Wisdom of the Ages from Round Top, Texas
Allow us to introduce you to three wonder women from the Round Top, Texas area.
Dorothy Shelby, 72, is a pastor, a caregiver and a self-taught primitive artist whose work has been compared favorably with Clementine Hunter. Although Shelby has lived her entire life in Austin and Fayette counties, her paintings are cherished by collectors in far-flung corners of the world including New York City and London.
“In the beginning, I saw that God was using my art to bring joy to people,” Shelby said. “I didn’t know much about art, but I know about joy.”
She paints scenes from her memories, backbreaking work and lean times lightened by childhood laughter, family, community and faith. Farm animals and wild critters hang alongside angels in her studio. Unlike most artists’ studios, there are no windows. The space is illuminated by Shelby’s bold acrylic palette.
Shelby picked up a paintbrush for the first time in 2008.
“The Holy Spirit is my inspiration,” Shelby said. “God holds my hand and guides the brush. In my life, God comes first and art is second, but it’s real hard to separate the two.”
Shelby was born in 1944 within walking distance of the Cherry Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Industry, Texas, which was founded by her great-grandfather. She was the youngest of eight children. Her mother, Elnora Mary Mahon, was 40 when Shelby was born. Her father was present in the community, but absent in the family.
“My momma was a God-fearing, praying woman who was always there for us, an unwavering rock,” Shelby said. “I was raised by strong women—cotton-picking, cord-wood-chopping, cane-cutting women.”
Shelby joined her family in the cotton fields when she was five. By the time she was 12, she was in charge of laundry that involved an open fire, boiling water and a wringer washing machine. About that time, her mother began suffering a series of small strokes that left her bedridden. Shelby and a sister provided her care. One was an elementary school student in the morning, while the other was a bedside nurse. They reversed roles at noon.
“God made sure I learned how to take care of people early on,” Shelby said. “Serving others is how we best glorify Him.”
Taking care of her mother trumped education, and Shelby never graduated from high school. Instead she earned her GED when she was 31 years old.
“I love to learn,” Shelby said. “But in this life learning doesn’t just come from books; it comes from living.”
To learn more about Shelby’s art, which is available year-round at Round Top Vintage Market and at shows across the country, see FB “Artist Dorothy Shelby.”
For almost 50 years, pit master Tootsie Tomanetz’s career, like her legendary brisket at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, has been seasoned with salt, pepper, post oak smoke and sweat.
“As a kid, I never considered what I wanted to be,” Tomanetz, 82, said. “I was a daddy’s girl always riding horses; I think being a cowboy might have suited me.”
While she didn’t end up riding the plains on a cow pony, Tomanetz has spent a lifetime working with beef. It began in 1966 with part-time job that quickly became permanent at City Meat Market in Giddings. She learned the basics of butchering and barbecuing alongside Orange Holloway who was the right hand man for owner Hershel Doyle. When Doyle purchased the City Meat Market in Lexington in 1976, he asked Tomanetz to run it.
“When Hershel said, ‘I’m sending you to Lexington,’ I was scared to death,” Tomanetz, a Lexington native, said. “Hell, I didn’t know what to do, but I figured it out. I enjoyed it so much that I talked to White [her husband] about buying it.”
Together they ran the business for 20 years, continuing the long-time tradition of barbecue in Lexington on Saturdays.
“To make a business successful, you have to be willing to give people what they want when they want it,” she said. “And you’ve got to work hard, but I was never afraid of that.”
Some have opined that hard work is justifiably afraid of Tomanetz. She stands about 5’ 2”. During her days as a butcher she handled quarters of beef, which weigh about 150 pounds, with the ease that most folks handle a feather duster.
The Tomanetzes sold the business in 1996 when White suffered a stroke. She cared for White until his death in 2015, while continuing to work full-time, most recently as a maintenance staffer for the Giddings Independent School District.
In 2003, Kerry Bexley, also known as Snow, asked her to join him as he opened a new barbecue joint. In 2008, Texas Monthly named Snow’s “the best barbecue in Texas,” shining a bright spotlight on Tomanetz and her life’s work. She is arguably the first lady of Texas barbecue.
“I guess I will retire someday, but retirement isn’t in my plans just like ‘I can’t’ isn’t in my vocabulary,” Tomanetz, who still gets up at 2 a.m. every Saturday to start the cooking fire at Snow’s, said. “I’ve been told I’m a workaholic, but really, I just like being around people and turning out a good product.”
To taste Tomanetz’s legendary meat, plan a trip to Snow’s BBQ (snowsbbq.com), but be aware it’s only open on Saturdays and just until the barbecue sells out.
Nancy Lou Webster of Elgin never cottoned to dresses or convention. At 86, the renowned craftsman still doesn’t.
“I refuse to be cramped up in a box of somebody else’s making,” said Webster, who religiously wears work boots and jeans to church. “I need to be me, and you need to be you—and none of us need to be exactly alike.”
Webster is a master of treen, the ancient art of creating utensils from wood. Her treenware, which is a utilitarian version of free-form sculpture, has been showcased at both the Institute of Texan Cultures and the Smithsonian Institution. The artisan, who has demonstrated her craft at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio and Christmas at Winedale near Round Top since the 1970s, received her formal education at the University of Mississippi, the Mississippi University for Women and the Goddard Institute of Sculpture.
Her secret? Letting the wood express itself.
“Treening takes time and patience, kind of like a cat eating on a rock,” she said. “But if you let the wood do its thing without trying to force it, then it all works out.”
The only child of Clyde and Weegee Thompson, whom she called by their first names even as a child, gave them a run for their parenting money. Weegee was intent on raising a Southern lady while Clyde guided her with much freer reins during her Mississippi childhood.
“I’d leave the house wearing whatever girlish silliness Weegee dressed me in,” Webster said. “Clyde had enough sense to keep a pair of ticking overalls under the front seat of his car, so I could change as we drove down the road.”
Clyde also began providing pocketknives and other tools when Webster showed an early interest in whittling and carving. As a teenager, she passed her afternoons by carving every lock and latch in a three-volume series on wooden fasteners.
“I’ve always been fascinated by form and function,” said Webster.
The earliest treenware was commissioned by the pharaohs, who prized the utensils because wood was rare in the desert. Over time, treenware artisans have become a rarity, too.
“So far, I’ve taught all three of my kids, six of my grandkids and one of my great-grandkids to treen,” Webster said. “I’m doing my best to pass along the tradition. If somebody doesn’t do it, a craft that has been beautifully useful for centuries will be lost.”
Webster’s treenware can be found at the Copper Shade Tree in Round Top (www.coppershadetree.com) and the Owl Wine Bar & Home Goods Store in Elgin (www.elginowl.com).
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Anna Spencer Morse, Grace Photography