A portrait of Col. Jesse Driskill still hangs above the first flight of the grand staircase in the iconic Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas, overseeing all the activity in the lobby.
That portrait is just one of the family ties the landmark hotel has to Wyoming.
“It’s quite an opulent hotel,” Wyoming Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, told Cowboy State Daily. “It was built by my three greats grandfather in 1886 or so. It was one of the most fancy hotels in the United States when it was built, and it still stands to this day, in its original form.”
The Driskill Hotel, which cattle baron Jesse Driskill built as a showplace, recently won a people’s choice award from newspaper readers in Austin, and Driskill couldn’t have been prouder of the fact, even though his family no longer owns the hotel.
“We actually lost that (hotel) one year later,” Driskill told Cowboy State Daily. “The winter of 1886 and 1887 our family lost close to 50,000 head of cattle in Wyoming.”
That loss consumed both the hotel and the ranching operations in Texas — a bitter pill for the family to swallow. Despite that, however, Driskill said the family has kept in touch with The Driskill down through the years and the generations.
That’s why when the hotel was recently purchased by a new group, Driskill reached out.
“We’re in the process of working with them to display some of the old family stuff and potentially provide them with beef and other products,” Driskill said.
Jesse Driskill came to Texas from Missouri in 1849 and entered the cattle business in 1857. He worked hard to establish himself and, in 1869, brought his wife and six children to Texas with him.
By then, Driskill had made — and then lost — a small fortune selling cattle to the Confederacy during the Civil War, earning his honorary title of Colonel.
By 1880, though, Jesse Driskill had made that fortune back and then some, and he’d become an established, well-known businessman and civic leader in Austin.
That was when the cattle baron decided he would reach a little higher. He would build a hotel to rival that of any in the new world. New York, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco — hotels that resembled nothing if not grand palaces — would have nothing on The Driskill.
For this dream, Jesse purchased a corner lot in Austin on what was then Brazos and Pecan Streets. Today it’sSixth Street. The purchase price was all of $7,500, a grand sum in those days. The hotel he built, however was even grander. It cost $400,000 in 1886 dollars. That’s the equivalent of $92 million today.
It quickly became the talk of the town in Austin, and there was no better place for newly elected Texas Governor Sul Ross to hold his inaugural ball.
Inaugural balls fast became the tradition for The Driskill. It was such a grand hotel, there really was no other comparable option.
Present Day Driskill
Today, The Driskill features 189 historic guest rooms, including 14 particularly spacious suites. Grandaddy of them all is the Cattle Baron Suite, which, by itself, is an unbelievable 1,230 square feet. It includes a dining room that can generously seat eight people, and a spacious living room, complete with a beautiful fireplace.
The opulent character of The Driskill Hotel rivets the eye from the entry way, with stained glass doors framed beautifully by polished wood panels. The doors open onto a grand, columned lobby, which includes beautiful marbled floors and a stained glass dome.
History, meanwhile, appears in just about every corner of the hotel, which offers 18,000 square feet of meeting and event space.
Museum-quality art has been placed in the corridors of the hotel, including that portrait of Jesse Driskill himself.
Three dining options are available. The Driskill bar, which has been named best in the nation by publications like USA Today and Southern Living, features rustic leather couches and cowhide bar stools, as well as some of the best whiskey cocktails around.
The 1886 Cafe and Bakery, meanwhile, begun in 2002, is stocked with recipes from the hotel’s past. Those recipes include those of the famed Helen Corbitt, one-time Neiman Marcus culinary director, and well-known Duchess of Austin, Texas cuisine.
And then there’s The Grill, which serves elevated cuisine with an Austin flair. Be careful who you take with you to The Grill, though. The place just happens to be the location of President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson’s first date. It was clearly love at first bite.
Keeping The Wyoming Connection Alive
When The Driskill celebrated its 100th and 125th anniversaries, Ogden Driskill and his family were there for the occasion. In fact, they wouldn’t have missed it for all the wild horses in the world.
It’s all part of keeping the family’s connection to its roots strong.
“Our family’s very driven about history,” Driskill said. “We’re an old, grand family, and it’s important to us to maintain our heritage, which actually dates back to Ireland originally, and then back to Texas.”
The family’s Irish history, by the way, tracks back to the Norman Conquest in the 900s and 1000s.
“It was O. Driskill,” Ogden Driskill told Cowboy State Daily. “And they came from Ireland late, late 1700s I believe, to the United States.”
The history so far indicates there’s not just a hotel in the family’s past in Ireland, but an actual castle waiting to be discovered.
As part of the ongoing connection with The Driskill in Texas, Ogden is negotiating a deal to send the hotel some of the Wyoming beef from his ranch in Devils Tower, as well as various historical items for the hotel to display.
“We have furniture that came out of the Driskill house in Austin in that timeframe,” Ogden said. “Pocket watches, a pistol that was in a gunfight with Wyatt Earp in the middle 1800s.”
There’s even a working copy of the life-size portrait of Colonel Driskill himself, to hang in yet another corner of the iconic hotel he built. No doubt, as he observes all the goings on, he is smiling to see the dream he built remains on that same street corner in Austin, Texas, where it is an irreplaceable icon of national history.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.