The entryway of an ornately-decorated dive bar with animal heads and wooden saloon doors

The Dixie Chicken Celebrates 50 Years in Aggieland

The college town’s classic watering hole still serves a good time

By Dave Dalton Thomas

Photos by Tom McCarthy Jr.

 

Brig. Gen. Patrick Michaelis has served his country in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And he’s been stationed across the world, from Pennsylvania and Poland to Kentucky and Germany. Still, the 1993 Texas A&M graduate, who now serves as commandant of the Corps of Cadets for the university, is always happy to return to the Dixie Chicken in College Station for its distinct brand of Texas culture.

“Anytime I’ve had an opportunity to come back to Aggieland, a mandatory drop by the Chicken has been tied to it,” he says. “It’s a place to ignite memories, catch up with classmates, and watch the cycle of life continue.”

This month, the storied bar next to campus celebrates 50 years of serving beer and good times. In the last half-century, the Chicken has aged into the worn-in, old Texas bar it was designed to be when it was built, and it’s maintained its favored status with Aggies by staying true to itself. But the Chicken is at a crossroads.

“I don’t feel like students today drink how they used to,” co-owner Jennifer Ganter says. In the past, it wasn’t weird for students to make rash decisions. “Oh, it’s Tuesday,” she mimics. “Let’s skip class and go to the Chicken.” But that doesn’t happen much anymore.

The exterior of a dive bar

The Dixie Chicken is a nod to Luckenbach and the Jerry Jeff Walker album ¡Viva Terlingua!

Nowadays, the Chicken keeps Aggies crossing the road with its food. For many, it’s a restaurant rather than a roadhouse. The vibe was a sign of the time when the Chicken was hatched in early 1974. Co-founders Don Anz and Don Ganter were inspired to open the watering hole after hearing and seeing the new Jerry Jeff Walker album, ¡Viva Terlingua! Inside the album’s gatefold was a picture of the bar in Luckenbach where it was recorded—all weathered wood, vintage beer signs, and dusty deer heads. The image was a eureka moment for the two. “We both said, ‘Let’s do something like this,’” Anz says.

Anz owned a record store while Ganter was in the real estate business. Both were restless for something new. When an old pool hall across the street from campus called the Aggie Den came up for lease, Anz snagged it. He was enamored with the progressive country sound coming out of Austin, thinking it might spread across Texas. Ganter might have leaned more toward Southern rock—they named their bar after the 1973 Little Feat song “Dixie Chicken”—but he could see it, too. They each borrowed a few thousand dollars and started prowling backroads for old barn wood to cover the walls and floors.

A group of people wearing Aggie attire talk at a bar

The 12th man gets hyped for a game.

Once the Chicken was built, Ganter and Anz wondered if anyone would come. Willie Nelson had united the hippies and rednecks in Austin a few years earlier, but that didn’t mean Texas A&M—a former all-male, military-influenced, and 13th “most conservative college,” according to the 2024 Niche College Rankings—was ready to embrace that lifestyle. However, the opening of the first women’s dorm on campus in 1972 and the lowering of the drinking age to 18 in 1973 were powerful agents of change.

Anz says some “longhairs” came in when the Chicken opened and “they got it.” Then some cowboys came in and they understood it, too. “I walked in there late at night and people were singing ‘Redneck Mother’ and ‘London Homesick Blues’ in unison,” Anz says. “I never heard of anybody doing that at bars, but every night it happened.”

The partnership between Anz and Ganter lasted a few years before Anz left to try new things, opening multiple College Station restaurants. Ganter doubled down, closing an adjoining bar he owned and adding that space to the Chicken. During the Chicken’s first 30 years, music played a major role in establishing the bar’s mystique. Playing DJ in a cowboy hat and puffing on a big cigar, Ganter swapped out records so often, the cardboard covers would come apart and he’d patch them up with Dixie Chicken bumper stickers.

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Early progressive country music fans were drawn to the back porch, where in the late ’70s, Aggies Robert Earl Keen, class of ’78; and Lyle Lovett, class of ’79, played live shows. Rising country musician Rich O’Toole, class of 2005, says the Chicken provided his first real gig. “I played the back porch for one hamburger and fries,” the Houston native says.

In 2004, Ganter died, and his daughters, Katy Jackson and Jennifer Ganter, took over the business. The women had grown up in the Chicken, playing hopscotch and video games upstairs when they were young and working there while they were students at A&M.

“They knew exactly what to do,” Ann Ganter, Don’s widow, says. “They knew how to run the office, how to order, how to deal with employees.” That didn’t mean it was easy. “It was a battle after he died,” Jackson says. “One, we were young. Two, we were women. And three, we were in the bar industry. Those things didn’t add up well at first.”

Rules of the Roost

Bottle Cap Alley: The alley on the southwest side of the Chicken is covered in bottle caps, going back to when the bar served longnecks on ice at a brisk rate. Now that draft beer is more popular, Texas breweries such as Shiner will bring in a load of caps to keep the tradition alive.

Sneaky Snake: The Chicken keeps a rattlesnake, named “Sneaky Snake” after the Tom T. Hall song, in an enclosure in the bar. Co-owner Katy Jackson used to tend to the snake until she got pregnant and her husband drew the line. The Chicken now employs a herpetologist to care for Sneaky.

Ring dunking: In the 1980s, a tradition started of dunking one’s newly acquired Aggie class ring in a pitcher of beer and drinking to retrieve it. Sixty ounces proved tough for some students, and in 2005, state law limited the tradition to 32-ounce mugs.

An overhead view of a paper plate loaded with cheese fries

The cheesy Tijuana Fries are a house favorite.

A person walks on a floor covered with brown rusted bottle caps

Innumerable old bottle caps blanket the ground in Bottle Cap Alley.

The sisters emerged from those hard times and have steered the Chicken—still deeply rooted in the ’70s—into present day. Liquor was added, plus more TVs. They had also redone the porch before Ganter died. When part of the roof collapsed in 2020, rebuilding offered a chance and a challenge to redecorate appropriately. Like Luckenbach, Gruene Hall, and the Broken Spoke in Austin, the Chicken is a snapshot of a Texas that now mostly exists only in nostalgia. And the Chicken is also the off-campus face of Aggieland, featured in commercials and name-checked during football broadcasts. Living up to those roles isn’t easy, but a vigorous social media presence and robust merchandise sales have given the Chicken the opportunity to thrive.

The sisters are excited about the birthday festivities this month. They anticipate that the return of the football rivalry with the University of Texas is going to make game day in November something special. But when asked about what the future of the Chicken looks like, their focus is on tradition. “Hopefully it looks the same as it looks right now,” Jackson says.

Michaelis, the commandant, drops by occasionally when it’s not busy. Walking through the doors is a way to reminisce. “The atmosphere, the music—it all brings thoughts and feelings back to a simpler time,” he says. “It’s like coming home.”

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