all are crazy!’ He got in his cop car, burned out, and took off. And that’s the God’s honest truth there. That’s the God’s honest truth. I can still see Joe grabbing that damn gun and going outside—pow, pow, pow! Them days are over.”
Maybe that’s for the best, I muse to myself while taking a seat at the bar. I try to untangle the exchange of news and gossip from the other customers. At one table there is talk of bikes, bikers, biker rallies, and biker bars. In the back four men with knobby, calloused hands play dominoes. In turns, others rotate in and out, keeping the table active most of the evening. Such games have been going on for decades.
“This is still Daddy’s bar,” Rick says. “He made this. We’re just carrying on.”
“Amen to that,” says Linda.
Despite the urge, though, carrying on doesn’t mean staying frozen in the past.
After Linda and Rick took over, they both agreed that adding televisions would be smart, although it was a big step for the place. Then, maybe four years ago, came the credit card machine, ending nearly a century-long Cash Only rule that went back to John and Rosie’s grocery. Most recently after many years of faithful service, the old Rowe jukebox was retired to Rick’s garage.
When Rick sees the disappointment in my eyes at the loss of a real jukebox for a music streaming machine, he explains, “If it ever went down, we had no music because we can’t get anyone to work on it. If the internet one goes down, we can get it fixed tomorrow.”
Behind the bar, there’s an old photograph of Felix and his favorite horse, Tony, that shows life around these parts during the mid-twentieth century. But perhaps the best measurement of time’s passage in this place is the dark stripe that runs the full length of the Formica bar top.
“Daddy could tell good stories,” Linda explains. “He would stand behind the bar, rubbing his beer can on the bar as he talked.” He talked so long, so often, that he eventually wore away the surface of the bar. “People would stop by just to hear him tell stories. Today I can stand there, put my hand on the bar, and he’s there.” Then, giving me another moment of her smile, she adds softly. “It took him a long time.”
Suddenly, there’s a commotion behind us. Rick is getting the place riled up by demonstrating how to get a dollar bill to stick to the ceiling. Linda tells me the story of how some biker started the whole thing a long time ago. The trick involves folding a thumbtack and a quarter into the bill just right before letting it fly, but it’s not easy. It takes about eight attempts, but Rick finally gets another one up there for good.
I’d actually heard that story before, back when Kirk and I first stumbled upon Mynars. That was back in the day, right about the same time we decided to do this book.
Kirk and I decided our book tour for Texas Dives should take place in the bars that first opened themselves up to us. So a few weeks ago, I drove through West and stopped at Mynars to talk about stuff; it was my first visit in over two years and the books had already been printed. Rick told me that his sister Linda McWilliams passed away last year. This was terribly sad news to hear, standing in the very bar that started it all. Later that day, the editor of The West News told me Linda was a beloved person in the whole community.
Linda seemed very excited for this book to come out, mainly because she was so proud of her family and its history in Texas. Her kindness really did compel the idea to create our book, and she really did stand behind that bar, touching the stripe where the finish was worn away by the constant sliding of her daddy’s beer can, thinking of him. She will be missed.
Anthony Head has a checkered history, but he writes mostly about Texas these days. His latest book, Texas Dives: Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State (Texas A&M Press) is available to pre-order now.
Wonderful, Anthony. I received my copy of the book and look forward to reading all the stories....and, to plan my Texas road trip to hit all the bars!