TIME TO DISMOUNT.
Dave Northridge spent his entire adulthood shaping iron. Dave’s Comanche, Texas neighbors might find the remark strange based on the absence of personal observation; no one has seen Dave working the glowing metal over a hot fire. A glance at the black and yellow flag hanging over the side entrance to Comanche’s delightful Stone Eagle Beer Garden gives the observant a clue. The horse emblem on the flag represents Dave’s former unit, the famed 1st Cavalry Division, where Dave rose to be a “full bird colonel.” First Team serves as the official moniker for 1st Cavalry and the Division’s moniker is Live the Legend. The black horse in the unit flag hanging over the door represents iron; as in the iron will the division has exhibited protecting out country. Six years ago, Dave dismounted the iron horse, looking for a new life. He found it in a garden of beer.
Life transitions as we age are tough enough. Anyone around the service knows that transitioning from military life to civilian life adds a layer of complexity. The rules dictating where, when and how disappear. Often, the constant moving military life demands leaves the veteran without connection to a hometown. Many of your most important professional relationships are unable to hire you into a new job. On the surface level at least, your technical skills do not easily translate. In other words, there is still a relatively small market for civilian tank commanders.
On the personal side, a retiring family officer has to recognize the sacrifices the spouse has made. In this instance, Sloane Northridge–Dave’s plucky and funny wife–was starting a graphic design career when the pair met in Austin, Texas. She shelved that life to be Mrs. Colonel Northridge and mom to their four children through at least six duty locations and Dave’s deployments to the world’s garden spots. Like Afghanistan. Defining Dave and Sloane’s new life would not be easy.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.
The first question in starting a new life can be the hardest: where? Dave is a New England native, but with slim connections to the area. The area around Ft. Hood, 1st Calvary’s headquarters, was an option, but when you retire in a military town, you are quasi-military, not retired military. Dave suggested to Sloane, “why not your home town?”
Sloane was bit startled by the idea. Her parents had moved to Comanche as Sloane started high school. Although a frequent visitor, Sloane had never lived in Comanche as an adult. Sloane also knew the rural location would inhibit Dave’s post-military job prospects.
Dave’s mind fixed on the idea. When Dave’s mind fixes on an idea, results usually follow. Most of all, Dave liked the look of a new life with some air in the room. Comanche offered a great balance; the square downtown hums with activity, there is a “real” grocery store and cities are within easy reach. So, unlike other counties who can attract with the beautiful land, Comanche is more than a spot in the road. After a life spent traipsing the world. Sloane Northridge and her husband came home.
WHAT TO DO, WHAT TO DO?
Sloane and David renovated Sloane’s grandmother’s house on five acres and cemented their slice of Central Texas paradise. New Life question Number two came next: what to do? Sloane’s desire to relearn graphic design faded, but she still owned the designer’s eye that drew her to the field. Sloane, her sister and her mom decided that Comanche needed a wedding venue.
Empty Nesters who have investigated wedding sites likely understand Sloane’s vision. She saw the type of bucolic, country location that offers casual elegance for a relaxed, fun ceremony and party. A barn with a big window to bring the outdoors in and plenty of twinkling lights to celebrate the newlyweds. Empty Nesters who have paid for weddings probably understand Sloane’s desire to own a Thoreau-style structure capable of hosting dazzling slide shows and bands finicky about acoustics.
Sloane, her sister and her mom covered Comanche County looking for the ideal location. It just was not there. The main stumbling point is the reveres of what most later-in-life real estate purchasers encounter when looking for a couple of acres. Nobody in Comanche County wants to sell a plot that small, particularly with road frontage; it makes the sale of the larger ranch more difficult.
After a couple of months, it appeared more mundane pursuits would be the order of the day. Until Sloane’s sister called with an idea. What about the abandoned building on the corner of the court house square? Sloane gathered the realtor and the troops and paid a visit. When the realtor jiggled the door open, Sloane and David stepped into their new life.
A FALLEN OPERA HOUSE.
The exact location Sloane and family wanted for the wedding venue was a two-story interior building that last served as lodge locations for the International Order of Odd Fellow and, before them, the Knights of Pythius. My knowledge of adult fraternal organizations is lacking, but the names are intriguing enough to give the building history.
Outside the names, the building was the sort of relic that calls people back. Impossibly thick stone walls hid underneath plaster. An ancient wood floor with the narrow slats looked salvageable. Most of all, Sloane loved the fact the “pickers” had not ravaged the contents, including the traditional tin ceiling. As a finishing historical touch, when the relator took over the building for sale, he had checked out the former lodge contents. Including the two coffins. Coffins that included the two actual skeletons. Sloane knew that location, physical structure and backstory had everything she needed.
The only issue was that the owner also wanted Sloane, David and company to take the wreck of an adjoining building that sat on the end of the row. There was history to that location also, the footprint came from Comanche’s turn of the twentieth-century opera house. The opera house burned down to be replaced by two commercial buildings. After decades the roof failed and water took its prize. Sloane could see her wedding venue; next door was a mystery. The seller insisted; luckily he understood the economics of buying the destroyed location and agreed to a reasonable price. Dave and Sloane Northridge and their family now owned a new life that included a fallen opera house.
A SIDE BENEFIT OF NATO.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization came to life in April 1949. formalizing America’s role in Europe’s defense. Since the signing, millions of American servicemen and women have enjoyed Europe in peacetime. Speaking from personal experience, German beer halls and gardens contribute mightily to that enjoyment.
Saying that Dave Northridge had no beer garden experience, then, would be a gross understatement. Saying that Dave Northridge had no experience running a beer garden, a restaurant, a bar or anything of the sort would be 100% correct. Still, the more the family discussed what the opera house space could be, the more Dave saw a beer garden.
One thing Dave did have is a history of solving problems. His last Army job as the First Team’s chief of staff consisted almost entirely of doing just that. Army life does not allow for the idea of problems going unsolved, so the Northridge team attacked with confidence. The battle orders included a precise business plan that recognized the strengths and limitations of the operation.
The Northridge’s new life was not supposed to be a 24/7work endeavor, so a full-service restaurant on the beer garden side and a wedding planning business on the event side were out. Beer and wine was easier than mixed drinks. Comanche, while vibrant, would likely not support early week revelry, so hours would be Thursday-Saturday. The vibe had to be relaxed and friendly.
The Northridges drew it up and there it was-a new life all written down. The easy part is the plan; the hard part is executing the plan. Any modern cavalry military commander will tell you that execution is “where the rubber meets the road.” The First Team ethic that inhabits the Northridge family perfectly paired to the task of building their new life.
A NEW LIFE REALIZED.
Walk into that new life and you see what The Northridges dreamed. The Beer Garden is open, airy and relaxed. Barn doors open to the courthouse square. Indeed, “Stone Eagle” comes from the sculptures that adorn the county’s most prominent building across the street.
Live music on Saturday nights is always a draw. Pre-COVID and hopefully soon to be again, there is a kids area that makes the place family friendly. A huge church organ located by Sloane in Lampasas, Texas, serves as a dramatic backdrop to the bar. Flags from the German states hang proudly above. Of course, above the door entrance hangs the Black Horse flag as well as a Navy SeaBees flag honoring Sloane’s dad’s service.
The stone walls, refurbished wood floors, and lighting of the events center put you “in that place.” Most spectacularly, the former plaster covering for the stone walls did not completely disappear. During the removal process, Sloane’s mom remarked that a removed portion looked like a Texas outline. The worker asked if they wanted to see what he could do with it; it turned out that they had a Central Texas Michelangelo in the making. The young man freehanded cutouts that give the hall a perfect Texas flourish.
Many a bride rents the upstairs Jean-Marie suites, named for Sloane’s grandmothers. Appointed in antique style, with views of the square and the countryside, the suites are spacious and functional. Best of all, they emit that traditional, historic feel that enriches a family event. Without the skeletons, of course.
NEW LIFE, PART TWO.
For a renovation and venture of this size, progress was remarkably smooth. Owning a beer garden and events center in the Year of Our Pandemic has been a bit challenging. The Stone Eagle upped its food game so it could stay open; the Jean-Marie suites see more business customers and the event planned for the night after we visited was a real estate sales conference.
Army life does not admit to unsolved problems so the Northridges have solved them. Vaccines are around the corner and the new life will hopefully resume full force. If you are within a country mile of Comanche, stop by and see for yourself.