Monday, May 9, 2016

First H-E-B: the case of the missing balcony, solved

The oft-published photo of the original store
Whenever the origin story of the H-E-B Grocery Company is in the news, a photo of the first store building is often published. Most of the time it's made clear the photo of the building was taken much later than the period when Florence Butt operated a grocery store in that building. Judging from the automobiles in the photo, it was taken in the 1930s. I'm pretty sure the store moved from that structure around 20 years earlier.
That photo shows a balcony on the second floor, a balcony which would have been useful to the Butt family when they lived there, above the store. They'd moved to Kerrville because Florence Butt's husband, Charles, suffered from tuberculosis. In those days, plenty of rest and fresh air was prescribed for TB patients; the balcony would have afforded opportunities for both.
An old logo for H-E-B
As I was working on my part of the ceremony dedicating H-E-B's first historical marker, I ran across an old logo which pictured the original store building. I noticed the drawing lacked the second story balcony.
Which, I wondered, was a correct depiction of the original store?
The answer, it turns out, came from George Leland Richeson, Jr., whose father was the first employee of Florence Butt's grocery store, and who was often a business partner with Howard Butt, Florence's son. I correspond with Mr. Richeson Jr. by email, and he sent along a scan of a photo which solves the mystery.
As a collector of Kerrville and Kerr County historical photographs, I'm thankful for generous people like Mr. Richeson who share photographs with me (and with you, Gentle Reader).
I'm also thankful for snow. And floods. And parades. And picnics.
Here's why: Taking photographs in the early part of the last century was hard work and expensive, and more so in Kerrville, which was isolated from photographic supplies. However, if it snowed, or flooded, or there was a good parade or picnic, those early photographers often got out their Kodaks and snapped a photo. Many of those photos have found their way to my collection, or to the collections of others.
You see, the photos Mr. Richeson Jr. shared with me are of a snowball fight, probably around 1915 or 1916. His father is in many of the photographs, as well as Florence Butt's three sons, Charles, Eugene, and Howard. They are engaged in a snowball war in the front yard of the house where the Butts lived, a house which faced Main Street, looking northeast. (The house itself has been moved and preserved, and is now part of the H-E-B Partner Lodge in the Turtle Creek area of Kerr County. It originally stood in the middle of the 800 block of Main Street, about in line with the back door of today's Wolfmueller's Books.)
While the subject of the photo is the snowball fight, there just happens to be a building in the background, across Main Street. That building is a two-story frame structure. It lacks a 2nd story balcony. It is the building which housed Florence Butt's first grocery store.
So the logo is correct. The balcony pictured in most of the photographs of the old building I've seen must have been added later, after the grocery store had moved to a different building, and after the Butt family had moved across the street.
A snowball fight, Kerrville, around 1916.
Note the building behind telephone pole in center of photo.
Also, I'm pretty sure the photographer was Florence Butt herself. (Everyone else is in the photo.) So the best photo of the original H-E-B store building that I've seen may have been taken when Florence Butt took snapshots of her family playing in the snow.
Annotated aerial view of Kerrville, around 1935.
Perhaps this will help readers place the sites mentioned in this story.
Click photo to enlarge.
I like the thought of that: a photo snapped of young men playing in the snow. You can almost hear their laughter. That the photo included the building where Florence Butt started a grocery company was purely incidental.
Thanks Mr. Richeson, for sharing the photo with all of us.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who remembers a few Kerrville snows. But there have only been a few in the last half-century. And yes, we took photos of each. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times May 7, 2016.

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