By Samantha Gamez
Royce Hickman remembers the day vividly. Sitting in a booth in the back of Fitzwilly’s, his wife glanced around the bar.
“I wonder where your grandmother’s porch was located,” she asked.
Royce looked at her and said, “Mary, you’re sitting right here where I asked you to marry me.”
Exactly 50 years earlier, the newly engaged couple stood in the same spot on Royce’s grandmother’s porch. Now the Backyard (and formerly Fitzwilly’s), the lot on Northgate used to be an off-campus apartment.
It’s funny when you stop and think about the history of iconic places. In a city like College Station where history and tradition are the backbone of the culture, looking back on the history of Northgate is full of twists and surprises. Many people associate The Dixie Chicken with Northgate, but the well-known bar only opened just over 40 years ago. Before the Chicken opened on Northgate, University Drive was named Sulfur Springs Road. In the late ‘50s and ‘60s, the strip was home to Loupot’s Bookstore, McCarty’s Jeweler, Taylor’s Variety Store, and Charlie’s Food Mart. Bars were not anywhere in the now well-known bar district. In fact, Brazos was a dry, or alcohol-free, county until 1971, according to an article on the city of College Station website.
Royce Hickman, past president and CEO of the B/CS Chamber of Commerce, visited Sulfur Springs Road throughout his childhood. “My grandmother used to go grocery shopping on Northgate,” he says. “You can’t do that now.” Even when he attended Texas A&M University from 1960 to 1964, Northgate was a shopping center. He worked at Loupot’s Bookstore and his wife worked at one of the dry cleaners. Hickman bought his wife’s engagement ring at McCarty’s. It was pretty much the place to shop for your basic, everyday needs.
After Brazos County citizens voted to allow the purchase of alcohol in 1971, bars were finally able to operate. Dixie Chicken owner Don Ganter opened the Chicken in 1974 “just because.” The atmosphere is unlike any other. “People say you’re walking into Don Ganter’s mind,” says Adam Drake, who works in marketing for The Dixie Chicken Inc. “It has a down-home, comfortable feel.”
The Chicken quickly became the go-to hang out for many Texas A&M students. “It’s one of the places that people know,” says Drake. In 1982, the Chicken expanded from one building to two. The right side, with the long bar and the pool tables and the snake cage, was formerly Miranda’s. Before that, the Chicken was just the one long building from the main entrance on University Drive.
In the 1990s, the Chicken was a prime spot for live music and food. Artists would play on the back porch and locals and students would bring their trucks, couches, and lawn chairs to the parking lot to listen to the live music. The informal concerts were discontinued shortly after the construction of The Promenade in 1996, which was built to make Northgate a safe, walkable area, according to Natalie Ruiz, director of economic development for the city of College Station. Still, the draw of Northgate continued, and more bars popped up and took over the area.
Now, Northgate has more than 15 bars frequented by college students and visitors alike. With the investments in The Promenade and the high volume of visitors, Northgate is now the most expensive real estate in Brazos County, according to Ruiz. With Texas A&M across the street and student housing complexes such as The Tradition and The Rise next door, students can easily walk to the thriving bar scene for a beer at the Chicken or a margarita at Chimy’s.
Some of the buildings have lasted through the evolution of the bar district including Shiner Park. Formerly a movie theatre, the bar has held the names Shadow Canyon, Daisy Dukes, and Boulevard 217. Others have opened more recently, such at Logie’s On Campus and O’Bannon’s Taphouse, opening in 2004 and 2005 respectively.
Stores have come and gone. Bars have changed names and ownership. Still, Northgate has proven the test of time as a place to be in College Station. From grocery shopping in the 1960s to getting lit with your housemates today, the Northgate Bar District is a place where memories are made. They may not be the same memories as your granddad, but they are memories that will last a lifetime.
The summer between my sophomore and junior year, two of our friends had gotten their senior boots and we came over here and they pulled them out and were putting them on and trying them on and all that kind of good stuff even though they were not allowed to be wearing them yet. -Jodi
I fell in love at The Chicken; I dunked my ring at The Chicken. When my husband retired from the Marine Corp, we came to The Chicken. So Northgate has just been part of our Aggie experience from 1990 until now. -Amanda Fleming ‘94
One night, when we were still in high school, my grandma came out and she had never experienced Northgate before. She had sent all of her kids to A&M all of her grandkids to A&M but never been to Northgate. So she came out with us that night. It was before the LSU game in 2014 and we just had a great night. -Tyler Nelson ’19
I’ve always had like way too much fun here. I think my younger years, friends hanging out, having a great time. … I think that maybe I’m getting too old to be hanging out here, but I still do it and I just have a great time. -Sherylon
About three weeks into my freshman year a group of my friends took me to the Chicken and taught me how to play 42. -ReAnn Richards ’16
We used to have things called Networking Wednesdays in grad school and they basically turned into going on the porch at the Chicken on Wednesdays and hanging out. It was a way to tell our advisers that we were networking with each other. -Julie Anne Clark ‘13
Just spending time with friends. [There’s] something for everybody: lots of good food, lots of good places to eat and hang out. I even had a professor that had office hours at Fitzwilly’s back in the day. -Jeff Keese ’05
First time I stepped into the Chicken it was as an office outing and it was the first week I’d moved back to Texas and into College Station, and it was a good welcome home. -Chad McLaren ‘17
I was an ag economics major, which most of my classes were right over in Blocker, so I was just a block or two walk up the way and I found myself over here at lunch for the food and the evening for the festivities. Luckily, I was able to meet my wife [at the Chicken] and the rest is history. -Bret