Riley’s rural jam
Way back in September 1933, James Curtis Riley drove to Austin with his uncle in a Model T Ford and camped out on the Capitol steps. In the morning, he was first in line to register for a beer license, which he used to reopen the old Galloway Saloon in Hunter, Texas.
Riley’s mother was a Galloway, but 17-year-old J.C.’s new beer joint, which still sits midway between San Antonio and Austin, was re-christened Riley’s Tavern.
The tavern was an instant success with the local farmers and ranchers who freighted cattle and cotton to a railroad depot at York Creek, which flows through Hunter and crosses IH-35 about 1 mile to the east.
8894 FM 1102 (Hunter)
Noon-1 am Saturday
(Take the York Creek Road exit off IH-35 and go west 1 mile)
Business boomed as Riley operated the joint for the next 58 years. Legend has it that Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson made the rural hot spot a regular venue for special sessions of the legislature (at least, he liked to drink there), and Riley kept the doors open even after 1977, when Hays County and San Marcos went wet. He died in 1992, and is buried in the York Creek Cemetery, less than two miles from where he was born.
According to the Handbook of Texas Online, Riley’s closed in 1990 having become the “most active and long-surviving business” in Hunter, which had a population of about 50 residents.
But that’s not the end of the story. Rick and Donna Wilson reopened Riley’s Tavern in the early ‘90s, and the old saloon became a haven for motorcyclists and car-rally enthusiasts. Nowadays, Riley’s Tavern is owned by Joel Hofmann, who bought the place two years ago and since then has added 1,000 square feet to the original building, including a full bar. Happy hour is from noon-7 p.m. every day.
Riley’s has a large backyard that separates the saloon from J.C. Riley’s old house, a creek-side cottage built with wood from an old railroad depot that was torn down across the street in the ‘30s. Today, it’s fully furnished and can accommodate up to six people, and Hofmann rents it out.
Hofmann plays lead guitar in his own band, the impetus for buying the old bar. “I had played here for a couple of years, and the owners told me it was for sale,” he says. “I thought it would be a good way to stay in the music scene and survive, a way to enjoy music and still make a little money.”
The Southwest Texas State University and Texas State University students who work at Riley’s create a dynamic atmosphere, says Hofmann, and his clientele is varied. A visitor might see 50 motorcycles parked in front of the old tavern on Saturday afternoon, but Hofmann also rents out the patio for weddings and other celebrations.
The original saloon contains the old wooden bar, where customers now relax in air-conditioned comfort, but otherwise the tavern has no outstanding decor except the obligatory used license plates. Out on the patio, tables and chairs are abundant and, just as importantly, a pathway to the “outhouses,” or in the men’s case, the Used Beer Department, is well laid out. A word of caution: If you sit outside at dusk, a swarm of vicious York Creek mosquitoes will attack you, so think about using repellant on your next outing to Riley’s.
Ignore what official Texas history says about Riley’s Tavern closing in 1990. That may have been the wishful thinking of a New Braunfels historian — perhaps a teetotaler? The old Galloway Saloon is still jumping seven days a week, under some old oak and pecan trees halfway to Austin from San Antonio.
Visit Rileystavern.com for a monthly listing of country and rockabilly bands slated to play, which features live music “almost every night.”
- Michael Cary