A cub reporter story: Scott visits the western tourist town of Saragossa for the first time. A history lesson turns out to be more than he bargained for when he takes on a challenge by one of the locals.
It was Friday morning. I had just wrapped up my third story for the week and the local whiskey bar was on my mind and a good part of my evening agenda. My thoughts were brought back to the office when my boss stepped up to my desk and handed me an assignment slip.
“Have you ever heard of Saragossa?”
I repeated the word slowly, “Saragossa.”
“No, can’t say that I have. I like the sound of it though.”
“That’s good,” he replied. “Because I’m sending you there. I have a lead on a story that I think is right up your alley.”
“I’m on it,” I replied. “Fill me in on the details.”
“Saragossa is a re-creation of an old western cow town. It’s built on a dude ranch that’s been around for a few years. Its only just recently made its way onto the radar. Turning into quite the tourist attraction from what I understand. Why don’t you mosey yourself on out there and find me a story.” He chuckled at his own weak humor. “It’s up in the hills South of town. You’ll find the directions on the assignment slip.”
I’m somewhat of a western buff so I’m surprised I haven’t heard of this place until now. I’m anxious to check out Saragossa. The day is still young so I grab my coat and head for my car.
The drive is pleasant as the road I’m on has taken me quite a ways out into the country through tall timber and bare patches of recently logged off areas. It’s hard to believe anything out this far can turn into a tourist attraction of any real significance.
I’m actually beginning to wonder if I’m on the right road, but I soon come to a small makeshift wooden sign that says Saragossa and nothing more. It points to the right. I turn off the pavement and onto a dirt road where I drive for about a mile before I come to a small parking area. It’s almost full.
Another sign points in two directions. Left for overnight camping and right to town. I walk to the right and follow a short trail. It ends at a tall fence with an arched entry. A sign above it says ‘Welcome to Saragossa’.
Before I get to the entrance a real stagecoach pulls up right in front of me and unloads several visitors, then loads up a few more for a fun filled ride around the property. I make a mental note. I need to ride on that thing before I leave. I’m beginning to like this place already.
Walking through the gate is like walking into the past. Except for the tourists milling around, this place looks like the real deal. It’s a small town of maybe a dozen buildings. They’re all geared toward tourists. There’s a general store where you can purchase souvenirs, a boarding house where you can book a room for the night, a saloon where you can buy a drink and a jail that I hope is just for show.
I mosey (as my boss would say) along the boardwalk checking out the sights and taking a few pictures when I notice a sign of coming events including the next ‘Authentic Shootout’ at 3 o’clock.
So far, I’m impressed and decide to stop at the saloon to see if I can talk with someone who can answer a few questions for me. The bartender seemed like the logical choice. The sign attached to the bat wings says 21 and older only, so I figure they’re not serving sarsaparilla in here.
There were a few tourist looking types inside, but the majority of patrons were, (from what I found out later), western enthusiasts who volunteer to play the role of an authentic cowboy. There are poker players, men standing at the bar and even a couple of soiled doves milling around the patrons. It all looked authentic including the bartender. He’s an older gent, a bit overweight, has a handlebar mustache and wears a dirty white apron which he uses to wipe out the shot glasses and beer mugs.
“What can I do for ya mister?” He growls sharply as I came through the door.
I introduce myself. “My name is Scott. I’m a reporter for The Daily News and I’m here to dig up a story about this place.”
“Is that so,” he replies with an easier tone. “I’ve been here from day one. I can tell you anything you want to know and maybe a few things you don’t,” he chuckles and tells me I need to order a drink first.
What the hell, I figure. I’ll just start my weekend early. The whiskey bar in town will have to wait. “I’ll have a whiskey, and make it the good stuff,” I replied, thinking it was probably how a real cowboy would have ordered.
The bartender smiles. I have Jack Daniels, Crown Royal and Jameson Irish Whiskey. What’ll it be?”
“Jameson,” I reply.
He pours my drink and I down it. He pours me another and I leave it sit on the bar. “This town seems pretty authentic except for a few minor details,” I say as I point to the variety of alcohol bottles behind him.
“Well, we got to please the tourists,” he retorts with a smirk.
“I suppose that’s true,” I agree. “I wonder what the whiskey was really like back in the day?”
I thought it was a rhetorical question but the bartenders facial expression said otherwise. “You really want to know? I’ve done plenty of research on the subject.”
“What have you got,” I reply, smelling a possible story.
The bartender pours himself a drink and starts off by telling me a story…
“A cowboy walks into a saloon and moseys up to the bar. He slaps down his money, and just like you did, he says ‘I’ll take a whiskey, and make it the good stuff.’ The bartender sets a small glass onto the bar, pulls a bottle off the back shelf, pulls the cork and pours the man a shot. The ol’ cowboy grabs it up and gulps it down. He pounds on his chest a couple of times and lets out a whoop. “That’s some powerful tanglefoot you got their barkeep. I’ll take another.”
“Sounds like the whiskey was strong back then,” I remark.
“You don’t know the half of it,” replied the bartender. “This was a classic scene from the Old West played out in countless mining camps and cow town saloons of the 1800’s. Question is… what did the cowboy really get? What exactly was he drinking?”
“What do you mean?” I question.
“Well, here’s one of those things you may not want to know, but I’m gonna’ tell ya anyhow. I can guarantee you it wasn’t anything like the Jameson you’re drinking today. There was no such thing as quality control, and those things like ‘Standards and Practices’ they didn’t yet exist.
“In fact, mixing up a batch of whiskey was really not much of an art or a science back then. The whiskey served in many of the saloons was a fairly nasty concoction, which more than likely was put together in a back room behind the bar by the bartender himself.
The basic ingredient was usually raw alcohol, and to that, any number of strange ingredients may have been added to the batch including, but not limited to creosote, burnt sugar and chewing tobacco.”
I laughed. “You’re making this up.”
“Gods truth, this is the way it was. In fact, if the bartender purchased his Whiskey ‘ready made’ it was more likely than not to be 100 proof, but he didn’t necessarily serve it that way. He would usually cut it with such things as turpentine or ammonia to make it go further, and quite possibly he added a few ingredients of his own such as gunpowder or cayenne.
Back then gunpowder was made from a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter and carbon. It’s all edible.” He waits for a reaction from me and I don’t disappoint him.
“I don’t think I believe what you’re telling me. Turpentine? Gunpowder? OK, I’m calling bullshit here, you’re making this up.”
“I swear on Gods holy bible I’m not. You can do the research yourself if you like,” remarked the bartender.
He continued. “Can you imagine drinking a mixture of raw alcohol, chewing tobacco, creosote and cayenne pepper…and possibly even a little gunpowder?”
My stomach began to feel a little queasy as I thought about it. “I guess I can fully understand why it was served in a shot glass and drank down in one gulp. Proof enough for me that the whole idea behind drinking swill like that was to either get drunk or show your friends how tough you were.”
“Lets not forget the fact that the saloon was a man’s world, and bravado was definitely part of the scene,” replied the bartender.
He continued with his almost unbelievable story. “I have a few more facts for you. Seems the cowboys and miners who frequented these saloons had all kinds of names for this stuff. Like tanglefoot, rot gut, red eye, coffin varnish, ditch water, firewater, bug juice, pine top and forty rod.”
“Forty rod?” I questioned.
“Yup, the name Forty Rod has to do with distance. Forty rods is 660 feet, or the distance across a ten acre parcel of land. This stuff was so powerful, it could kill a man before he could walk that far if he drank enough of it.
“Here’s something else to think about. The name ‘Firewater’ is said to have originated with the Indians who were sold whiskey by the white man. They would spit the first mouthful into their fire and if it flared up, it was good.
“And one more thing. The term ‘proof’, originated back when whiskey dealers would test the strength of a product by soaking gunpowder in it and then trying to ignite it. If it lit up, it was considered 100 proof. The idea behind this test was to show the strength of the product and to prove that it wasn’t watered down.”
“Well that’s quite a story you got there, but I’m still not convinced there ‘s a lot of truth behind what you’re saying.”
The bartender smiled and cautiously gazed around the room. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Not only have I researched it, I’ve made some of it. Want to try a shot?”
I was a bit hesitant. I wasn’t sure if the man could be trusted. “It’s not Forty Rod, is it?” I jokingly questioned.
“No, but just the same, I do need you to sign a waiver. For my own protection,” he quickly added.
My curiosity was up and I was there for a story. I figured this was all part of the Saragossa experience so I played along. “How much?” I asked.
“Two bits for a double shot,” he replied.
“Well, what the hell, I’ll give it a go.” I plunked my quarter down on the bar and the bartender pulled out the paperwork.
I signed the waiver and the bartender pulled an unlabeled bottle out from under the bar. He poured a double and quickly stowed the bottle. He was quite the actor.
I smelled it. It was rank for sure. I set it back on the counter pretending to gather up my courage. The things I’ll do for a story, I thought.
The bartender chuckled. “Are you going to drink it or just stare at it?”
I took it as a challenge. I grabbed up the glass and drank it down. It instantly burned in my mouth and in my throat. It burned all the way down to my stomach. I started to gag and thought I was going to puke it right back up.
The bartender laughed out loud. “This is the whiskey those cowboys drank. You thought I was fooling. I’m not.”
My eyes were watering, I couldn’t talk and I started to feel sick to my stomach. I headed for the door wondering what the hell I had just done to myself. I could hear the bartender laughing as I stumbled out to the street.
“Don’t worry,” he called out after me. “It ain’t killed anyone… yet. you’ll be alright in the morning.”
I found a bench on the boardwalk and sat down with my head between my knees.
It was spinning and I felt awful. After a few minutes I realized I was in no condition to drive home. I walked across the street to the boarding house. Luckily there was a room available. I rented it for the night.
As I left the front desk I heard the clerk comment, “That damn bartender.” Apparently he had seen this before.
I made it to my room but don’t remember what happened after that. I woke up the next morning with a slight hangover and happy to be alive. I spent the morning writing up a few notes.
On my way out of town I stopped by the saloon. I still owed for the Jameson I drank. The bartender was there wiping glasses with his dirty apron.
“Well, I see you’re still with the living,” he said in jest.
I didn’t bother to ask him what I had drank. I just paid him and thanked him for the experience and the story. In fact, two stories. One about Saragossa and one about old style whiskey, the good stuff, or so they say.
© Copyright 2023 by Scott A. Gese All Rights Reserved.
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