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Comanche Trace

Florence Thornton Butt - A History of HEB Grocery

Posted by Joe Herring Jr. on August 1, 2011 at 4:08 AM

Mrs. Florence Thornton Butt was an amazing woman who was well ahead of her time.

Florence Thornton was born in Buena Vista, Mississippi, on September 19, 1864, during the Civil War. Her family was deeply religious, and two of her brothers were pastors; Florence Butt often assisted them as they held revivals.

She later attended Clinton College, where she was “not only the only girl in her class, but the honor graduate.”

After college, she taught school for several years and also taught Sunday School at her church.

At 24 she married Charles C. Butt, a pharmacist, and they made their home in Mississippi and Tennessee. They had three sons, Charles, Eugene and Howard; there were also two step-sons, Kearney and Stanley Butt.

Around the turn of the last century, Charles, Sr. became ill with tuberculosis. At that time little was known about the disease, though it was widely believed to be genetic, since it ‘ran in families.’ Only much later would science discover it was contagious. Of the various cures offered at the time, the most popular was to move the patient to a warm, dry climate. This often seemed to help, and many spots around the country became known for their care of tuberculosis patients; Kerrville became especially famous in the southern United States for its climate and special hospitals and facilities for victims of this disease.

You might be surprised to learn how many local families first came to Kerrville because someone in their family was dying of tuberculosis. So many of these families stayed on after their ill family member passed away, putting down deep roots in the hill country.

The disease brought the Butt family here; Charles Sr. and their son Charles Jr., would both eventually die of the disease, and both are buried here, in Glen Rest cemetery. Since her husband was unable to work, and since she had a house full of sons, Florence Butt decided to sell some of the A&P grocery products shipped to her by a relative. She went door to door offering these products, and, according to her son Eugene, had a door slammed in her face by a Kerrville woman, who told her “I don’t buy from peddlers.”

“My mother was a very refined woman, and this hurt her deeply,” Eugene recalled. I have a photo from the period showing a wagon yard in snow, and on a post in the yard is a placard reading “Second Hand Furniture for Sale CHEAP, Kearney Butt.” Times were tough for the family and they were working very hard to survive here. According to family tradition, Florence Butt started her grocery store on November 26, 1905, in a small rented two-story frame building at what was then number 609 Main Street. The little building stood about where the Hill County Cafe stands today. Mrs. Butt opened her grocery store in the small room that served as the first floor; the family lived over the store. The windows were open upstairs summer and winter to provide ventilation and the ‘dry air’ needed for Charles Sr.

The store (with rooms above) was tiny, about 20 feet wide by 38 feet, or 760 square feet, which she rented for $9 per month; she stocked the store with what was left of her savings, $60.

According to one of her grandsons, she made a discovery when sweeping out the room downstairs for the first time: she found a Bible left behind by a previous tenant. She immediately prayed for her little company, and dedicated it then and there to her Lord.

Her neighbors on that block included a tailor on the corner of Main and Mountain streets; behind her, about where Fidelity Abstract Company is today there was the coal-powered Kerrville Ice Factory. The maps I own show the rest of the block contained small residences and several buildings marked ‘dilapidated.’ (Mountain Street is now called Earl Garrett Street.)

Her store took hold somehow, and survived, providing for the young family. Her young sons were enlisted in the effort: the fi rst deliveries were made in what must have been Howard’s baby buggy, later in a small hand wagon.

Florence Thornton Butt ran the store alone for many years; her son Charles was active in the business as early as 1917, and her son Howard, upon return from his World War I service, also worked in the business, eventually becoming its moving force and the founder of the HEB Grocery Store enterprise. She retired from active involvement in the company around 1934, though she would often go to the store in the afternoons, visiting old friends and greeting customers.

The store was originally on Main Street, but moved to Earl Garrett Street to the rock building that had been the community’s post offi ce, and now houses Sheftall’s Jewelers. After Earl Garrett street, the grocery moved to a larger building on Water Street, now gone, but about where One Schreiner Center is today. My first memory of the store was at its fourth location when it was on the corner of Water and Quinlan, facing Quinlan; it was enlarged in the 1970’s to face Main in the building that now houses Hasting’s music and book store.

Its fifth and present location is in the 300 block Main Street, only six blocks northwest and 106 years away from that original store.

The company that has grown so successful was founded by a woman of intelligence and faith, whose need to provide for her family was so strong she overcame countless obstacles, from the humiliation of slammed doors to the thenprevailing convention that said women couldn’t run businesses. She was ahead of her time in many, many ways and she was very determined.

She was also very generous, giving back to the community that had supported her and her family. She was active not only in her church, but also in the Eastern Star. She organized a Baptist mission at Oak Park here in Kerrville, and paid the pastor’s salary for many years. I have heard many, many stories of her kindness to those in need in our community.

Florence Thornton Butt lived for 89 years. She passed away at her home on Earl Garrett Street, a few blocks from her first store. Her life was not easy in Kerrville: she buried her husband and her eldest son here, and now she rests beside them at Glen Rest cemetery near Schreiner University.

Some might consider her company, given its tremendous success, to be her greatest legacy, though, in my opinion, the enduring gift she gave her family and our community was the strength of her faith as demonstrated by her caring service to those in need. Her story is compelling to me because after she had one door slammed in her face she knocked on another door, and it was opened to her.

Joe Herring Jr.

Joe Herring Jr.

As former Mayor, press shop owner, and unofficial historian of Kerrville; I have collected historical documents and images over the years that help me fulfill my passion for writing about the history of Kerrville and the Texas Hill Country

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