The Callahan clan from country to city

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 Lifestyle

The twinkle in his eye tells all.

“I was your typical barefoot, red-headed Huckleberry Finn,” Verlin Callahan says. “Loved my outdoor adventures, my animals. Loved to hunt and to fish. Always had a dog of some kind around me.”

A playful goatee poking from his sun-creased face, Callahan, 75, hasn’t changed all that much.

The world around him, however, has.

His big family, which owns and runs Callahan’s General Store on U.S. 183 in Montopolis, has lived in Central Texas since the 1850s.

For much of that time, they were tied to the land, ranchers and farmers, later supplying feed, implements and sundries to ranchers and farmers.

Yet agriculture is no longer the No. 1 business in the region, as it was during Verlin’s youth, back when the Austin Chamber of Commerce put on the fat stock show and rodeo.

These days, many Austinites, despite the spread of organic groceries and urban farming, don’t know much about the origins of their food.

Which is one reason the Callahan clan — which comprises hundreds of Central Texans — has been so dedicated to Rodeo Austin, which starts up Saturday at the Travis County Expo Center.

Verlin loves watching the offspring of families he has known for decades light up during the rodeo’s livestock judging, sporting events or country concerts.

He can’t help, however, feeling that something has been lost.

“They had agricultural backgrounds 30 or 40 years ago,” he says of those rodeo families. “Not many of them have large-scale agriculture in their lives today. They try to go back to it, but agriculture doesn’t have a long waiting list. It just costs so much. If you tried to buy the land and the animals and the equipment and be prepared to go through the cycles — it’s pretty much impossible.”

Verlin and his family’s ancestors first settled among the hardwood forests and broad meadows in southern Bastrop County in the 1840s and ’50s.

In 1856, Philip Goertz — Verlin’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side — picked a spot near Walnut Creek to plant his family and a tidy dogtrot cabin that, in a restored state, now sits on the grounds of the Rockne Museum.

Nearby stands the soul of Rockne: Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The first Catholic services in Rockne were held at “Uncle Philip” Goertz’s cabin. He donated the land for the current church.

Life was rough here during the mid-19th century, but these Germans were profoundly dedicated to their religion. Several Goertz sons became priests, and several of their neighbor Lehmans took the veil as nuns.

On the night of Jan. 22, 1891, the town was rocked when their church was deliberately torched. Back then, the term “Americans” applied to those in the area who were not Catholic or German.

The church and its school, however, thrived. In 1931, the students competed to rename the town that had been known as Walnut Creek, Lehman, Lehmanville or Hilbigville. One of Verlin’s cousins suggested Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, who had held football workshops at St. Edward’s University and died earlier that year in a plane crash.

The families spoke German into Verlin’s parents’ era, staying close to the Lehmans, Meuths, Hilbigs and other pioneer families. To this day, the annual Goertz family reunion draws hundreds of descendants to Rockne, including the Irish Callahans.

Verlin’s great-grandfather on his father’s side, Cassily Callahan, came to Texas from Tennessee before the Civil War and ran a livery stable in Austin. His son, Michael Cassily Callahan, settled in the Rockne area. And his son, Earl, Verlin’s father, fit right in.

“There is also a Callahan ancestor who fought in the Indian wars at Red River,” says Kim Wilson, Verlin’s niece, who studied history at the University of Texas. “And another who escaped the long arm of the law to Montana. Earl’s father shows up several times in Bastrop County court records, arrested for playing dominoes during the time of enforced blue laws.”

In 1927, Earl married Lucy Goertz, the hard-working, music-loving descendant of Uncle Philip. They made a life together in a board-and-batten cabin where the boys’ and girls’ “rooms” were separated by hanging sheets.

“Theirs was what was called a ‘mixed marriage,’” says Leora Callahan McCarthy, 80, Verlin’s sister and Kim’s mother. “The Germans and the Irish had not mixed in that community before Mom and Dad. But we were the people who had a telephone and a car. If anybody needed medical care, they came to our house.”

Chester Earl Callahan, father to Verlin and his seven siblings — a ninth child died at birth — was a towering man for his day at 6 feet, 1 inch tall and 241 pounds. Born in 1906, he was ambitious, too. He served as a Bastrop County commissioner and ran for county judge. He led the charge for more and better rural roads.

“He wanted his children to have more than he had,” says Leora who, like her twin sister, Leona, was named after a cow. “He did not have a chance to even get into high school. He was emphatic about his children being educated. He could be a very stern man. But he was also loving and giving.”

Lucy Goertz Callahan, born in 1907, focused on the home, children and neighbors.

“When I think of Lucy, I think of love — for everybody,” Leora says. “She was a giver. That was her life. She was an excellent cook. My grandmother was Irish and had never cooked vegetables very much. My mother taught my grandmother.”

Years later, Callahan’s General Store issued two cookbooks of family recipes. Rhonda Callahan McBride, 63, put together the 1983 edition.

“More than being the chief cook, though, Lucy has been the symbol of strength and frugality in the Callahan family,” reads the book’s dedication. “She made ends meet through hard times, and she’s helped everyone rejoice in good times.”

The book’s dishes — jalapeno pie, kraut salad, hominy casserole, dove stew, venison chili — reflect the resourcefulness of rural life.

The 10 family members crammed into a cabin with minimal amenities and no indoor plumbing.

“It was cold in the winter,” Leora recalls. “Dad would get up and start the fire before we got up. Our grandparents lived just across the watermelon patch from us.”

Murray, born in 1929, was the eldest. Delores showed up in 1931, twins Loena and Leora in 1933. Earl Patrick “Pat” came in 1936, Verlin in 1939. He was followed by Alethea (1944) and Arthur James “Jimmy” (1946).

Siblings Pat and Alethea have since passed away, as have their parents.

“We never lacked for companionship,” Leora says. “If you have a twin sister, you always have a companion and soul mate.”

When the brood was still pretty young, they moved to a ranch on Cedar Creek. During the Great Drought of the 1950s, the Callahans moved into the city, in part to be near schools for the kids. Earl and Lucy purchased a small house on East Monroe Street.

“Dad bought the house for $10,000,” Leora says. “I recently drove by and it’s for sale for $350,000.”

The children attended St. Ignatius School and St. Edward’s High School or St. Mary’s when it was housed at the old Perry Estate.

“We were having a hell of a time making it during the drought,” Verlin says. “Like anybody in agriculture. Dad’s idea was to get girls in school and keep them at home.”

Meanwhile, Verlin would race on foot every day after school to work at Stone’s Food Mart on East Riverside Drive.

“It was plenty hard for a kid to have a nickel in his pocket,” Verlin says. “The Stones bought eggs from us. We fed their cattle.”

In 1952, Earl joined three partners in a cattle auction concern, planted among the dairies and farms around Montopolis. The auction barn had been raised in 1945.

By the ’50s, however, the Great Drought had forced some Bastrop and Travis ranchers to switch from cattle to sheep or hogs. To fatten the animals to be auctioned, the partners built a feed mill next to the barn. Thus was Capital Feed and Milling, now a Callahan family outfit, founded.

In 1960, Earl suffered a major heart attack. Genial Verlin was chosen in 1964 to oversee the business. Eldest brother Murray, then other siblings, nieces and nephews followed Verlin.

In 1968, the family added an implement store to the north of the barn. In 1978, they built Callahan’s General Store over the demolished barn’s site, just in time for the “Urban Cowboy” craze.

“‘Urban Cowboy’ made our Western wear take off like wildfire,” says Gary Viktorin, 60, Delores’ son and the store’s accountant. It was also a time when urban Austinites bought semi-rural “ranchettes” to get closer to the land.

“When I came here, our demographic was a 35-year-old working man who wore jeans and worked on a ranchette on the weekends,” says Mike Young, son of Alma Katherine Callahan, Earl’s sister. “Three to five acres. Horses, cattle, chickens, perhaps hogs, sheep and goats. That’s where we came in.”

The Callahans treated everyone who walked in the door like neighbors.

“Longtime customers are part of our extended family,” says Calley Callahan, Verlin’s daughter and an attorney. “And I believe it’s that family feeling that keeps people coming back.”

Callahan kids hung out at the store, then later worked a few hours before becoming full-time employees.

“Walmart’s a general store,” Mike, now the store manager, says. “But they don’t have the atmosphere. This harkens back to pioneer America. Everybody came to the general store. That was their banker and the place where they got their goods. Store owners would carry your bills until the crops came it. It was a pillar of the community.”

The current drought put a big dent in the Callahans’ sales. “This business was built on cattle feed,” Mike says. “We used to send out two or three trucks of feed a day.”

Luckily, showmanship and word-of-mouth keep customers flowing through the rough parking lot. They stage live music every weekend. “We built pens up front for potbelly pigs, little baby goats,” Mike says. “Cute things.”

Backyardchicken.com holds its meetings here, and the store sells 300 adult chickens a week.

The surviving children of Earl and Lucy — Murray, Delores, Leora, Leona, Verlin and Jimmy — own the store. Cousin Mike is well positioned to be the manager, being part of the family, but not growing up among them.

“When we were kids, we pretended to work here,” Mike says. “Cousin Verlin later gave me a job to pass the time while waiting for another position to open up, working on one of the ranches, building fences, doctoring cattle, things that I wanted to do. I was getting too old for the ranch. It was cold and hot and wet. The romantic aspect had worn off.”

Gary, whose father’s family is Texas Czech, started working at the store part-time in 1975 while still in school. He’d already adopted a hardy work ethic from his father and grandfather.

“I swung a sledgehammer at 12 years old to bust rims off tires,” Gary says. “Dad worked us hard. I’m glad he did. You got an appreciation for hard work — and not wanting to do it for your whole life.”

That’s one reason Gary studied accounting at UT.

“In 1981, Verlin came knocking on my door,” Gary recalls. “He said we’re growing and we need somebody to look after the books.”

Customers who browse the 20,000 square feet of hardware, houseware, apparel and gifts are not always aware of the 2 1/2 acres out back where, under a metal roof, trucks line up to load feed or chickens.

“One of my favorite memories was the yearly inventory, which was all done by hand in the early days,” Calley says. “Counting each nut, bolt and nail by hand and tallying it on inventory sheets. Today, it’s all done electronically. Afterwards, the employees and family members would share a meal together.”

Hardware manager Rhonda Callahan McBride, Murray’s daughter, joined the family business in 1971.

“We’ve definitely broadened in terms of what we carry,” Rhonda says. “Western wear and work clothes seemed to fit in with hardware and feed. The canning, cookware, meat processing all just evolved. People ask: Do you have this? If they asked for it one time, well OK. But if they ask a second or third time, well then we better get it in here.”

The clientele continues to change.

“When I was younger, it was mostly ranchers and farmers,” says Marla Callahan Dial, Rhonda’s sister. “Now it’s more travelers. More urban farmers, people doing chickens in backyards. Now we’re not so out in the country. We are really in town.”

The “back to basics” movement has helped, too, promoting canning and tanning supplies, cast iron cookware and products for farmers markets.

“The food industry has grown so much here,” says Amy Callahan Jones, 50, Verlin’s daughter. “Restaurants, food trailers, people coming in from California, organic gardening, locally bottled drinks. There’s a ‘general’ in a general store.”

Honor ensures that the Callahans never let down their retail guard.

“To see your family’s name on the business out front on the billboard gives you a certain pride,” Mike says. “And makes you want to accomplish something for the family.”

On the short list of Austin families who have left an imprint on Rodeo Austin, count the Callahans. In 1963, Verlin started as a volunteer assistant superintendent of the dairy show.

“Our first entertainer was Johnny Rodriguez,” he says. “Right out of the jailhouse.”

The rodeo has changed enormously in the past 76 years. Started as a fat stock show across from the Capitol, it later moved to the gone — but rarely lamented — Colosseum on Auditorium Shores.

“As far back as I can I remember, my dad was part of the rodeo,” Amy says. “When it came time for the calf scramble, he’d lift me across the fence so I could run with the rest of them. I still see it in my mind.”

These days at the Expo Center, the carnival and midway seem to attract as many families as the rodeo sports and musical concerts. Calley has served on the rodeo board for 13 years and has chaired the scholarship committee.

“When they constructed the facility on Decker Lane,” Calley says, “I was there on the weekends removing trash and helping out where I could.”

During rodeo season, some in the family stay behind to watch the store.

“I’ll take care of business here, y’all go on out there,” Rhonda says. “I’m a background person and that’s the way I like it.”

For years, Leora, who studied home economics at UT, judged the heritage show’s cooking contests.

“I started by judging cookies,” says Leora, who had helped her mother, Lucy, in the kitchen. “People would ask: How do you know what makes a good cookie? I’d take a bite of each one. If they taste good, then you judge as to size, content.”

Gary took over the accounting for rodeo auctions back in 1982. He volunteered there for 23 years. Amy, accounts receivable bookkeeper for the store, helped out. Jimmy and Verlin each served as president.

“We developed tremendous camaraderie at the rodeo,” Verlin says. “The reality was that, when it was just the livestock show, everybody came wholeheartedly as a volunteer without agenda. As we grew and as our volunteer base grew, people want to change things.”

The Callahans helped keep the rodeo on course.

“I can’t say enough great things about the Callahan family,” says former rodeo board member Michele Golden. “The Callahans bring a special element to everything they do that demonstrates their family values with hard work, plenty of laughs and always a big smile. They all exude Texas charm.”

The Callahan focus on education paid off. Some members attended Texas A&M University. Some went to “the other school.”

While the family got larger and more complicated, they maintained ties, to the store, to the rodeo, also to roots in Bastrop County.

“We were all born and raised Catholic,” Rhonda says. “Not all of us are practicing, but born and raised.”

Clusters of Callahans settled in Travis Heights, Cherry Creek, Manchaca and other South Austin spots.

“I’ve lived in the city but can tell you that I’m still very country at heart,” Calley says. “After getting married and having a child of my own, my only thought was how quickly I could get back to a rural area to raise our son.”

Others, like Amy, settled near the family ranch on Cedar Creek.

“We share a huge community garden,” Amy says. “Tomatoes, peas, onions, kale, cabbage, corn. I’ve always known where the food comes from.”

Today, there are more than 100 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Earl and Lucy. Murray’s family, for instance, grew exponentially when the widower married Shirley Flores almost 50 years ago.

“There were six of us,” says Marla Callahan Dial, 58. “She had four children. Then they had one of their own. So it was ‘Yours, Mine and Ours.’ We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of fun and love in our family.”

Gary grew up down the street from Rhonda, Marla and the biggest Callahan brood in South Austin.

“They had a lot more kids in theirs,” Gary says. “But when we put them together, we could field two football teams. We controlled the neighborhood.”

Rhonda, by the way, just celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary with Jay McBride, whose family also owns a legacy Austin business, McBride’s Gun Shop.

Growing up on the West Coast, Kim was an adult before she really got to know her Callahan cousins, many of whom participate in the annual Callahan Girls’ Reunion.

“A single event convinced me that it did not matter whether I lived there or not,” Wilson says. “My dad had pancreatic cancer and during his last weeks I stayed with my mom in Austin. He died early one morning. Mom called Aunt Dolores to let her know. We were barely dressed before Aunt Do was standing at the door with a huge box of doughnuts and her enveloping hug. I watched over the next few days and months and years as my mom’s people treated her as a beloved sister and aunt and cousin — something that my child’s eyes had never seen.”

Just about every Callahan admits that emotions get a little high in a family business.

“We have blow-ups, that’s for sure,” Rhonda says. “But we’re family. It’s not personal, it’s business.”

In the end, the legacy of Earl and Lucy lives on.

“Being a Callahan, to me, is being enveloped in a family that cares for each other and for the community,” Leona says. “And for the world. Mom and Dad taught us to help our neighbor, to love our neighbor, to learn what’s going on in the world, and don’t stay in your little cubbyhole forever.”

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