The Story of Pancho Villa on the Double Doors Hung High Above the Bar
SAN ANGELO, TX — February 8, 1986. That day is etched forever into the memory of Taylor Cole. He was in his last semester of high school, a senior at Lake View. He got the phone call.
His father’s store downtown, Cole’s Army Surplus, was on fire. Taylor rushed downtown to the intersection of S. Chadbourne St. and Concho Ave. where the back of the family’s sole source of income was engulfed in flames. “It started with a space heater in the back,” Taylor recalled.
“It was a heart wrenching ordeal,” Cole recalled. Thinking quickly, Cole said he thought of the cash his father hid in front of the building near the cash register. Well, it was a calculator, actually. Every sale in circa 1986 Cole’s was recorded into a spiral-bound cash receipts book. Cole somehow evaded the firefighters and ran in through the front of the building and retrieved the book and as much cash as he could find.
“I got caught. A fireman chewed me out,” he said. But he still got what cash he could.
Cole’s occupied part of the building, a former wool and mohair warehouse built in the 1890s, that Lee Pfluger had purchased for about $2 per square foot way back when. Downtown was blighted, but Pfluger thought the investment was cheap enough. “Maybe one day…” he must have thought.
In 1986, the revitalization of any downtown in the U.S., much less San Angelo’s oversized central business district, was a daunting task. Sunset Mall had opened in 1979. That was where the action was, not downtown.
Pfluger and cable mogul Ken Gunter had an eye for the impossible. Gunter would embark upon rebuilding the Block One of E. Concho Ave. less than a decade into the future. In the meantime, the two were sometimes competitors, sometimes partners in purchasing what could best be described as debris of the past: those old buildings not many businesses wanted to lease. Most of them stayed empty. Vagrants and homeless people were more plentiful than shoppers. The City of San Angelo even passed an ordinance forbidding open alcohol containers downtown.
For Taylor Cole and family, they were already planning an exodus from the former wool and mohair warehouse. They had purchased a building 4.5 blocks north, at 118 N. Chadbourne St. where they planned to move the army surplus store. “The fire just accelerated our move,” said Cole.
“When the fire happened, my dad (Ronnie Cole) was at his fishing lease on the Colorado River,” Taylor said. There were no cell phones back then. Taylor made a day trip the next day to inform his dad. “I said, dad, we had a little fire…” Taylor recalled.
When Ronnie Cole and son returned to San Angelo, Taylor recalled he and his father stood in front of the warehouse building soaking in what just happened. “I thought you said it was a ‘little’ fire,” Taylor recalls his father gently scolding him. The store was a total loss.
Pfluger recalled that the fire got so hot that it blew out all of the windows. Those windows, he said, were made of “cheap” glass that was probably installed in the 1940s or 1950s. Cole’s moved north to their present location. Pfluger was left with a blighted, burned out hull of a building. In 1986 no one thought the building was worth more than the $2 per foot he paid for the property.
In those days, Pfluger and Gunter were putting in more money than they were making on downtown. It didn’t make business sense for Pfluger to spend money repairing the old building, so he boarded the broken windows up with plywood and left it.
“Gunter would get on me about the old building and how it looked,” Pfluger recalled. It was practically in the center of the downtown area, and the boarded up façade was an eyesore. “If it wasn’t the ugliest building in San Angelo, it was close to it,” Pfluger recalled.
A few years passed before an artist traveling through town found Pfluger and proposed that he paint murals on the plywood panels. The artist volunteered to do it for free.
Above: If this wasn't the ugliest building all of San Angelo, it was close to it, said the building's owner, Lee Pfluger. Note "Pancho Villa" on the front door. 1 W. Concho Ave. circa 2014. (Google Street View)
On the front door, the artist painted Pancho Villa on horseback charging out of the panel. On the east and north side of the building, the artist painted western cowboy scenes.
“He put his phone number on one of the panels,” Pfluger recalled. No one is certain why. Maybe the artist volunteered to paint the murals as a marketing ploy to get a paid gig. The building is located at a busy intersection.
By 1992, the Urban Planning and Design Team study, or R/UDAT, was accomplished and the nucleus of the downtown revitalization was emerging on the block east of Pfluger’s old building. “Gunter was still on me about the way that building looked,” Pfluger said. Pfluger said he held Gunter off for about a decade. “Sometime around 2002, Gunter asked me to at least repaint those murals,” Pfluger said.
Pfluger called the phone number the artist had conspicuously painted on one of the panels. By then, 15 years later, the phone was disconnected. “I think this was before Google, so we never found him,” Pfluger said. No other artist would touch the panels. Painting over another artist’s work is frowned upon, Pfluger said.
Above: An up close view of the Pancho Villa double doors. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
So the building sat there with its murals fading for another 13 years.
In 2015, the downtown business climate improved greatly and Pfluger found a suitor for the building. He was running a hamburger restaurant out a food truck and he positioned himself as a chef named Tim Condon. Condon’s Angry Cactus was the spark that made business sense to revitalize the old building.
Above: The new doors at the Angry Cactus where the Pancho Villa doors were. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
With a penchant for preserving something from the past, Condon had the building’s former front doors, the panels with Pancho Villa painted on them, mounted above the bar, lock hasp and all.
Saturday is the one-year anniversary of the grand opening of the Angry Cactus. The San Angelo Chamber of Commerce agreed to hold a ribbon cutting again. To commemorate the event, Condon has purchased an antique padlock and key. The centerpiece of the ceremony will be Condon locking the hasp with a padlock and then placing the key into a shadowbox that will be hung on a wall nearby.
Above: The Angry Cactus today. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
It’s not quite a cornerstone. Condon thought for a while he’d make a bigger publicity stunt by ceremoniously throwing the key into the Concho River. “My guys thought that idea was silly, so we bought the shadowbox,” he said.
If you’ve ever sat at the Angry Cactus bar at 1 W. Concho Ave. and wondered why double doors with a painting of Pancho Villa were hung high above the liquor shelves, now you know the rest of the story.