Part I: Florence Butt lays the foundations - Valley Morning Star : Life

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H-E-B, A VALLEY AND AN AMERICAN SUCCESS STORY Part I: Florence Butt lays the foundations

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Posted: Sunday, June 7, 2015 6:00 am

As H-E-B celebrates its 110th year in existence, it is worthwhile to reflect on its very modest beginnings.

The story begins with Florence Clementine Thornton, who was born to John and Mary Susan Kimbrough Thornton in Buena Vista, Chikasaw County, Mississippi, on September 19, 1864. This was eight months before the end of the Civil War.

She was the youngest child of six sisters and two bro- thers. Her father was a farmer. She often aided her two preacher brothers in conducting revivals.

After grade school she attended, as the only female student, Clinton College, a Baptist school in Clinton, Kentucky. She was graduated with honors. This school was to close in 1915. Florence then taught school.

On February 11, 1889, at the age of 24, she married Charles Clarence Butt, a widower with two sons from his previous wife Vinvela Miller. Charles was older, having been born February 11, 1848, in Duck Hill, Montgomery County, Mississippi. They began their marred life in Mississippi, but around the year 1894 the family had moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Charles, formerly a pharmacist, was a piano salesman. The family at that time consisted of Charles C. Butt Jr. (b. August 1890); Eugene Thornton (b. March 19, 1893); Howard (b. in Memphis April 9, 1895) and cabinet maker stepson, Kearney (b. May 1877).

The senior Charles’ health was poor as he suffered from tuberculosis and a move to drier San Antonio, Texas, in 1904 was thought to be beneficial. A year later with their funds depleted the family moved to Kerrville with its population then just over 1,500.

Here, with Charles unable to work, Florence took up the burden of sustaining the family. Florence secured much of the family’s income.

As one of its agents, she pedaled Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company items door-to-door. Then in October 1905 she borrowed $60, and the Butts became merchants of sort by opening a very modest store.

The store was all of 450 square feet on the ground floor of a two-story frame building on Main Street. The store’s stock and fixtures had a total value of under $100. It was named the C. C. Butt Grocery Store and featured “fancy and staple groceries.”

The family lived on the second floor and paid the building’s owner nine dollars a month for both store and living quarters.

Charles Jr. helped his mother in the store while Howard delivered customers’ groceries in his little red wagon and later on horseback. Profits were scant as Howard would one day relate, “Mother would give you anything we had in the store to anyone who came in and said he was a minister or a member of any church or just from Mississippi — and I wasn’t much better.”

Howard Butt had an innate knack for grocery retailing. Not only that, but Howard was an excellent student and was named valedictorian of his Tivy High School graduating class of 1914. By age 16 he was managing the family store leaving his mother to take up religious and philanthropic endeavors. Florence would continue a lifetime of service to her church and community. For years she was the Sunday School superintendent at the First Baptist Church of Kerrville. Being in the Order of the Eastern Star, a Freemasonry organization, she helped to organize its Order of Rainbow Girls affiliate and was its first Mother Advisor. Her support led to the formation of the Oak Park Baptist Church.

A few weeks after suffering a stroke, Florence was to die in her Kerrville home on March 4, 1954. She was 89 years of age. Two years earlier she had fallen and broken a hip. Outpourings of commemoration were soon forthcoming. One reflected that Florence was “a persistent worker and a fearless person who supported the cause she believed to be right regardless of the opposition; a staunch champion of projects for community betterment; a devoted mother, and a truly Christian personality.” It was said that “in youth [she] developed capacities for love, determination, and a steadfast goal of achievement which was to flow constant and deep in her life through the years.”

The Texas House of Representatives passed a resolution expressing sympathy upon her death and reflecting that she was an “outstanding citizen,” “a good, gentle, and unselfish woman.” She left behind sons Eugene T. Butt of Kerrville and Howard E. Butt of Corpus Christi and her two stepsons, Kearney Butt of Kerrville and Stanley Butt of Biloxi, Mississippi, together with their wives and grandchildren. Florence was buried in the Glen Rest Cemetery, Kerrville next to her husband Charles who had died March 11, 1915 at age 67. Howard had long recognized what a foundation she had laid for what would one day be a giant and successful enterprise, for in 1948 the H. E. Butt Grocery Company, Inc. had listed her as vice president of the corporation of which he was president.

Howard would take a break from Kerrville after graduation from high school. He hitchhiked to California where he earned his fare home by picking grapes. While on the West coast he even ventured to meet his favorite author, Jack London. When the Great War commenced in Europe, Howard added the middle name Edward to his identification and joined the U.S. Navy in 1917. At one point in his military career he served as an aide to the commandant of the Naval Station Great Lakes, the navy’s boot camp near North Chicago, Illinois. His mother made-do in the store, which had moved to another location in 1913, with whatever help she could find until Howard returned in 1919 and took over the management of the store.

At the beginning of the twentieth century small grocery stores — generally under 1,000 sqare feet — sold non-perishable goods such as canned foods or packaged foods; flour, sugar, salt and crackers were scooped from huge barrels and sold by the unit or pound, and salted bacon and jerked beef were kept ready for sale in a cool dark place. For years, the town grocery store was known as the “dry grocer.” The second important fact about them was that the merchandise was was usually sold on credit and delivery to the customer’s doorstep was expected. The cost of the wholesale and retail functions was around 33 percent of the gross. A revolution in retailing was on the way, however. In 1916, Piggly Wiggly stores of Memphis introduced the shopper to the concept of self-service shopping. These stores were known as “grocerterias” because they were reminiscent of the cafeterias becoming popular at the time.

Howard must have picked up on these new marketing concepts. At the end of 1921, during a two-day New Year’s break, Howard and an assistant, armed with a nickle box of paper clips and a stapler, priced all the merchandise in the store. It would now be self-serve cash-and-carry. This change was a major gamble on his part as his competitors were still offering credit. He mailed letters to all his old customers informing them of the change of policy. The name of the store was changed to C. C. Butt Cash Grocery, and it also started to sell meat. The fact was that lower prices enticed customers and the store’s volume picked up. Still the situation was far from rosy. In 1920, a post-war recession dropped commodity prices, and the store was stuck with stock that the Butts had paid more than they retail it for. Fortunately the patience of creditors kept them going. The Kerrville store would move into a brick building in 1928.

As Kristy Ozmun in the Handbook of Texas tells us “He attempted four expansions of the business — a feed store in Kerrville and grocery stores in Center Point, Junction, and Brownwood — all of which failed. Other attempts in such towns as Eagle Pass, Uvalde, and Crystal City also failed.” Perhaps the overall market in these sites was too small, the competition too tough, or they just weren’t ready for a cash market. We will never know. A lesser man might have thrown in the towel at this point, but Howard was persistent in pursuing his dreams. In 1926 he was successful in opening a store in Del Rio.

Perhaps his marriage to Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth of Kerrville on December 5, 1924, brought him stability and luck. Mary, over time, would mirror Howard’s mother in her concerns for people and her widespread charitable activities.

In 1928 Howard borrowed $38,000 and purchased three stores in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. These were in Brownsville, Mercedes and Weslaco. They were the start of the process of the steady expansion which would eventually make his company the largest home-owned grocery chain in Texas. Butt would borrow short-term money from banks and roll over his debts while he was scrupulous in handling every detail of operations in his Valley stores that specialized in low priced foods, such as Rio Coffee at 5¢ a lb., shortening 5-7¢ lb., and prunes 5¢ lb. These stores bore the name Piggly Wiggly. A Laredo store was purchased in 1929.

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