Glenwood Vernon: A Temporary Caretaker
Glenwood Vernon and I met at Vernons’ Antique Shop, the antiques destination he owns and operates with Martha, his wife of 57 years. The couple lives and works on Antiques Lane located a few miles east of Brenham just off Highway 105.
Antiques Lane is aptly named because their antiques “store” is actually a compound that includes nine buildings ranging from Vernon’s Store, which was a country grocery store and community hub in New Prospect run by Glenwood’s parents and a circa 1920 cottage owned by the Kruse family, the founders of Blue Bell Creamery, to an 1858 log cabin originally from Ledbetter and an 1857 white, covered-log farmhouse relocated from Columbus.
The Vernons’ current home, as well as the one their collections outgrew, are also on-site.
“There’s a thin line between being a collector and being a hoarder,” Glenwood said laughing. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve crossed the line.”
For the record, his laughter reaches his eyes, which twinkle non-stop behind his glasses. The 80-year-old gives the impression that he still gets into good-natured mischief whenever the opportunity arises.
He spent his teenage years playing at dances as part of the Nails Creek Ramblers, a “country hillbilly band.” Glenwood astutely avoided self-incrimination but admitted to looking forward to New Year’s Eve at the infamous Zgabay Ranch near Deanville.
“I played the drums, and people would put their tips on the drum head,” Glenwood said.
When midnight struck, the crowd often thought it was too soon for the party to end, so they’d dip into their pockets to entice the band to stay.
“Sometimes we’d play till one or two in the morning. Occasionally, we’d play till three,” Glenwood said. “I’d take home a lot of tips.”
It’s easy to imagine him introducing junior high band students to the joy of music, which has been his life’s work. (The accomplished clarinet player is a member of the Texas German Band and a member of the Houston Symphonic Band, which played on the Great Wall of China and performed in Normandy at the 70th Anniversary of the pivotal D-Day invasion.) Glenwood still teaches sixth grade band at the private school administered by St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. It’s been the Vernons’ home church since they moved to Brenham in the mid-1960s.
“I just love taking a group of students who previously couldn’t read music and transforming them into musicians,” Glenwood said. “The satisfaction that comes from watching them master their instruments and become a band instead of individual players is hard to describe.”
Glenwood and I had agreed to meet early in order to beat the July heat because several of the structures don’t have air conditioning. To experience what passes for cool at the height of summer, we probably should’ve met at 5 in the morning instead of 8:30. Thanks to the humidity, it was like breathing through a wet towel.
While the heat slowed our pace, it didn’t slow our conversation. Because we share Lee County roots, we played “who are your kinfolks?” On one side four generations back, he’s a “two-n” Lehmann from Ledbetter. They immigrated to Round Top and then moved to Lee County. Glenwood’s mother was a Werner from Burton.
“I learned to speak two languages at one time,” Glenwood said. “My mother talked to my Grandmother Vernon in English, and my grandmother answered in German.”
As a side note, Grandmother Vernon was known to everyone young and old as Gaga Vernon.
“We had a Gaga who was quite a lady long before America had Lady Gaga,” Glenwood said.
The first time he brought Martha home to meet his family, the extended family gathered. They were all very inquisitive because the collective wisdom held that Vernon would remain a confirmed bachelor.
After meeting Martha, Gaga Vernon remarked, “You’re a red hair not a German. You must be an American.”
Glenwood laughs fondly at the memory of the woman who thought only two nationalities—German and American—inhabited the United States.
According to Glenwood, it’s a wonder Martha and he ever inhabited the same space. They met through a turf war.
After graduating from Sam Houston State University with a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in music arts, Glenwood was hired as the band director in the East Texas town of Silsbee. Martha, a native of Louisiana and a graduate of Stephen F. Austin University, was the school’s physical education teacher.
Martha and Glenwood shared a two-story building where she taught dance directly over the band hall. At Silsbee, the junior high band marched during the junior high football games on Thursday nights. The pressure was high for a beginning band director.
“Stomp. Clomp. Stomp. Stomp. Clomp,” Glenwood said. “Those dancers were so loud the band couldn’t even keep rhythm.”
The young teachers found themselves squaring off outside their respective classrooms. Martha shared her point of view from the second floor balcony while Glenwood fired his opinion up from the downstairs porch.
“In the beginning, we didn’t like each other very much—at all,” Glenwood said.
It all changed one night at a school social when the school nurse played Cupid. The nurse encouraged Glenwood to get to know Martha, but he was reluctant opining that she was too tall for him. Instead of taking a disguised no for an answer, the nurse told Glenwood to go stand beside Martha.
“Turns out I was .5 inches taller than she was—and she was a lot nicer than I first thought,” Glenwood said. “Somebody up there was looking out for me because I ended up with the best wife in the world.”
The beautifully landscaped grounds bear the imprint of Martha’s horticultural passion and hard work. At one point on the walk, Glenwood and I pondered the blooming cycle of her newly planted four o’clocks. Neither of us could remember whether the flowers bloom at four o’clock in the afternoon or close around that time. At 8:30 they don’t do either because they’re girding themselves for an afternoon in the blast furnace
I asked Glenwood how many buildings were on the property. As he counted eventually reaching nine, he had an epiphany of sorts.
“I guess I collect houses, too,” Glenwood said, noting about half had been moved in and restored.
When it comes to the buildings’ contents, the couple has an agreement. If Martha finds an item in one of the retail buildings that she wants to showcase in their home, she may have it no questions asked, but she has to give Glenwood a piece from their home in exchange.
“And nothing in our house is for sale,” Glenwood said. “Okay…well, maybe…I could be persuaded.”
The couple has made their home amid their collections, or they have housed their collections in the midst of their home. The space is equal parts Smithsonian and cozy nest. Every corner turned is a chance for a new discovery.
There is, of course, the couple’s trademark furniture reflecting their passion for the simplicity and craftsmanship of early Texas and early American as well as folk art, pottery from Texas as well as Southern face jugs, antique toys, advertising and Native American basketry made from American river cane by from Southeastern tribes such as the Coushatta, Cherokee, Choctaw and Chitimacha.
“Over our shared lifetime, we’ve surrounded ourselves with things we love,” Glenwood said.
The first piece they ever obtained takes center stage in their den. It’s an antique bass drum they repurposed into a coffee table.
“We were newlyweds and couldn’t afford much, so when the Silsbee Band Department decided to throw it out, we took it,” Glenwood said. “We figured we could do something with it.”
Glenwood’s favorite find came courtesy of a friend and fellow antiques dealer from Chappell Hill who happened to be listening to the “Trading Post,” a swap meet on a local radio station. A man, who the friend knew to be Glenwood’s cousin, called in and said he had “some old furniture and stuff” for sale. The friend passed the information along to Glenwood.
“When I got there, I found three pieces of furniture that belonged to my Great-grandfather Lehmann,” Glenwood said. “In one morning, I got three pieces to go along with his cradle that I already had.”
While the offerings in the shop are wide-ranging, they’re not as eclectic as the couple’s personal collection. The merchandise is generally confined to early Texan and early American with strong focus on furniture, although enthusiasts of English furniture and American handcrafts such as pottery won’t be disappointed. The couple also offers a small selection of high-quality reproductions including the Windsor-style chairs that Baylor University bought to outfit the school’s antique map library.
“We don’t buy anything for the shop that we wouldn’t put in our home,” Glenwood said.
History lives in both environments. Because of our shared Lee County connection, I knew the local significance of the McDade Pottery and the selection of Jackson chairs, but the Kilian bed stumped me until Glenwood mentioned the Ben Nevis, the ship that brought the original Wendish settlers to Texas. Pastor John Kilian led the group from Lusatia in Germany to what is now Serbin, Texas. The bed, which is more closely akin to a small-scale day bed than a pillow-topped Queen, was made for Kilian soon after the group’s arrival by a grateful congregant.
“Provenance is important,” Glenwood said. “The value of antiques lies not only in their design, craftsmanship and materials but in their stories.”
Glenwood, who grew up surrounded by the hand-crafted family pieces dating to early Texas, had to step outside the familiar to appreciate what he had.
“Texas furniture was what we and our neighbors had,” Glenwood said. “It wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity.”
Because of culture and economics, local families prized thrift and practicality. When couples married, other family members would contribute to the new household by giving them an extra chair, cupboard or table.
“As a child, I thought it would be great to have new stuff,” Glenwood said, noting that as a newly minted band director in his first home he sold all of the family furniture he had inherited and replaced it with mass-produced furniture.
Through the years he dallied with “new” furniture, had a fling with ubiquitous oak and a longer-lasting affair with elaborate Victorian pieces before the simple lines and native cedar and pine of early Texas furniture recaptured his heart.
“As an adult, I gravitated to what I had known my whole life,” Glenwood said. “It’s good to be home.”
In 1979, Glenwood retired from teaching in the Brenham public schools. Preparing six bands of all levels for contests got to be too much.
“It was time for me to do something different,” Glenwood said.
Initially, he opened a framing business. His mother, Ozell, ran Vernon’s Store for the family. In her “spare” time, she was an oil painter who created more than 3,000 canvases as well as a talented needle work artist, so framing was another natural extension of his background.
“My dad was a farmer and a rancher, so I worked livestock and chopped my share of cotton, but it wasn’t really my cup of tea,” Glenwood said. “Instead, I helped my mother in the store. Her business sense and creativity left their marks on me.”
As he traveled back and forth to Houston for supplies, Glenwood began to attend an antiques auction held on a regular basis. In the beginning, he was divesting some things, and then he began to buy. Over time, Glenwood and Martha saw the business potential in the antiques trade. They, like so many dealers, began traveling to shows across the country, including Brimfield, to shop and sell. Initially, they made 12 – 15 shows each year.
“Much to the chagrin of my father, I never learned to back a trailer,” Glenwood said. “Martha and I traveled across the country going one way and parking at the far edges of hotel lots to accommodate my lack of skill.”
Their booth, like their shop, showcases furniture. Glenwood has a soft spot for tables and cupboards.
“When people are beginning a collection or furnishing a home, I tell them to start with the things that they’ll use the most,” Glenwood said. “In my mind, you need a table first, then a wardrobe or cupboard, then chairs.”
Because of their collection of wardrobes and cupboards, some of which came from Faith Bybee’s personal collection, the Vernons are prominently featured in Texas Furniture: The Cabinetmakers and Their Work 1840 – 1880, Vol. 2 by Lonn Taylor and David B. Warren. In fact, they have 15 pieces in the well-respected reference book.
“Word got back to the authors that we had some examples and that I had some insight into local history, so David [Warren] came to visit,” Glenwood said. “He liked what he saw, so we worked together closely for a while.”
After almost four decades in the antiques business, Glenwood has plenty of advice for new collectors.
“My best advice, though, is to buy the best examples you can afford of the things you love,” Glenwood said. “You will never regret investing in quality or love.”
As our three-hour visit wound down, Glenwood looked around the shop that was once his parents’ store. It was filled from floor to ceiling and wall to wall with treasures. In just that one building, there was a lot to take in and appreciate.
“I think it’s pretty good to still be doing this at 80 years old,” he said. “But if I ever have to move to town, I think I’d like a spare townhouse with industrial touches.”
Glenwood continued, “I’d be okay selling all these things to the next generation of collectors because these pieces are only mine to take care of for a while.”
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Anna Spencer Morse, Grace Photography