The Town That Was – And the Hardware Store That Is

by Celia Hayes

Lately, we've taken to getting to New Braunfels by following Nacogdoches road all the way up to where it intersects with FM 482. Just around that intersection we have been intrigued by a range of old buildings – two of them side by side, weathered gray boards, with a false front and a veranda across the front, looking like something on the set of a Western movie. Around the bend in Old Nacogdoches Road, there is an industrial-looking building of yellow buff brick with a tall chimney. The fourth building – the only one still whole and in use is a little way down FM 842 – a charming and totally random brick church; the Catholic Church of St. Joseph. From the evidence of the storefronts, the chimney and the church it seems that there was something there, once.

Last Saturday, when we came up to the corner, there was a middle-aged couple and a teenaged boy chopping the brush in front of the old buildings. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. We parked the car, got out and introduced ourselves, and asked – what was this place? They explained – yes, this was a little crossroads hamlet called Comal. FM 482 was one of the main roads between San Antonio and New Braunfels back in the day ... about 1915. The largest building was the feed and hardware stores, the two smaller were the general mercantile and a blacksmith – who turned eventually to being a gas station. The brick building? A cotton gin. The farmers around here all raised cotton; the hardware store and the mercantile were where they gathered at the end of the day to visit with friends. Hard to credit this as cotton country, but it was: Cotton thrived around here – right up until the 1920s, when the boll weevil demolished that crop.

On to New Braunfels, the town that is the home of two local enterprises who have set longevity records; Naegelin's Bakery is the longest-established, continuously operating bakery in Texas, and from personal experience, the apple strudel and the iced molasses cookies are to die for. The other enterprise, older than Naegelin's by a decade, is a hardware store: Henne Hardware which is housed in a splendid late Victorian building on Main Street. The building is from the late 19th century, but the business itself was established in 1857 – which as things go is very early, for the Western US.

The interior of the store is totally splendid; a classic old-fashioned hardware store; three bays supported by pillars, a high ceiling (adorned with the tin panels that were the standard at the turn of the last century) and a feature that I had read about, but had never seen – a wire-guided pulley system for transferring cash from three points within the store to the office at the back. There appear to have once been three different points-of-sale within the store, but all the cash paid for merchandise was sent in a little wooden jar to the office at the back – and a receipt returned. It's very curious – the predecessor of those pneumatic tubes at motor-banks. They don't actually use it any more, and the duty manager whom we talked to confessed that it is a little bit of a pain, when they try and bring in something large – just to get it around the wires. But still, it's an interesting bit of Americana. And of course, my daughter loves that Henne's has two official cats on the premises, who lounge about the place as they please, and deign to catch the occasional mouse now and again.

I love retail establishments that have official cats; it's almost expected that independent bookstores have them, but really – any retail store except maybe a fish market, or a place serving food – is improved by being adorned by the presence of a cat. Or a dog, if necessary; a tutelary spirit, in any case.