The ballad of a Texas cafe and general store
By LONN TAYLOR
Round Top, Texas, had a population of seventy when I lived there in the 1970s. The town was laid out around a small grassy square, with a wooden building in its center that served as a town hall. The two focal points on the square were Birklebach’s Café and the Round Top General Store.
Birklebach’s was famous for its all-white lunches: chicken-fried steak covered with white gravy, mashed potatoes, and cauliflower. It was also the morning gathering place for everyone who came into town to get their mail at the post office next door. Most of those people were farmers whose ancestors had come from Germany in the 1850s and who were more comfortable speaking German than English. Among the morning regulars were two men in their eighties named Ernst and Bill. Everyone in town knew their story; no one ever mentioned it. As young men, they had both courted the same girl. Ernst went off to World War I, and Bill married the girl. When Ernst came back from the army, he renewed his suit, with the result that Bill moved to a room behind his blacksmith shop and Ernst moved in with Bill’s wife. They had a child together, and lived as husband and wife for many years until she died. After her death Ernst and Bill sat on the bench in front of Birklebach’s every morning and had their coffee together, and the morning that Bill had a fatal heart attack on that bench he died in Ernst’s arms.
When I first moved to Round Top the general store was owned by Mrs. von Minden, the widow of Ernst von Minden, who had bought it in the 1920s. The store’s tables and shelves were stocked with a remarkable variety of goods, some of which had been there since before the von Mindens’ ownership: bib overalls, work shirts, long underwear, jars of J.B. Garrett snuff, bottles of patent medicines like Dr. Simm’s Volcanic Oil and Forni’s Alpenkrauter Blutbeleber. There were barrels of rakes and hoes, and buckets and washtubs hung from the ceiling. There was a ritual that you went through if you wanted to buy something that was not immediately visible. You asked Mrs. von Minden for it, and she would say, “No, we don’t got none of those.” Then she would pause and say, “Wait a minute. I think maybe just before Ernst died he bought some,” and she would go into the back room and come back with whatever you wanted. I went through this dialogue one day to buy a box of pencils, and when I got the pencils home and looked at them I saw that they had “Buy Liberty Bonds” stamped on them. Not Victory bonds, Liberty bonds. They had been in the store since World War I.
When Mrs. von Minden died her sister, Annie Schatte, inherited the store, and she turned it over to her son Odies and his wife, Betty, to run. Odies was an irrepressible character who saw his job as entertaining the customers, and Betty did most of the store running. She kept the accounts the way they had been kept since the store first opened in the 1850s. Most business was done on credit. There was no cash register; only a cash drawer, which had a solid wooden block in it with circular depressions scooped out for different denominations of coins. When a customer bought something, Betty wrote the purchase and the customer’s name down on a sales slip. At the end of each day she went through the slips and posted each sale in a ledger under the customer’s name, and at the end of each month the customer would come in and pay their bill and get a free beer and some candy for their children. The system was simple and worked admirably.
Odies, meanwhile, thought up schemes to promote the store and have fun doing it. Inspired by the Terlingua Chili Cook-Off, he instituted an annual Round Top Stew Cook-Off, at which he made a concoction he called 237 stew. When out-of-towners would ask why it was called that, Odies would say, “Well, a lot of things get killed on Highway
237 . . . .”
Round Top was just beginning to experience an influx of visitors from Houston. Ladies’ clubs that would arrive by bus and spread out over town visiting antique shops and knocking on people’s doors to ask if they had any antiques to sell. After he discovered a group of Houstonians picnicking in his front yard one Saturday, Odies began talking about filling an old school bus with local citizens, putting two kegs of beer and forty pounds of sausage on board, and driving to Houston for a series of picnics on the lawns of affluent River Oaks residents – Round Top in Reverse, he called it. He actually got as far as buying the bus.
One of Odies’s best ideas blew up because of his big mouth. He started selling double-dip cones of Blue Bell ice cream, which was produced nearby in Brenham, for a nickel a cone, even though the ice cream cost him three times that. This paid off because tourists would come in to buy ice cream and leave with something they didn’t know they wanted, such as a dutch oven or a Marshall Pottery ceramic iced-tea cooler. But when a rumor went around that a Blue Bell executive in Brenham had been caught in bed with another man’s wife and had gone through a window without his trousers, Odies couldn’t contain himself. The next time a Blue Bell representative came into the store Odies said, “I hear you all have a new flavor on the market – buckshot.” The wisecrack got back to Brenham, and the next week the store stopped selling ice cream. Odies said that the company had cut him off, claiming that he did not buy enough ice cream to make deliveries profitable.
Today Birklebach’s Café is Royer’s Round Top Café, serving grilled quail and rack of lamb to crowds of Houstonians who flock there on weekends for the famous pies, and the Round Top General Store is for sale after housing a series of boutiques. All of those boutiques had computer-operated cash registers and all of them went out of business.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk