In 1933, 29 years after Austin sealed the deal on 31 used moonlight towers, bootlegger and entrepreneur Kenneth Threadgill opened a Gulf filling station just north of the Austin City Limits sign.
To Threadgill, it was more than just a filling station.
Bootlegger with a Beer License
Threadgill was first in line for a beer selling permit. With a stage on site, his tiny filling station became a favorite place for thirsty travelers and musicians traveling hither and thither. This continued for the next several decades and drew in the likes of Hank Willams and Lefty Frizzell.
It’s no surprise Threadgill’s was a haven for musicians because Kenneth Threadgill grew up loving and singing music. It was fairly common to see Threadgill walk out from behind the bar, grab a mic and start singing with whatever band was on stage at the time. In the late 1940s Kenneth Threadgill turned off the fuel pumps to focus on beer.
As the 1960s came around, Threadgill embraced the weirdness that would come to define Austin and welcomed those long-haired dope smoking hippies. He also worked to integrate the music scene by inviting African American artists with open arms. Under a firm “no hate” policy, rednecks and hippies sat side by side and shared vices and music.
It was during this time a broke and bluesy singer from Port Arthur, Texas named Janis Joplin developed her singing chops.
Avoiding the Wrecking Ball
Eventually, Threadgill’s closed and was nearly demolished. It was saved by nostalgic city council member Lowell Leibermann Jr. and purchased by Eddie Wilson. Wilson, a McCallum High School graduate and friend of Threadgill’s daughter Dotty, also owned Armadillo World Headquarters.
Wilson grew up with his momma’s country food. He knew what a good home cooked meal does for a person. On New Years Eve 1980, Wilson closed the Armadillo. Exactly one year later, Threadgill’s reopened as a restaurant. In 1996, Wilson opened the Threadgill’s World Headquarters down the road form the original Armadillo.
Editor’s Note: Threadgill’s on Riverside shuttered in 2018.
Today both Threadgill’s locations are open and fully operational. The original location, once on the outskirts of Austin, is now smack-dab in the middle of the city at 6416 N Lamar. It still maintains that old school vibe Kenny Threadgill cultivated from the 1930s-1960s.
Laced with vintage neon lights inside and out, the Old Number 1 is reminiscent of an old school roadside diner with a special room dedicated to Janis Joplin.
The “south” location is more downtown than S Austin these days, but the venue at 301 West Riverside still provides food and music to Austinites. It boasts a theme that shows a ton of love to the old Armadillo World Headquarters. You better believe there’s an outdoor stage, too.
Both locations are open 365 days a year.
Wilson has said in an NPR interview that he has two museums. With an establishment that has a 81 year history, that’s a good sized understatement.
The details and minutia of Threadgill’s stories, legends and shenanigans could fill several articles, and I haven’t even mentioned the food. I mean, what kind of Austinot writer would I be if I didn’t mention the food? It’s good. I like it.
Food at Threadgill’s
I’m not a foodie. I don’t exactly have a delicate pallet and my dining experiences are more visceral. I don’t care about presentation or anything like that.
All I know is that when I sit down and take that first bite off my plate at Threadgill’s, I stop. I close my eyes and the flavors of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy take me back to my grandma’s kitchen. A place where cornbread and everything else was made from scratch along with a healthy helping of love. I’m a fast eater, but not at Threadgill’s.
The environment and food makes you want to slow down and enjoy the meal and company of your friends and family. It’s like the Sunday lunches we used to have when I was a kid. I’m used to going full throttle, fueled by caffeine and candy bars. Any restaurant that can take me back to a time when my biggest worry was whether or not I could go outside and play after I changed out of my church clothes is at the top of my list.
Go to Threadgill’s and eat some of that country food, take in the atmosphere and enjoy yourselves. The menu is great and there’s always live music. What more can you ask for?
@ElDavidThomas wants to know:
What’s your favorite part of the Threadgill’s experience?
Cover photo by luna715 via Flickr CC.
Fantastic post. I went with my family to the south Austin location last night. It was as fantastic as you describe (wasn’t my first visit). It’s old Austin, but trendy at the same time.
Thank you for the compliment and sentiments. I would absolutely go back to Threadgill’s and take out of town family there as well.
For your younger readers who may not appreciate what “bootlegger” really means or the year that the Volstead Act was repealed, it might be good to explain what it means that Kenneth Threadgill was “first in line to get a beer license.” Because, that is, selling booze was legal again for the first time since 1920. Also, did Threadgill actually African-Americans to participate? I know that Ed Guin felt pressured to be “cool” and actually not take a turn singing so as not to rock the redneck boat.
The Volstead Act turned our country into a mess. That’s why I wasn’t surprised Kenneth Threadgill was a bootlegger. I can imagine his excitement when it was finally repealed. As for being pressured or not to let African American’s perform, I don’t know. From what I’ve researched, it seems that he was simply into good music, regardless of ethnicity.
Members of the campus area “Ghetto” commune, where Janis stayed for a while, and who were stalwarts of the Folksing and Threadgill’s hootenannies, have commented on how there was great pressure on Ed Guinn to resist trying to join in the singing, because they were all afraid to push the integration thing too far. Ed went on to be a founding member of Conqueroo, among other noteworthy contributions to making Austin a genuine music scene, and as recently as a couple of months ago, Ed commented that while Austin was becoming much cooler in the sixties, it was still a pretty redneck place. I can verify that myself.
I attended little jam sessions with my father Don Rodgers, Hoot McDaniel and many others in the 60s and 70s.Those were the days.
I miss the chicken fried steak and mashed taters at Threadgills from 30 years ago!
You spelled “Janis” incorrectly. It’s Janis Joplin, not Janice. Terrible in a number of ways.
You’re right, @doyourhomeword, that is terrible. Caught one misspelling, but not the others. And the fact this mistake is two years old doesn’t make me feel any better. 😉 Appreciate the catch.