Aggieland's Most Famous Watering Hole Turning 40

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COLLEGE STATION - Don Ganter called it "the romance," an atmosphere started in an old record store across from the Texas A&M campus that became the most well-known bar in Aggieland.

Saturday night, The Dixie Chicken will hold a birthday bash to celebrate 40 years of cold beer and country music. Starting at 11:00 a.m., live music (including Roger Creager) will make the romance blossom for patrons young and old, many of whom will come back to town to be a part of the party.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Jennifer Hernandez -- a little more than half The Dixie Chicken's age and a Former Student -- had the bar on her mind when she returned to the area.

"I came to catch up with an old friend," she said, "and I thought, 'what better place to do it than the Chicken?'"

She sat with that friend, current A&M student Tom Seagraves.

"It's got a familiar vibe," he said of the place. "It's not too fancy. You can walk in with shorts and a T-shirt, whatever you want to do. No one here judges you."

In 1974, Don Ganter, a former A&M vet school student and real estate agent, wanted something else to do, and put his eyes on and his money in a building on University Drive.

"So him and his partner, Donnie Anz, decided to open the Chicken with progressive country music and just have cold beer," said Jennifer Ganter.

She and sister Katy Jackson consider the bar a sibling. Don and his wife Ann brought them into the world just a few years after they birthed the Chicken.

"I used to sleep in a beer box under the bar when I was a baby," Jennifer said. "I know that not a lot of people can say that."

There used to be a bed in the place, and Jennifer and Katy would have to check in at the bar before curfew. Don would be there late, playing records and serving beer, not drinking too much, the sisters say.

Don Ganter died in 2004. The Chicken moved to his daughters' control.

"I thought for a long time that I wanted to be a teacher like my mom," Katy said. "The more I grew up, it's just kind of in your blood."

So the Aggie siblings -- Don made sure they were going to get their college degrees -- got the charge and the challenge to keep the Dixie Chicken going strong and going the same, a place that someone could go to one day, come back a decade later and feel right at home.

It's not like the place hasn't changed some. In 1982, a path was put in the wall between the adjoining building, one owned by Don Ganter and known then as Miranda's, and the Chicken expanded into that property.

A kitchen was also added, one Freddy Alvarez has been a burger-flipping staple in. He has worked in Don Ganter's kitchens since the early 1980s when he was an A&M student.

"I think the kids, the way people do their styles, the way they look, the way they dress, stuff like that," Alvarez said when asked if things had changed. But the way this place looks?

"Oh no, very minimal."

You can play pool. You can carve your name in a table. You can drink a beer and play dominoes. You can march in or out off of Bottle Cap Alley. These are decades-long traditions that the owners work to maintain in a place they work to turn 41 years old, 42, 43, and on and on.

Is there pressure to make that happen?

"If I think about it too much, I start getting a little nervous because we want to make it great and keep it up so people want to come back," Jennifer Ganter said.

But there's also appreciation for the chance to keep the Dixie Chicken the same as it ever was.

"We thank God we're here every day," Katy Jackson said. "We thank God we get to open the doors. I get to work with my sister, and that's amazing. A lot of people don't get to do that."

Aggie ring dunks, a live rattlesnake (caged and contained), lots of beer and a Luckenbach-feel Don Ganter wanted all have carried the Chicken's reputation far and wide. How many bars make the Guinness Book of World Records for most beer served per square foot?

How many get mentioned by presidents? In late 2008, George W. Bush gave a commencement address at A&M. Robert Gates, the former university president and then-Defense Secretary, couldn't make it.

"He's got an excused absence, it's not like he's over at the Dixie Chicken," Bush said to laughter and applause.

And there's a legacy across Northgate, too. The Ganter girls rattled off name after name of bars that are owned and operated by former employees of their father, who opened the district's first bar four decades ago.

"We take pride in what is the tradition of A&M, and we hopefully are part of that tradition," Katy said. "We feel that we are, and we hope to be that."

Be it calm Friday lunches or rowdy Saturday nights, the Chicken's glow could beckon anyone, even if the food and drinks aren't their thing.

"If you don't like to drink and you don't like to eat burgers, we hope you at least walk through," Jennifer said.