Coffins and Cowbells (The Preservation of a General Store)
“Is this all there is?” I’ve heard asked many times by disappointed visitors to Luckenbach. These people come from a high tech – action movie – crowded freeway civilization expecting our famous town to be Fiesta Texas and finding instead, Siesta Texas. If only they knew what a rare treasure we have here, a general store still in existence since 1849. Slow down. Try to feel the quiet charm of those days. Look beyond the T-shirts & bumper stickers. Appreciate the fact that Minna Engel first opened a trading post here with the Comanche Indians, with whom the Germans never broke a peace treaty. In the 1902 German-language Fredericksburg newspaper there was an ad for the Luckenbach store that read “First Class Country Store,” that claimed to sell everything from the cradle to the grave, including coffins & cowbells.
To recant, German immigrants left their town Luckenbach in Wester Forest, Germany, adopting the town’s name for themselves. Moving out from Fredericksburg, the Luckenbachs came to South Grape Creek where Jacob Luckenbach bought 593 acres. Minna Engel, her brother August, & her fiancé Carl Albert Luckenbach built the present store in 1851. In 1856 the community changed its name from Grape Creek to Luckenbach. Many towns bore the names of the storeowners. The stores became synonymous with the town. Luckenbach had a school, that closed in the 1960’s & a cemetery. But the hearthstone of the community, the place that has survived as the fingerprint of a way of life, is the general store.
Much is gone now. The 2002 Flood took the 1881 cotton gin & blacksmith shop. There’s still a long brick molasses cooker that looks like a bar-b-que pit there. The outhouse we once used as a kissing booth is gone. Hondo’s statue replaced the Exxon gas pump & names of immortals wanting recognition are written all over the front door that used to be papered with FBI Wanted Posters. What the 1913 railroad held together back then the new highways have put asunder. Luckenbach now lies in the middle of nowhere. Hondo said, “If you find Luckenbach you have to be looking for It.” A lot of people look & a lot of people find it.
When Guich Koock & Hondo purchased the store from Benno Engel in 1970 dust lay like a dingy gauze over the counters, shelves, floors, everything. Local farmers still brought eggs to sell or trade for groceries.
The office was the egg house where eggs were graded, crated & delivered to Austin for sale. My mother had hopes of running it like a real country store with fresh produce. Guich leaned more towards a living museum, a revived Indian trading post. Hondo liked it because from the ceiling hung the only double-decker wasp nest he’d ever seen. “We can have dances & eventually a place to eat,” he said excitedly. “And we’re even thinking of adding a restroom, although that’s in the planning stages.”
Through the darkened entryway you could see brooms, buckets & new rope hanging from the ceiling. Glass drawer bins held grains & staples (like flour). An octagonal cabinet with 90 pie-shaped drawers was full of nuts & bolts. Horseshoes – 70 cents a pound, horse nails – 8 for 5 cents. Homemade soap, slop jars, harnesses, long underwear, spark plugs, a milk separator, coffee mill & pepper mill added to the variety. What’s the collar with long spikes hanging from the ceiling? A calf weener. I sometimes joke that stores like SAMS is where you can find snow tires and a wedding dress under the same roof. Well, at Luckenbach you can find jingle bobs for your spurs, or little white rubber tips for your canes or crutches, as well as crutches & rakes.
Another general store in continuous operation since the mid 1850’s is Ingenhuetts in Comfort, Texas. You can still get embalming fluid & casket handles there, which all stores are required to have. Our general store has two caskets, if you’ve ever looked up into the rafters. The small antique one with a glass is for someone just dying to buy it. (It’s not for sale.) The other large rough one was a movie prop for the Pony Express Rider. It was awarded to Hondo by the director for his excellent acting when he played a preacher who buried Ken Curtis. Hondo had fun playing practical jokes with it up until he died.
The medicine cabinet still holds boxes of Red Man’s Tea, “natures’ own cure for diseases rooted in the blood.” There’s Golden Relief which can be used “internally for colic or diarrhea caused by wrong eating, or externally for cuts & bruises; sixty-eight percent alcohol, 22 minims of ether, 5 minims of chloroform.” Hondo said “Taking that makes you want to rub it all over you.”
I remember Mama bringing home a vintage box of Post Toasties with a mud dauber nest attached. After freshening them up in the oven & adding Poteet strawberries they weren’t so bad. Guich told me that customers phoned in their grocery lists to him. He’d box or bag them up, adding free candy if he knew the family had kids. “Who called?” I asked, amazed at this personal service. “Everyone!” he repeated. “We had lots of staples then. Both kinds – for the fence and for the kitchen. We had lots of canned goods, Vienna sausages, bread, bolts & Argo Starch – lots of Argo Starch, everything.”
Most general stores had post offices in them, but Hondo claimed that his combination store & beer joint was in the post office. “We have a white line on the floor,” he explained, “and you can’t drink beer past the white line, ‘cause that’s in the post office & we kinds respect the flag & all that.” Hondo listed his inventory to a customer: “We have Post Toasties, single trees, Argo Starch, pots, pans, washboards, slop jars & powder.”
He enjoyed his customers: “Little lady came in the other day & wanted some fresh peaches. I showed her where they were. She said, ‘My goodness, they’re awful small.’ I told her that’s all we had, so she took ‘em. Bright & early the next morning she was back & told me, ‘Not only were they small they were absolutely tasteless.’ I said to her, ‘Well, it’s a good thing they were small.’ ”
Four weeks after we’d bought Luckenbach store the joke was on us. We found out the government was closing the post office. Thirty-seven families still had boxes at the post office. Although there was a sharp decline in grocery sales, beer joint patrons & egg customers remained loyal. Even though Hondo wrote a futile plea to Senator Tower, he made a joke out of losing the post office. “I’m so conservative. Its my fault,” he told the people. “But I just couldn’t see why I should send a big mail sack with one little letter down in the bottom so lonesome. I kept it ‘til I got it full. Took seven Months.”
For the 155-year-old store it seems now that the walls are held together with splinters, mud dauber nests & shadows. But the real cement is the memories we like to talk about. Like the story Guich told us about Benno Engel, the previous storeowner & postmaster for years, who would stay up front in the post office. They’d ask him why he didn’t hire someone to help him with the bar, suggesting that some people might wait on themselves & then forget to pay. He said, “Well, maybe some of them do, but you know, its cheaper than hiring somebody.”
When local bar regular Benny Luckenbach died, Hondo retired his chair up into the corner rafters with a sign reading “Reserved for Benny.” It’s still there. We remember the time Benny’s truck broke down & he slept in the store attic for about 2 weeks. He would wake up every morning thinking he had died & already gone to heaven, living up over a beer joint.
Hondo presided as Mayor, storekeeper & one-man show at the post office-beer joint-general store. In 1964 he was asked to participate as a Texas storyteller at a huge Texas Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. Trying to impress the locals at the bar, he casually commented to Travis Jenschke, “I was at the Smithsonian Institution for a week.” With a concerned face Travis responded, “Does Medicare pay for that?”
Becky Crouch Barrales, Writer