Life was simpler in Round Top when I moved there in 1970. The Antiques Show took place on one weekend in April and consisted of 20 or so dealers who showed their wares in the Rifle Hall. There was no Royer’s Cafe with people waiting on the porch for tables; there were no Shops at Henkel Square; in fact, there were no shops at all. The Round Top General Store, on the north side of the square, supplied all our needs. There was no James Dick Festival Institute. Our entertainment consisted largely of drinking beer and telling each other stories. We made our own fun as the old folks said.
The town’s two social centers were Birklebach’s Café, where Royer’s is now, and the Round Top General Store. Birklebach’s, owned by Herman Birklebach and his hard-working wife, was where you took your mail and your newspaper after you picked it up at the post office in the morning and drank a cup of coffee and maybe ate a piece of pie. If you stayed for lunch, you enjoyed one of Herman’s famous all-white lunches: chicken-fried steak drowned in white cream gravy, mashed potatoes and steamed cauliflower.
One of the regular morning customers was Fritz Frohm, a retired farmer in his 70s who liked to start his day with a cold bottle of Shiner beer. Fritz drove into town from his farm on the Ledbetter Road every morning guiding his car with the steering wheel between his knees so he could play his harmonica while he drove. He never went over five miles an hour, and everyone knew to pull over if they saw him coming because he was blind.
If it was a Saturday morning, Willie Plumbeck might be in there wearing the metal hard hat covered with sequins that he had acquired when he worked on shrimp boats in the Gulf. People said that Willie was the happiest man they knew because it only took him three beers to have $100,000 in the bank. Willie didn’t drive at all because he didn’t own a car. He lived several miles out of town by the Florida Chapel Cemetery, and he would walk down to the highway and stand by the road until someone going into town stopped and picked him up. When he was ready to go home he would climb into one of the vehicles parked on the square and go to sleep. If it was your vehicle, you were obligated to drive him home. That was the custom.
The Round Top General Store was built in the 1850s and had been a mercantile store for more than a century. In 1970 it was owned by a widow, Mrs. von Minden, whose husband, Ernst, had bought it in the 1920s. Some of the merchandise predated the von Minden ownership.
The interior was a forest of goods: tables piled with work shirts and bib overalls, rubber boots, barrels filled with rakes and hoes, tubs and buckets hanging from the ceiling, shelves crowded with patent medicines like Alpenkrauter and Dr. J.H. McLean’s Volcanic Oil. If you didn’t see what you wanted, you would ask Mrs. von Minden for it, and she would immediately say, “Oh, no, we don’t have none of those.” Then she would pause and say, “Wait a minute, I think maybe Ernst bought some of those just before he died.” Then she would step into a back room and come back with whatever you asked for.
I once went in there for a package of No. 2 pencils and went through the standard dialogue with Mrs. von Minden and was eventually handed a package of pencils from the back room. They had the words “Buy Liberty Bonds” embossed on them. They had been in that back room since World War I.
When Mrs. von Minden died, her sister, Annie Schatte, inherited the store. Annie turned it over to her son Odies and his wife Betty to run. Odies attracted customers by offering double-dip cones of Blue Bell ice cream at a nickel a cone, taking a loss on each cone but revitalizing the store. One of his regular customers was Richard Schill, one of the few Houston people who socialized with the locals. Richard had a pixie-like sense of humor. Many of the Houston people liked to pretend that they were ranchers; they had signs at their gates that said “Polled Herefords” or “Registered Charolais.” Richard had a sign at his gate that said “Registered Moo Cows.”
If you were in the general store on a Saturday morning, you might see Odies’s uncle, Doc Knutzen, come in for his weekly change of socks. Doc was an old bachelor who had grown up in Round Top and retired to the family farm there after a career in dentistry. He wore the white socks with brown heels known as monkey socks (because you can make stuffed monkeys with them), and every Saturday about 10:00 a.m. he would come into the store, buy a new pair and then sit on the front porch, take his shoes off, pull his dirty socks off and toss them in the flower bed, pull the new ones on, put his shoes back on and go his way. Betty Schatte would retrieve the socks from the flower bed and put them in the garbage, holding them at arms length. She speculated that Doc slept in them.
There were other gathering places, too. Just down the Carmine Highway from the square was Merton Schulze’s, a grocery store with a bar and two tables in the back. A group of men gathered there every weekday at 5:00 p.m. to share a few beers before going home to supper. One of them was Flunkie Sachs, a bachelor who drove a bulldozer for the county.
One day a candidate for county commissioner came into Merton’s while the 5 o’clock gang was sitting at the bar and said, “What’ll you have, boys? I’m buying the next round.” The man on the far end said he would have a can of Pearl, the next man ordered a can of Lone Star and so on down to Flunkie who said, “I believe I’ll have a can of sardines.” He reached up and took one off the shelf, put it in his pocket, and went out the door having ensured his dinner.
The store across the road from our house at Winedale, four miles out of town, was one of my favorite places, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when 20 or 30 people might show up for an evening of dominoes and conversation and perhaps bowls of stew if it was cold and someone felt like setting up the gas burner and pot.
One of the regulars was a high-school mathematics teacher named Wayne Neutzler who enjoyed posing puzzles to the other customers. One evening every table was occupied by people with strips of cardboard and piles of toothpicks trying to work out the old schoolbook conundrum about whether it takes more posts to build a mile of fence over a hill than it does across a level pasture.
On another occasion I came home from a trip to Austin to find a crowd standing around an old cotton scale on the store’s front porch. Someone was holding a bucket of water, and someone else had a fish just pulled from the lake behind the store flopping on a line.. Everyone had a bottle of beer in one hand. They had gotten into a discussion, provoked by Neutzler, about whether a fish weighs more in the water than it does on dry land, and now they were trying to decide whether to weigh the fish or the bucket of water first.
As I said, we made our own fun.
by Lonn Taylor
Lonn Taylor is a historian who lives in Fort Davis, Texas and writes columns about Texas history for the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel. For 20 years, Taylor served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He lived in Round Top from 1970 to 1977 when he was director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Winedale Historical Center.