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Dressing Little Miss America

By Tara V. Kohlenberg —

Remember the wonderful Sears or JC Penney Christmas catalogues that used to arrive in the mail each September? School had barely begun, the weather still hot enough to wear shorts, but I spent hours looking at the beautiful Christmas dresses. However, my Christmas dresses never came from a catalogue. When they weren’t sewn by my mother, they came from the Cater Frocks Company retail store.

The Cater Frock Company was a children’s dress manufacturer in New Braunfels. Mr. B.J. Cater and his wife, Guyrene, of Temple, moved to New Braunfels in 1936. According to the New Braunfels Herald, B.J. Cater and Company, Manufacturers of Women’s and Children’s Dresses, began operations in early 1937 on the second floor of the Forshage Building located at 472 W. San Antonio St. (now retail and upstairs apartment building next door to newest Miller & Miller building). They began with four seamstresses, adding 16 more within the first few months, to meet the demand for goods being shipped as far as New Orleans, Houston and towns in North Texas. B.J. Cater was the sales representative and his wife supervised the design and sewing. Soon the company had outgrown the downtown site.

By 1941, the phone book listed them as Cater Frock Company with an address of “Landa Park”. Mr. Cater leased space from the city of New Braunfels and moved the operation into an old Landa warehouse (now the old rec center).

During WWII, everything was rationed, including textiles. New Braunfels Textile Mills (later Mission Valley Mills) had a limit of five yards of fabric per day per person. It is said that each Cater Frock employee was sent to the mill daily to obtain their five-yard allotment of ginghams to be able to maintain production.

In 1946, Cater Frock was sold to a new ownership group – a men’s clothing factory representative, a lawyer and a housewife. Tobin Nathan, a men’s clothing factory representative, saw a clothing factory advertised for sale in the Houston Chronicle. He was surprised to find that the business made little girls’ dresses because women’s fashions used the term ‘apparel’, not ‘clothing’. In October of 1946, after several trips to New Braunfels with his attorney, Nathan bought the business. Nathan’s attorney, Irvin Boarnet, was in fact his son-in-law. The two, along with his daughter, became partners. The Boarnets made the original ‘long commute’, working weekdays in New Braunfels to learn the business from the Caters and traveling back to Houston on weekends. In January 1947, Mr. Boarnet, his wife Loyce, and their children, Bernie and Lou Ann, moved to New Braunfels.

Irvin Boarnet oversaw the manufacturing plant, literally, as his office was on the mezzanine above the cutting and sewing floor. Loyce was in charge of the designs for the first five years. Although she could sew, she had no training in design and pattern making. They eventually hired a couple of part time designers, including Lauris Priesmeyer. In 1954, they employed their first full time designer with a degree in Clothing and Costume Design. June Keith Voigt, my mom, was the first of many graduates they recruited from the Texas State College for Women (now TWU).

As production grew, it became necessary to expand into the neighboring building (front part of Wurstfest building that houses Spass Haus), allowing for the addition of more designers from TSCW, including Edna Fundis Bremer, Sarah (Sally) Jones Wetz, and Mary Jo Stratton Zipp. The new building housed a state-of-the-art design room with a veritable smorgasbord of tactile delight: walls lined with fabric swatches, buttons, lace and trims. It also housed the two ‘sample’ seamstresses, the billing office and my favorite part, the factory sample sales room.

The production and shipping departments were in the main factory building. The Boarnets had begun with 30 employees. By 1960, they ran two shifts of about 30 seamstresses, along with cutters and pressers that prepped for shipping. Of the 135 employees at that time, only four were men. They even hired a woman sales representative for Dallas, which was unusual at that time. Garments were made in a production line, no one person made a whole garment, only their assigned pieces… like zippers, button holes, sleeves, etc.

A number of women worked for Cater Frock for more than 20 years. Some started sewing as young as 15 and 16 years old and have fond memories of the ‘family’ atmosphere and the camaraderie of the workers, sharing lunches and dinners together. Some of the seamstresses were Linda Zuniga, Estefana Molina, Oralia Castillo, Virginia Castillo, and supervisors Janie Gonzales and Rosalie Brandt. These women worked tirelessly to leave a legacy of beautiful little girls’ dresses for “Little Miss America” in sizes 1-3 toddlers, 4-6x girls and even introduced a ‘Petite Elegance’ line that was a pre-teen/junior size ahead of their time. Cater Frock dresses were sold in better children’s specialty shops from East Coast to West Coast and all through the South. They also made the royal blue velveteen uniforms of the New Braunfels Royal Bluettes Pep Squad of the 1960s.

Bernie Boarnet joined the successful apparel company as vice-president of production in 1963 after completing his industrial and mechanical engineering degrees from Texas A&M University and a two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army. At that time, Cater Frock produced about 4000 garments per week, used 200,000 yards of fabric a year, at least half of which came directly from the local Mission Valley Mills. The rest came from New York. By 1967, Cater Frock Company was noted as one of the top nine employers/industries in Comal County along with Dittlinger Roller Mills Co., Ol’ Bossy, Inc., Hadlock & Fox Mfg. Co., Servtex Materials Co., Comette Hosiery Mills, U.S. Gypsum Co., and Mission Valley Mills.

In 1969, Cater Frock Company merged with Santone Industries of San Antonio. Billing and design departments were moved to San Antonio, but the plant remained in New Braunfels. The company sold again to IBJ Corporation of Dallas in 1972. As a division of Jarrell, Inc. (or Lizann), women’s dresses continued to be sewn and sent to Dallas from the Landa Park buildings until the early 1990s.

Sources:

  • New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung
  • Sophienburg Archives
  • “Reflections” oral history recordings
  • Boarnet family
Photos on vintage Cater Frock dress. Left inset: L-R, Loyce Boarnet, Irvin Boarnet, Bernie Boarnet. 1965 Cater Frock Team Right inset: Irvin Boarnet, remodeled design and business offices building of Cater Frocks.

Photos on vintage Cater Frock dress. Left inset: L-R, Loyce Boarnet, Irvin Boarnet, Bernie Boarnet. 1965 Cater Frock Team Right inset: Irvin Boarnet, remodeled design and business offices building of Cater Frocks.