By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
I always looked forward to our weekly trip to the grocery store. Although it was only a short twelve or so blocks from our house (and about the same from the Plaza), it felt like we were traveling to an exotic place with odd sights, sounds and smells. It was both scary and exciting to ride in the car as my mother drove over the bridge high above the Guadalupe. The grocery store was Pittman’s Red & White Store.
To me, the store was small and safe with only three aisles and a meat market in the back. If I behaved, I would get to select a treat from the cooler case at the end of the trip. But there was so much more to Pittman’s story than those three aisles of groceries.
The Comal and Guadalupe Rivers marked the boundaries of the land purchased by Prince Carl. The rivers defined the edge of New Braunfels for a long time. The Faust Street Bridge, one of New Braunfels’ most recognizable landmarks, was completed in 1887. The bridge was part of Highway 2, and served as a major crossing for all traffic between Austin to San Antonio until 1934, long before US 81 and Interstate 35 were built.
Highway 2, the Guadalupe River and the railroad brought industry. In 1921, Planters and Merchants Textiles began planning and building their modern water-powered textile mill. It began full production in July 1923. In 1922, just across the road on the edge of the highway in rural Comal County, Litt Atkin (L.A.) Pittman and his wife Eula set up a hamburger stand. According to family history, L.A. and Eula came to the New Braunfels area in 1919. When they wanted to build a business, it was said that the only properties available to them were outside of New Braunfels city limits. They purchased property from Louis Meyer on Highway 2 (now Porter Street).
What started out as a hamburger stand evolved into a grocery store. L.A. worked as a fireman in a factory job while Eula ran the store. They served not only the mill workers, but the families that built homes in the new Meyer Addition. The store was a little of everything to the community. Because it was on the highway, it served as a Greyhound bus station. It also served as a post office and polling place for Comal County. The community was dubbed Milltown by the people of New Braunfels. It was a derogatory name, but the people of Milltown embraced it. The funny thing was, the mill was the largest employer in the county, with a good number of the workers crossing that bridge from town every day to work there.
As the mill prospered, so did Pittman’s. By the late ’20s, the store became Pittman’s Red & White Store. L.A. and his wife built a large home behind the store and raised their children, who also worked in the store. About 1940, the Pittmans built a new modern Red & White Store next door to the first wood frame store. L.A.’s son, Walter, raised his family in the remodeled old store building while working long hours in the new store. The new store had the traditional red and black tile front and plate glass windows. This is the store I remember from the ’50s and ’60s. It was a nice place to be. The air conditioner was cool in the summertime. There was a square table with chairs near the front doors. Hot coffee was available all day along with cold sodas in the cooler. They made sandwiches and burgers to go. They also had a butcher in the back of the store that custom cut and wrapped the meat for customers. Gary, L.A.’s oldest grandson was the butcher. For a while, Walter and Helen Pittman owned a myna bird, and believe it or not, they had it by the back door in the butcher shop. It would whistle and call out Helen’s name all the time. My child-self thought that was so very cool. My adult-self is like, oh my gosh, you had a bird in a butcher shop! So many things wrong with that. The Myna bird accounts for both odd sights and sounds. Across the street from the store, stood the mill, a huge glistening white building guarded by a row of tall palm trees and a green and white neon sign. The odd smells mentioned before? The dyes used contained formaldehyde. Occasionally, the dye vats were flushed into the river and released an acrid smell into the air. Yuck. Best thing ever at Pittman’s? Grapette from the cooler!
Pittman’s store was fundamentally tied to the textile mill, whether it was Planters and Merchants, Mission Valley Mills, or Westpoint Pepperell. Pittman’s opened before first shift so workers could fill up on breakfast tacos (yes!) and get sandwiches for their noon meal. They cashed checks and ran charge accounts for groceries. They even delivered. Before the war, Pittman’s would purchase flat fold yardage of ginghams from the mill to sell at the store. There would be people lined up before the store opened to purchase that fabric. L.A.’s daughter, Bernice, would cut gingham sample swatches stapled together with cardboard labeled Comal Cottons to mail out to people. Mr. McKenna purchase that name for his own retail operation. After the war, Comal Cottons retail store opened across the street. Pittman’s returned to grocery sales and Gary would later go on to a career with Comal Cottons and then fabric sales.
Pittman’s Store remained a staple in Milltown serving people of the area until the family closed the doors for the last time in late 1979.
Sources: https://historicbridgefoundation.com/txbridges/hillcountry/comal/faust.html; Sophienburg Museum & Archives; Around the Sophienburg, Myra Lee Adams Goff; Gary Pittman; Bonnye Manning.