"A Step Back in Time"
by: Wanda Blackburn
Appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Texas Hill Country Magazine.
It is reprinted with permission from the magazine and author.
SIMON BROS MERCANTILE: A STEP BACK IN TIME WITH A LEAP TOWARD THE FUTURE
Travelling through the westernmost stretches of the Hill Country on Interstate 10, the speed limit is 80 mph through Kimble county. But 18 miles west of the city of Junction, release the cruise control, take the Roosevelt exit onto Loop 291 and stop to experience Simon Bros. Mercantile, a general store containing a picturesque post office, antiques, cafe, gasoline and much more.
You can’t get lost - the paved road loops right back to the interstate - and if you’re thinking it will be time wasted from your schedule, think again. Time - that’s the whole point of Roosevelt: a place in time that seems long forgotten if measured by the modern world’s standards.
This is an area where the people are tightly-knit; families who have been here for generations, yet they’ll welcome you warmly. If you wander the beautiful old cemeteries in the area, Copperas, Cedar Hill or Bear Creek, markers date back to the 1870s. You’re very likely to meet someone on the street or see a mailbox today with many of those family names. In addition, there are dozens of private family cemeteries in the immediate area with descendants still owning the land.
A mile or so on Loop 291, pull up to Simon Bros. Mercantile. Quaint, rustic, old? You bet. But don’t get caught thinking, “This is it? This is what I’m supposed to see?” You’re in for the best sight and time of your trip, if not your life. Guaranteed!! You could spend half an hour on the porch, admiring the look - just how storybook tales and tv westerns portray Texas. But this is the real deal.
As you walk inside and your eyes adjust from the bright sunlight, you are completely transported back in time. It’s like a time warp in here. A life-sized bear stands in front of a huge mountain- scene wall mural painted by a local, Debbie Tomlinson. Here also is the famous roundtable of Roosevelt, where locals drink coffee and solve the world’s problems. Big decisions are made here, then stamped. When some idea, thought or resolution is hammered out and voted on, it actually receives the ink stamp - the seal that means “That’s it; it’s now officially (or unofficially) a done deal!”.
In one corner is the U.S. Post Office, a window in the wall surrounded by a small number of postal boxes. George Ann Copeland is the Postmistress. Believe me, you’ve not seen anything like it. Looks like a great spot for a souvenir photo-op.
Someone will have called out to you by this time, asking if you need help or just welcoming you to browse. Start at one end of the huge room and go aisle by aisle so you don’t miss anything. Every inch of upper wall space is hung with trophy mounts including exotic and native game animals. The shelves are lined with antiques and old-timey products - everything you’d expect in a mercantile and more. You’ll eventually get to the coolers, grocery and other necessary household items, but take your time and enjoy it. Your journey has just begun.
First, let’s get the name straight: it’s pronounced Roos-evelt, like “rooster” (not like “rose”). Gene and Wanda Simon (and that’s pronounced “Simmon”) bought the property in 1996. The building dates to 1912 and the Simon family refurbished and decorated it in such a way that it appears everything is a hundred years old. Their sons, Clay and Kelly, operate the store, but Dad Gene is usually there, too. “Everyone thinks we named the store Simon Bros. because of Kelly and I,” said Clay. “But actually a relative, Ben F. Simon, owned the store until the 1940s and it was named Simon Bros., so we re-named it like the original family name.”
Gene and Wanda Simon, Clay and Lainey, Kelly and Amy invite you to stop and visit. It’s a family affair with three grandchildren and one on the way.
Other family members laud Clay as the marketer, driving force and public relations expert. It’s obvious that this family owns the property, not only to make a living, but to preserve history. It seems as though Simon Bros. Mercantile has come full circle since the town was founded, once again providing a source of feed and supplies, adding to the local economy, now housing the post office and hosting community events.
Historical records show that Roosevelt was founded in 1898 by W. B. Wagner - some records spell Wagoner - with the establishment of a post office applied for by Alice Wagner. Although research differs regarding what name she asked for, all seem to agree that this town was named for Theodore Roosevelt, who reportedly visited the area while commanding the First United States Volunteer Cavalry - famously known as the Rough Riders. According to the historical marker, two military roads traversed the area, making it a shipping point for all types of supplies, as well as a social center for ranching families. The marker states that Roosevelt included a Masonic Lodge, churches, stores and a school. Other data indicates there was also a hotel and a company of Texas Rangers was stationed nearby at Bear Creek.
Gene’s sister, Gayle Simon, opened the Back Door Cafe about a year after the building was purchased. Local ladies get together and play dominoes in the afternoon here regularly every week. “Clay talked me into this,” she laughed. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind! No one will come to Roosevelt to eat’. ” But Clay was right. “Friday nights especially are big,” Gayle said. “People come here from Junction, Mason, Menard, Harper, Rocksprings - long distances - to eat here.” And when they come, no one’s in a rush. This is a laid-back place where the friendly atmosphere and socializing can’t be hurried. Even though there’s a larger menu of items, when I asked about a “specialty” - Gene, Kelly, Clay and Gayle, in unison, agreed that “it’s the cheeseburgers. You have to have one of Gayle’s cheeseburgers!” The cafe has a tropical-themed Tomlnson mural. Beer is sold; you can bring your own liquor or wine. The Back Door Cafe is open 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 6 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The cafe is closed on Sunday and Monday.
The Simon family is especially proud of the 18-ft. long bar extending the length of one whole side of the cafe. The beautiful, huge solid wood structure was a gift from local rancher K. Cowsert, whose father, Gully Cowsert, Sr. gained fame commanding Texas Ranger Company E in the West Texas District. On most days, K. is here, with other locals - at the roundtable, in the cafe or enjoying the outdoor patio. Behind the long bar front is a matching, free-standing piece. Ornate carvings surround the mirrored top, which has a long countertop with drawers and storage doors underneath. The entire bar is in excellent condition. The actual date it was built is unknown, but it contains a brass nameplate: Rothschild’s & Sons, Cincinnati and Chicago. “The story is that this bar was at Ft. Mason and that Robert E. Lee drank at it in 1853,” Clay related. “It was moved to Ft. McKavett. We’re not sure of the date, but assume it left Mason in 1870 when that fort shut down. It stayed at Ft. McKavett until 1930 when K.’s father bought it and stored it in a barn at Bois d’Arc (pronounced beau dark).” It was moved to its present location in 2006. “There are reportedly two bullet holes behind the mirrors,” Clay said. “We don’t know how the bar was moved from Cincinnati or Chicago to this part of the country. One way would have been to transport it down the Mississippi to the coast and then by ship to Galveston. From there it still would have been a long trip. Because the front is not built in sections, but one solid piece, it just seems unlikely that it was transported by wagon the whole way,” Clay surmised.
One can only imagine the incidents that have happened and the stories told around that bar. In a coincidence that probably has nothing to do with this bar, but interestingly, in Jefferson, Texas in 1877, a wealthy man was arrested for the murder of his supposed wife. They had arrived by train and the man’s name was Abraham Rothschild. He was from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Clay brought out old record books, photos and historical documents. In painstakingly detailed, handwritten ledger books from the early 1900s entries were recorded for every item bought, the price, then duly noted when the account was “settled”. One such entry was for baking powder, coffee and flour totaling $1.20. There were little cards from Ben Simon’s store dated 1922. Customers were given a card for every .25 purchase; they saved them up and redeemed them for pieces of silverware. The building also housed the telephone switchboard. Every telephone call was written down in a journal: who called whom and the price of the call. Usually the calls were .25 each. It’s wonderful reading!
What is the population of Roosevelt, I wondered. “Well, it wouldn’t take too long to count,” Gene replied dryly. Immediately, everyone at the table began to roll off names and within seconds they decided - population: 16. “Of course, that’s inside the city limits. There’re a lot more in suburbia,” Gene grinned.
I suppose you’ve had some interesting visitors, I asked. “Oh, people get lost, pass a town and wind up in Roosevelt. We had a long-haired, hippie guy one time asking for the nearest Wal-mart. Then there were the two ladies wanting to know how far it was to Fiesta Texas. They said they had been told it was only an hour away. Turned out they were from Kerrville and went the wrong way!” Gene laughed.
“Those are everyday occurrences around here,” Gayle said. Gene remembered, “we had another guy who came in asking how far it was to California. Said he’d gotten up real early that morning and left from El Paso.” Since I have absolutely no sense of direction myself, I was in fits of laughter. Clay related another incident when “a fellow was going to Laredo, was at Van Horn, then Carrizo Springs. Somehow he ‘took a wrong turn’ and ended up here in Roosevelt!”
According to locals, the nearby exit #442 is the halfway point between Florida and California, as well as the mid-point between El Paso and Beaumont. (This writer’s note: It has also been said that a location about 25 miles east, Cloud Point, was calculated as midway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. That’s still inside Kimble county, so I believe whichever is correct - that’s pretty close for gov’ment work!)
But as wonderful as it is to remember and preserve the past, behind the scenes, Simon Bros. Mercantile is keeping up with the present and looking to the future. Landowners travel miles to buy ranch supplies, deer blinds and feeders and the store sponsors several events during the year. “Hunting season is our biggest time,” Clay said. “Opening day we have a lunch for hunters and visitors and we participate in state and local buck contests.” There is a Christmas Eve parade with Santa and a New Year’s Eve dance and fireworks. In 2006, the store sponsored its first annual National Wild Turkey Federation Banquet.
Roosevelt is a mecca for sportsmen and hunting is a driving force of the economy of the area. Simon Bros. Mercantile is the place to find information regarding guides and sites, brochures and business cards for activities, whether you hunt with gun, bow, camera or paintbrush. Other outdoor sports abound: hiking, fishing, birdwatching, kayaking - you probably will not drive the short Loop 291 without seeing deer or wild turkey along the way. If you have a question, just ask. Everyone is happy to visit with you. Indeed, it’s hard to know who works there and who is just a local, daily visitor. Everyone’s an ambassador and proud of their town.
Be sure to visit the Simon Bros. Mercantile website at simonbros.org for information about the store, its history, photos, buck contests and upcoming events. Turn your speakers up and enjoy this entertaining website! Simon Bros. Mercantile is open 8 a.m. - 7 p.m. six days a week. Phone: 325-446-2604.
Regarding the stories and references told here, as with most locations, fact and fiction get mingled through the years, truth and fond remembrances are blurred, but what really matters is the history these local people hold in their hearts. ~