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Austin's "Guy Town"
Austin, Texas

Contemporary Name / Traditional Vice

by Brewster Hudspeth

Worldwide, there's always been a distinct line between business conducted during banking hours and business conducted after sunset. The section of Austin known as "Guy Town" was defined as the area bounded by Congress Avenue to the east, the Colorado River to the south, Guadalupe Street to the west and 4th Street to the north. The entire area was eight square blocks.

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Austin's warehouse district sign

The area is now identified as Austin's "warehouse district."

TE Photo 10-04
Austin has always been a high contrast town. During the early years, it was said that one could stand on Congress Avenue (if one had nothing better to do) and hear baying coyotes, the clicking of billiard balls (the reassuring sound that civilization had arrived) and even the war-cry of hostile Indians. Then there was Mrs. Eberly's artillery practice... but that's another story.

The "cry of hostile Indians" that was heard may actually have been confused with the sounds of merriment coming from Guy Town. Although settlers were still being scalped out in Medina and Kerr Counties, Austin had become civilized to the point where its most pressing "Indian problem" in the second half of the 1800s was a single Native American named Bigfoot who had acquired the distinctly urban diversion of looking in people's windows. (He was named for the oversized footprints he left in flower beds.)

Worldwide, there's always been a distinct line between business conducted during banking hours and business conducted after sunset. The section of Austin known as "Guy Town" was defined as the area bounded by Congress Avenue to the east, the Colorado River to the south, Guadalupe Street to the west and 4th Street to the north. The entire area was eight square blocks.
Man and woman, old post card
Class distinction didn't matter in Guy Town. Here a legislator requests a biscuit recipe from the help.

TE Postcard Archives
Guy Town was where one went after one cashed one's check. It was a demimonde where cash was king and hard coin won out over paper currency every time. Guy Town had an agreement with the banks of Congress Avenue - Guy Town didn't cash checks and Congress Avenue didn't allow patrons to buy drinks for their female employees.

In Austin: An Illustrated History, researchers listed some trivial and/ or amusing crimes of old Austin. Austinites at one time could actually be arrested for misdemeanors including "indulging in exercise calculated to scare a horse," "appearing in clothes not belonging to one's sex," "rudely displaying a pistol," "playing city marshall" (Ben Thompson evidently didn't want to share the limelight), using "abusive language over the telephone," and playing baseball on Congress Avenue - a problem that has stubbornly persisted to this day. While ordinary folk were being arrested and/or fined for these offenses, denizens of Guy Town were cut some slack. Make that lots of slack.

Saloons and beer halls were everywhere. The difference between Anglo saloons and German beer gardens in Austin and San Antonio was that the beer gardens were family-friendly places where Germans came to socialize. Women and children could play croquet on real grass and men could drink and play horseshoes. Croquet never got a foothold in Guy Town - a fact that still puzzles historians and sociologists. Not quite as dangerous as New Orlean's Storyville or even Fort Worth's Hell's Half Acre, Guy Town still had dangers of it's own - not the least of which was City Marshall Ben Thompson who enjoyed firing blanks into crowded saloons just for the hell of it. What a card.

Like the Mexican "Zones of Tolerance" of the 20th Century - Guy Town was tolerated (enthusiastically). Protests were made, but the eyes and ears of the city council were blind and deaf. When one crusading reformer reported that on a single night he counted over 100 UT students in Guy Town, the city council had to ask: "What's your point?" Guy Town was so popular with politicians that the businesses known as "female boarding houses" had to hire new boarders whenever the legislature was in session. Defenders of the neighborhood and those who claimed never to have visited there referred to it quaintly as "Lively Town." These were the same people who would call Mardi Gras "a little religious parade."

While whiskey and women were the two main rings of the Guy Town circus, there were continuous side shows sponsored by cocaine and opium. Trade was so brisk in these drugs that they spawned a new business - an early version of what we now call a recovery clinic. Hanging their shingle at 108 7th Street, the Hagey Hospital advertised that their "Bi-Chroride of Gold" treatment was guaranteed to cure "Liquor, Opium, Morphine, Cocaine and Tobacco Diseases" and "not to cause delirium." And if that wasn't enough to get you to enroll; their clincher was that you wouldn't even miss a day of work. Good for the addict - maybe not so good for his coworkers.

Austin once chided Waco for it's officially sanctioned "Reservation" - a downtown district where prostitutes were issued annual non-tranferable city licenses. But Waco imposed very strict rules. Prostitutes (a.k.a. "actresses") who left their boarding houses to go shopping were not allowed to speak to the general populace under threat of banishment. In Austin, wayward actresses were merely escorted back within the boundaries of Guy Town. Waco's Reservation outlived Guy Town by about four years. It was closed by order of the U.S. Army during W.W.I - when it was viewed as a potential health hazard to the troops preparing for the slaughter in Europe.

The Austin city council did vote to shut down Guy Town at one point, but the decision was vetoed by the Austin mayor. It wasn't until Ragtime music appeared that complaints got more vociferous. The raucous music was bad enough - but when the "professors" of Guy Town took the felt off the piano keys - it was the proverbial last straw. Sporadic gunshots, screams and vile language were tolerated - but it must've seemed to citizens of Austin that the pianists of Guy Town were playing their out-of-tune pianos in shifts. Finally in October of 1913, Austin Police Chief Will Morris carried out the order to close Guy Town for good.
Ghost sign for horseshoeing in Austin

A ghost sign for horseshoeing

TE Photo 10-04

The only extant building from Guy Town's heyday is the old Schneider Store. The building underwent a restoration in 2001 while excavations went on over a four-block area. The dig yielded over 100,000 artifacts. Marbles, dice and poker chips reveal there was a strong interest in interactive games. Bottles of champagne and French perfume show that although the neighborhood was rough, there were still those who wanted to enjoy the finer things - especially if someone else was paying for them. A key, a lone spur (as with most lost footwear - there's never a pair), a corset stay, buttons and snuff bottles round out the inventory of relics. Back-alley privies and cisterns were discovered - and even a limestone beer vault. While privies traditionally reveal many artifacts - in this case they were shallow places carved into the limestone which were periodically emptied.

The area that was once Guy Town has become much less colorful over the years, but with all the incidents of mayhem and suicide that occurred there; it's a wonder there aren't volumes of ghost stories coming from the offices and restaurants that now conduct business there. It's been years since anyone has indulged in "exercise calculated to scare a horse" although "using abusive language over the telephone" is frequently heard. As for "appearing in clothes not belonging to one's sex" - it doesn't even raise eyebrows in contemporary Austin.

John Troesser

Related Stories:
Hell's Half Acre: Fort Worth's Dirty Secret by Joshua V. Chanin

An alley in Guy Town, Austin, Texas
Contemporary view of an alley in "Guy Town."

TE Photo 10-04

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