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Texas Tales

published: January 24th 2020
by: Mike Cox

As the driver turned the lumbering Pickwick-Grey-hound bus off Route 66 for a construction detour that distant pre-dawn, most of his passengers slept or tried to. They were about to get a rude awakening.
    In the early 1930s commercial bus travel could hardly be considered luxurious, but a Yellow Coach Co.-built bus beat the horse-drawn stagecoaches of the previous generation, an era many Texans still remembered.  The bus had left Tulsa on the night of June 6, 1931 bound for El Paso. The last stop had been Erick, Oklahoma where two men boarded with tickets to the Panhandle town of Shamrock, Texas.
    About 2:30 a.m. on June 7, driver W.E. Trammel felt something hard poke him in the back—the barrel of a pistol. The gunman and another passenger—the pair who had gotten on the bus in Erick—ordered Trammel to stop the bus, open the door and hand over his money. The stunned Trammel complied but he had no money or valuables to surrender. With the nation gripped in what would come to be called the Great Depres-sion, Trammel was lucky to even have a job, much less any spending money.
    Two cars pulled up and five other men  rushed on the bus. Now Trammel understood the significance of the vehicles his bus had been sandwiched between since leaving Erick. One had been closely following him, the other keeping pace just ahead of it.
    When a rough search satisfied the robbers that Trammel wasn’t lying about not having any money, they cursed him and called him a “hack driver.” Then the hijackers turned their attention to the passengers, who they ordered off the bus. Like Trammel, five of the passengers either had no money or had managed to hide their cash and valuables. The take from the others ranged from $477 and a diamond ring lost by a woman from Michigan to a lady who had only $1 and a cheap watch.
    In all, the robbers netted $668 in cash and $273 in jewelry. That haul, totaling $941, would have the spending power of $14,640 in today’s dollars.
    Stealing a page from earlier “kind-hearted” outlaws like Jesse James, the robbers were not without consideration for their victims.
    “Emulating the chivalry of the old time wild west robbers,” the Associated Press reported later that day, “the highwaymen asked each passenger from whom they took money where he or she lived and ‘refunded’ enough change for them to wire home for more money and to buy their breakfast. The ‘refunds’ ranged from 70 cents to $1.50.”
    But while the robbers proved mildly considerate of their victims, they didn’t want the bus going anywhere. Opening the hood (buses back then still had the engine in the front, looking more like overlong trucks than the flat-nosed buses of today) they shattered two spark plugs, ripped out the ignition wiring and even cut the fuel line.
    With the bus disabled, the robbers got in the two cars that had been shadowing the bus and disappeared into the night. Trammel and two of the male passengers then walked more than 4 miles to the nearest town, Texola, Oklahoma. There, Tram-mel reported the robbery to the bus company’s office in Clinton, Oklahoma and in turn someone alerted law enforcement of the brazen robbery. The company also dispatched a mechanic who repaired the bus, which made it to Shamrock about sunup.
    The holdup was big news, the banner story in many newspapers. While there wasn’t anything funny about armed robbery, the anonymous AP staffer who filed the report must have had fun hoking it up.
     “Rivaling the thrills of a stagecoach holdup in the wild and woolly days of the old West,” the dispatch began, “ seven unmasked highwaymen halted a Pickwick-Greyhound westbound bus nine miles east of here [Shamrock] early this morning and robbed its 18 passengers…”
    Despite the splash it made, after the initial coverage, the story disappeared from the newspapers. Officers arrested two men in Erick, Oklahoma but when the bus passengers viewed them, they did not recognize anyone. If anyone else was ever arrested and charged with the holdup, which today would be a federal crime since it involved interstate commerce, it was not reported. And given the state of law enforcement in Texas at the time, that the case remained unsolved is not surprising.
    The newly created Texas Highway Patrol did not yet have radios in their patrol vehicles so response time would have been slow. Nor did most sheriff’s departments have two-way communication, especially those in small counties. The Texas Rangers surely investigated the case, but they had no forensic support and no tracks to trail. Another year would pass before even the FBI had a crime laboratory capable of analyzing fingerprints and any other evidence that might have enabled the case to be cleared.
    Meanwhile, Route 66—the so-called Mother Road—continued as a major transportation art-ery until Interstate 40 made it obsolete. The great Shamrock hijacking of 1931 has been forgotten, but Route 66 became an American icon.
***
    As New Year after New Year becomes last year and the year before, we begin to say goodbye more and more often. Those goodbyes are to friends and loved ones, things and places.
    Recently, I said adios to a place—Zentner’s Daugh-ter’s Steakhouse in San Angelo. (Note: Since they are out of business now, this does not constitute an advertisement. It is merely to lament the passage of yet another non-franchise, locally owned restaurant that offered good, reasonably priced meals.) The West Texas culinary landmark closed on December 31 after 45 years in business. But the restaurant’s story goes back much further.
    It began with John Zentner, a blue-eyed, craggy-faced son of a German immigrant who made his living as a butcher. In 1918, Zentner was an enlisted man serving as a U.S. Cavalry cook in Oregon. After the conflict known as the Great War before it became World War One, Zentner flipped burgers at his father’s meat market. Later, he brought his cooking skills to the Lone Star State and eventually settled in the Concho Valley.
    In 1946 Zentner opened the Lowake Inn, in the small town by that name just south of Rowena in Runnels County. Zentner also had a steakhouse in Rowena, which is where I became acquainted with him in 1967. As a younger reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times, I liked to stop at his Rowena place for a steak and beer or two when headed back to San Angelo (or as we West Texans call it, “Angelo”) from a work-related road trip.
    The first time I talked with Zentner was shortly after the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” came out. The biographical material on Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker that rolled after the bloody ending of the film noted that Bonnie had been born in Rowena. That seemed like a story to me, so I asked Zentner if he or anyone else around Rowena had known the woman who went on to become the nation’s most famous female outlaw.
    Zentner said he had never met her, but that he knew someone in town who had gone with her briefly. He gave me the man’s name and phone number and I called him from the steakhouse. Given that his wife answered the phone and apparently continued to stand nearby as he talked with me, he had to speak somewhat circumspectively. But yes, he had romanced Bonnie at a dance in Rowena. So far as he knew, he said, he was the first guy who ever kissed her.
    That wasn’t much, but by adding details on the career of the outlaw couple and connecting Rowena with the popular movie, it was enough to make a newspaper feature article. And allow me to put the meal on my expense account.
    Zentner closed his Rowena place at some point after I left San Angelo and opened a steakhouse on Beauregard Street in San Angelo. I ate there every time I was in town until it closed.
    Then, in 1974, Zentner and his daughter, Betty opened a restaurant in a shopping center on Knickerbocker Road just across from the Angelo State University football field. Known as Zentner’s Daughter’s Steakhouse, it became my go-to West Texas steak place. Betty acquired full ownership of the restaurant in 1994, the year her father died at 94.
    What I always ordered was their small filet mignon, which I think was the best in Texas. With that came a loaded baked potato, salad bar access and friendly service.
    I’ll remember the good food I enjoyed there, but there are other memories: An enjoyable lunch with the late Western novelist Elmer Kelton and his wife when I interviewed him for a newspaper article; suppers with Felton Cochran, owner of San Angelo’s Cactus Book Store and with Suzanne Campbell, longtime director of the West Texas Collection at Angelo State University. And, of course, there were meals with family and other friends like San Angeloans Preston and Harriet Lewis.
    Given the good food and all those memories, when I heard the steakhouse would be closing for good, I immediately started planning the 400-mile roundtrip to San Angelo from Wimberley for one more bacon-wrapped filet mignon. Some of my acquaintances thought it a bit excessive—ok, crazy—to spend seven or eight hours on the road just to eat a steak, but they’re folks who never had a meal at Zentner’s.
    After I’d polished off that final filet the day before the restaurant’s last day in business, I jokingly asked Zentner’s granddaughter, Kim, if there was any way I could talk her into keeping the steakhouse open. No way, she said in so many words. But she offered hope to those of us who are not practicing vegetarians: “I’ll probably be opening another place in a year or two,” she said, “and my brother will probably be starting something in Stephenville.” Happily, while the family sold the restaurant fixtures and cutlery, they did not sell their brand name.
SLS

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