“A poet could write volumes about diners, because they’re so beautiful. They’re brightly lit, with chrome and booths and Naugahyde and great waitresses. Now, it might not be so great in the health department, but I think diner food is really worth experiencing periodically.”
– David Lynch, American filmmaker
The oldest continually operating cafe in Texas
The earliest known image of Huntsville is a simple hand-drawn sketch by an English traveler named William Bollaert, who captioned his work, circa 1842: “Very few of the houses can be seen on account of pine & other tees, bushes, etc.”
Indeed, it is said Huntsville is the western point of what is known as the Piney Woods Region of Texas. Once just a halfway point on the bustling Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston, Huntsville has become a destination of its own right, luring students wanting to study a myriad of subjects at Sam Houston State University, Houston-area retirees wanting to stretch their retirement dollars with lower housing and general living costs while maintaining proximity to the nation’s fourth largest city, and law enforcement and criminal justice professionals seeking employment in one of the world’s largest prison systems, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice – also headquartered here.
In the midst of the changes, growth, modernization and evolution of Huntsville has sat one little café, perfectly situated at 1120 Sam Houston Avenue, on the corner of one of the city’s busiest streets and across from the Walker County Courthouse on the picturesque downtown square. The Café Texan opened to much fanfare in 1936 and by the time it closed in 2020, it was the oldest continually operating café in the Lone Star State.
The Café Texan opened during a bit of a dicey time in American history. The nation was still in the midst of the Great Depression but unemployment rates – which had hit an all-time high of 23.6 percent in 1929 – had dropped to a more manageable 16 percent by 1936 and business owners were trying to get back on track. This was a time when local stores, like McAdams Dry Goods, advertised main staple foods for pennies on the dollar in today’s prices – a 48-pound bag of flour could be yours for a bargain $1.89, and tender veal chops were just 15 cents per pound.
Word of a brand new café coming to town was breaking, front-page news and first appeared in The Huntsville Item on April 30, 1936 under the headline, “New Cafe to Open for Business Soon.”
“A new cafe to be known as the Cafe Texan with Fred Morris as the proprietor is being planned for the Eastham building at Avenue L and Twelfth Street, formerly occupied by the United Gas Company. The rooms are being renovated and redecorated inside and out and the latest modernistic design is being used in the decorative scheme. Fixtures and all the equipment will be the most modern.
Mr. Morris is an experienced cafe man. He was associated with the Cafe Raven for six years, having been there from the time it opened until last fall. Before that time he was in the cafe business in Navasota. The date for the opening of the cafe will be announced soon.”
It turned out the people of Huntsville and Walker County would not have to wait in eager anticipation long; a week later, the Item had a follow-up story, announcing on May 7, 1936 that the Café Texan would be opening its doors on Wednesday, May 13, 1936. The affair was to be momentous – and high-end – as described in an article titled, “Cafe Texan Will Have Opening on Wednesday Night.” And most important to note was that the Café was able to brag of being the first in “this part of the country” to have an automatic, sanitizing dishwasher.
“The Cafe Texan on Wednesday night, May 13 will entertain with open house from 7:30 until 10:00 o’clock to give the citizens of the town and community an opportunity to be shown through the cafe. An orchestra will furnish the music for the occasion and refreshments will be served. Fred Morris, proprietor, invites the public and will be glad to greet all visitors.
The Cafe, situated on the southwest corner of the square, is thoroughly modern and up-to-date in every respect. The decorative scheme is a blending of colors to produce a restful charm and inviting atmosphere that will be remembered long after a visit there. The fixtures of stainless steel and light ivory were all specially designed to conform to the general theme. The very latest equipment has been installed in the kitchen including a Colt Autosan dishwasher, the first one in this part of the country. By this means all silverware, glassware and china may be thoroughly sterilized. Other conveniences are as up-to-the minute.
A.D. Vescove, for eight years at the Rice Institute, Houston who is a specialist in fancy pastries, has been secured to have charge of the kitchen. Mr. Morris says that he is giving to Huntsville the most highly recommended chef he was able to find. The highest quality of food will be served, specializing in seafood, steaks and the very best grade of all meats.”
In newspaper terms, articles of the highest prominence appear “above the fold.” This is the area at the top of the page, and therefore, the area that is seen in a newspaper rack first when the newspaper is folded in half to be displayed. It is telling, then, that the write-up of the Texan’s opening appears in this prime newspaper real estate, given high praise in a snippet on May 21, 1936 titled, “Many Visit Cafe Texan Opening Wednesday Night.”
“The community manifested its interest in the new Cafe Texan last Wednesday night by attending the opening in large numbers. All evening Manager Fred Morris, Mrs. Morris and the employees of the Cafe greeted visitors and assisted in showing them about.
The room was filled with baskets of beautiful gift flowers, Doc Bradley’s Ravens furnished music and punch was served. After the hours of the opening, the cafe was opened for business. On Thursday morning from 9:30 until 10:30 o’clock, coffee was served complimentary to all visitors.”
As noted, the Texan’s owner, Fred Morris was a longtime restauranteur – the Café Texan was not his first venture into the food world. Just months before opening the Texan, he had left the Raven Café, often known simply as The Raven, which for many years was Huntsville’s main downtown restaurant and had been founded in 1930 by Morris, Stuart Nemir, Sr., and Abe Dabaghi (who would later become the sole owner).
The Raven, located on the southside of the downtown Huntsville square one block from the future site of the Café Texan, also had its share of ‘firsts.’ Upon its opening in 1930, it was Huntsville’s first dining room, quickly making it a popular destination among the city’s population as a place to see and be seen. But in what can only be seen as a certain amount of competition among rival restaurants, the Raven especially began ramping up its profile once the Café Texan came upon the scene. The same week as the Texan’s opening, the Raven also found itself in the news, touting a ‘new dining room’ remodel.
In an article titled “Cafe Raven to Have Opening Fri,” also published May 21, 1936, Dabaghi describes – in great detail – an extensive renovation open to the public and “ready for inspection.” While the picture he paints is decadently elegant, it is a little amusing to think of the reaction of some of the residents – rough-around-the-edges prison administrators and rank – sitting amid the pastel hues and rich, lux fabrics – while sipping a cup of joe.
“The cafe has been remodeled in the French Renaissance period with the pastel shades predominating. The walls have been done in pink and rose with the flower design. Drapes will be of heavy, mauve silk. New coffee urns have been installed in the cafe along with new chair stools.
The new dining room is a place of beauty finished in modernistic design. The walls and floors are original designs with special emphasis given to the lighting. The walls are paneled in green and the Terrazzo floor, composed of five colors, is laid in big, sweeping, graceful curves. The shadow ceiling has the indirect lighting beam through the center with lights of the various shades. The tables and chairs are of hardwood with natural finish and with the light green leather. To the side is the hat check room and in the back of the dining room is the ladies powder room.”
At some point, Dabaghi even commissioned well-known artisans Carr China to craft special logoed crockery for the established – tan pieces with the Café Raven emblem emblazoned at the center. Distributed by Southern Hotel Supply Co. in Houston, the pieces were made circa 1930s to 1940s and came in a variety of shapes to compliment the eatery’s various culinary offerings.
This was only the beginning of the competition among local eateries to bring Huntsville diners the ‘latest and greatest’ – the race to the top was fierce and often played out in the public via the local news. Not to be left out and around the same time, The Dixie Café, another local eatery, got a front-page mention in The Huntsville Item for renovations and new equipment. The two-paragraph story giving a rundown of the remodel almost sounds like an advertisement for a rental home or an invitation for an estate sale: “new tile floors, triple coffee urn, ice cream cabinet, fans, and the whole inside is being repainted.”
By the end of May 1936 and seeking to counter the Texan’s pastry guru hire, the Raven took out an ad, announcing the selection of a new pastry chef, T.N. Cox, joining from the Blackstone and Worth Hotels in Fort Worth – an “artist in French pastries and cakes of all kinds.”
The Texan countered with an ad the following week, advertising a “special Sunday dinner” – a culinary masterpiece featuring bread, drinks and dessert and which cost what is, by today’s standards, an absurd 75 cents.
Special Sunday Dinner
Stuffed Celery, Queen Olives, Fruit or Shrimp Cocktail Chicken Okra Soup
- Broiled Gulf Trout with Lemon Butter
- Fried Spring Chicken with Cream Gravy
- Broiled Lamb Chops on Toast
- Texas Filet Mignon with Mushroom Sauce
- K.C. Minuet Steak Drawn in Butter
- Chicken and Ham Patties A La King
- New Potato Rissolee
- Petit Pois Peas
- Head of Lettuce with Thousand Island Dressing
Morris also took out an ad thanking the community for their support in turning out for his grand opening, reminding readers of his own leading chef, A.D. Vescove.
“We specialize in seafoods and northern corn-fed meats, cooked as only a high class chef can cook them.”
If the two restaurants had been playing checkers up until that point, Dabaghi seemed to have decided it was time to play chess – and he went straight for the checkmate.
On July 23, 1936, in an above-the-fold article, The Huntsville Item featured the headline “Air Conditioning System to Open at the Cafe Raven.” This was huge news as air conditioning had really only begun seeing commercial installation in 1922, but wasn’t particularly common in US households until 1970. And perhaps more importantly, July 1936 produced one of the hottest summers on record in the United States, with thousands of people dying, both from the heat, and in related drownings as they attempted to escape the oppressive temperatures by cooling off in bodies of water and local swimming holes. To have air conditioning in a restaurant in 1936 was nothing short of a status symbol – and a first for Huntsville.
“The only air conditioning system between Houston and Dallas will start operation Wednesday, July 29 at the Cafe Raven with the formal opening. The mammoth plant is the only one installed in a town of this size in the south.
It cleans and cools the air making the temperature around seventy-eight degrees. The installation was done by representatives of the Carrier factory from whom the plant was purchased.”
The addition became a cornerstone of future advertising for the Raven, which began touting humidity control, ventilation and temperature reduction along with its food selections. The ad campaign made its way to the newspaper, but also onto the matchbook covers which were a popular advertising method of the day, when smoking was commonplace. Some of these matchbooks, promoting the Raven’s – and later the Café Texan’s own AC system – can still be found to this day. In fact, matches from both cafes give another interesting glimpse into the history of the eateries: they show that for some period, both restaurants were boasting 24-hour service.
Throughout the years, the significance of the Café Texan’s opening is one that continues to be heralded by local historians. It was so significant to the citizens of Huntsville, it was even included among the most notable events from 1930 to 1939 in a Sam Houston State University publication, alongside the opening of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, which opened in March of the same year while marking 100 years of Texas independence.
The Eastham Building
While the Café Texan as a business has seen its share of stories, its home is a historic landmark in its own right.
The Café has always been located in the first-floor of the art deco Eastham Building, named for W.A. Eastham, who acquired the property in 1916 from the estate of his mother, Mrs. Delha Eastham, the widow of Byrd Eastham. The Eastham families were farmers who owned dry good stores on the downtown Huntsville square, with W.A. Eastham retaining the Café Texan property through 1931, when the building was acquired by his sister, Mrs. Byrde E. Wooters.
The upstairs offices of the building were home to a variety of professionals throughout the years. In the early days, doctors, dentists and lawyers made their professional residences there, including Jacob “Jake” Pope Barnes Clegg, Jr., former Trinity County attorney. In later years, the upstairs area housed a hair salon and a masseuse. Before the restaurant expanded to include two lower rooms, divided into smoking and non-smoking sections, the northern part of the building was at some point home to a barber shop, and a dress shop/boutique. For a time during the 1940s, the building was reportedly also home to the local phone company’s switchboard operators.
There were fires to the structure at various points in its history, including one blaze in the basement stairway, though none serious enough to gut the building interior.
Even until its closing in 2020, the original café counters and stools still stood in what was later the ‘smoking’ side, which also happened to be the side which normally hosted the locals and daily coffee club – the regulars who visited the Café every single day to swap stories under the pressed tin ceiling and over piping hot cups of coffee and plates of bacon and eggs. Much of the décor was original too, with photos depicting business and activities spanning 100 years of the downtown square adorning the walls.
In later years, there were new additions that only added to the Lone Star-vibe of the quintessential Texan-style eatery. Signs such as “Cowboy parking only” sat next to an original painting of one of the beloved regulars, alongside his obituary. In fact, one wall was dedicated to original, hand-painted portraits of many of the regulars and sadly, as they passed away, their obituaries would be posted alongside their likeness.
Another wall featured “The Ten Commandments for Country Folks,” which listed off such tenets as “Honor yer ma & pa,” “No killin’,” and “No foolin’ around with another feller’s gal.”
Changing of the guard
Throughout the years, the Café Texan saw a number of owners come and go and an (almost) complete history was featured for all to see in the maroon-piped laminated menus found in the later restaurant under the longest-tenured owner and operator, John Strickland. The only omission to the owner list is a couple who had the restaurant for less than a year and just prior to Strickland’s purchase, who allegedly took out a number of loans, spent the money on personal items and mostly defaulted to leave the restaurant – and lien-holding bank – in a precarious situation.
The original owner, Fred Morris, kept the restaurant until 1958, when he turned it over to Paul Morris, who leased the restaurant to owners Vernon Todd and Joe Burns. Burns, who left the restaurant in 1968, is featured in a photo appearing in “Images of the Past: A Pictorial History of Walker County – Home of Sam Houston,” standing behind a register that’s been rung up for 5 cents amid a gleaming case of cigarettes and cigars and neatly stacked chocolate bars while a coffee-swilling patron knocks the ash off his own lung dart at the counter in the background.
Next was Huntsville restauranteur Thomas Renfro, who owned the restaurant for five years, from 1974 until 1979, before it was purchased by Doug Bertling, lovingly known throughout the community as “Mr. B.”
Like many of his predecessors, Bertling was no stranger to the restaurant business, having managed locally the Bonanza Steakhouse and Chicken Shack restaurants before purchasing the Café Texan and later going on to own the Hitchin’ Post restaurant, located in one of the truck stops north of town, and Mr. B’s Catering. The latter became perhaps one of his busiest endeavors, with him providing meals to such local events as the weekly Huntsville Rotary Club meeting, shifts of workers at a nearby manufacturing facility and gymnasts attending Olympic Coach Bela Karolyi’s gymnastics camp near New Waverly.
When Strickland, a US Army veteran, took over the restaurant in 1996 from the unnamed couple, he himself was working at Sam Houston in the ROTC department and had become a morning regular, swinging by most mornings for breakfast after his morning physical training. After six months, he was beginning to take notice of some things, namely that the employees seemed to be stealing the place to death.
It was one day over coffee with his neighbor and fellow regular O.J. Moak that the idea to purchase the restaurant was first born. Moak, a local lawyer, had the inside-track on some information about the owners, remembered Strickland.
“John, I have it on good authority that this placed is going bankrupt,” Strickland recalled Moak as saying one morning over coffee. “If it does, you need to pick it up.”
“I thought, well, I have never run a restaurant but it’s nothing but business – finance, personnel, inventory.”
Moak went on to make only one demand for payment, in exchange for acting as Strickland’s legal advisor in the deal: If the deal went through, his payment would be free iced tea every day for life.
Ultimately, Strickland did purchase the restaurant and that’s when the business of turning it around began.
“My first indication employees were stealing it blind? The second or third day,” Strickland recalled. “We were about to close up – we were closing at 2 p.m. at the time. I was going to the bank to get change for the next day and I put the start-up money in the safe. When I got back to put the change in the safe, the start-up money wasn’t there. It had been there 30 minutes ago!”
Strickland said he called the Huntsville Police Department who relayed the unfortunate truth: without any evidence or proof, there was little they could do. But that’s when Strickland hatched a plan. He told one of his trusted waitresses that she needed to relay to other staff members in front of his Number One suspect that the FBI was coming to perform lie detector tests on everyone – and that they weren’t optional. On the day the test was “scheduled,” the suspect abruptly quit, he said, laughing as he recalled the story.
“They were taking food, they were taking money. I parked (across the street) one morning to see what was going on and the opening person would come in and clock everybody in and the other’s didn’t come in for another hour so they were stealing time. After three or four days of watching this, I went in and said, ‘Look guys, I told you I am the nicest little guy in the world, but if you mess with me, I’m going to fire you – you’re going to take niceness for stupidity.”
In that first year, Strickland fired 52 people.
Finally, Strickland started to find his stride with trusted employees, some of whom stayed for decades. One cook, Jesse, he poached from Dairy Queen – Jesse was unhappy and underpaid and Strickland promised him more money $8 an hour when minimum wage at the time was $4.25 to start. He asked Jesse to give Dairy Queen two weeks’ notice but was surprised when the man showed up to work the following Monday.
“You doubled my wage – I couldn’t wait two weeks!,” Strickland recalled him saying, adding that Jesse was with him for 22 years.
Another cook, Wayne, stayed for 20 years, leaving only for about six months to work in St. Louis, before returning, Strickland said, while popular waitress Stacy was a familiar and beloved face for 10 years – she would come in at 4 a.m. every day solely to open for two customers who would show up at that early hour to drink coffee even though the café didn’t technically open until 5 a.m.
Many of the early-morning crew were veterans like Strickland, some of whom could be cantankerous. In the end, it would turn out Strickland didn’t just have to fire some staff members – he had to fire a few customers throughout the years as well.
“I had all the World War II vets, ‘The Greatest Generation,’ as they call them. Well, not all of them were so great,” he recollected. “They are war vets and they grew up in Huntsville and the Café was opened around the time they were born so they had been here forever…but we had to fire some customers too.”
Strickland went on to remember one customer, a longtime city employee who was a tall, lanky fellow. The man was sitting one day at the table that had come to be known as Strickland’s personal table – it was not uncommon to see him sitting there with his crossword puzzles and cup of coffee – and the customer had his long legs extended out into the walkway. One of the waitresses tripped over his legs and rather than offer an apology, the customer threw a few curse words at the flustered employee, suggesting she needed to find another job. Strickland, always quick to defend his employees, quickly issued the directive in no uncertain terms: “She stays, you get your ass out of here.”
A decade later, Strickland and another customer were recounting the story and how they hadn’t seen the man since – when he walked through the door for the first time in 10 years, hoping enough time had passed that he might again be welcome to dine.
Another customer was ‘fired’ after making racist comments about a fellow customer, an African American man who was a regular and who had become a friend of Strickland’s. Strickland told the man, who was in his 80s, that he – and his racism – were no longer welcome in the restaurant.
“The problem,” he said, “is they grew up here and they thought they owned the place.”
While the early morning shift may have belonged mostly to the old-timers and vets, the Café was equally popular among the college students, who enjoyed the large portions and good prices. One website, touted as a 2019 dining guide to Huntsville for SHSU students, lauded the restaurant.
“Café Texan is conveniently located downtown in Huntsville. Everyone who swings by for breakfast thinks everything is done to perfection. It is the perfect spot to eat lunch because of the daily lunch specials. Café Texan makes everything fun and worth the wait which is why college students keep going back for more. So, don’t miss out on a cheap but delicious meal in Huntsville!”
As a nod to his student clientele, Strickland had a hand-painted sign on the café’s windows, with a nod to SHSU mascot Sammy Bearkat: Welcome Bearkats and Bearkittens! Strickland was also fond of referring to the Café as Huntsville’s “second institute of higher learning” – but quick to point out that only “B.S.” degrees were given out there.
Not a fast food facility
While the owners may have changed over the years, one thing remained fairly constant: the menu.
The Café Texan has perhaps always been best known for two dishes, and both can be found in the steak family: peppered, and chicken-fried. The former harkened back to the café’s opening in 1936, described as a ‘round steak, grilled with whole peppercorns & sauteed in our special au jus’ and initially served piping hot for just 36 cents a platter. The latter was a constant favorite, frequently mentioned in online reviews for the restaurant.
“I have been coming here for 24 years, and it never loses its charm,” wrote Nate C. of Houston in one Yelp review. “Order the chicken-fried steak or pepper steak. You won’t be disappointed.”
Dave Ward, beloved Houston newsman and anchor emeritus at ABC KTRK Channel 13, recalled his Huntsville childhood in a 2019 segment, talking about the many times he ate at the Café Texan with his father. Ward’s meal of choice? The fried tenderloin of trout with tartar sauce, mashed potatoes and English peas for a whopping 75 cents.
In its later years, the Texan was particularly known for its diner-style breakfasts, and its down-home cooking. Diners were urged to bring a big appetite, with daily specials such as deep-fried catfish for lunch on Fridays or Wednesdays, which were reserved for the fried chicken. Most lunches were accompanied by such Southern staples as mashed potatoes with cream gravy, rolls or hearty vegetables like green beans and carrots.
Some diners opted for slightly lighter fare, which earned just as rave of reviews.
“I will drive 100 miles for a club sandwich from Café Texan,” wrote Yelper Ted H. of Onalaska. “Almost too big to get in your mouth, the sandwich has the best tomatoes in town!”
“It’s a greasy spoon kinda place,” wrote another reviewer, Sarah B. of Houston. “Just what you’d hope for in a local old-school place on the town square.”
Whatever their choice of dish, diners were explicitly warned on the menu: The Café Texan is not a fast food facility.
“We prepare food on a by-customer basis,” the menu read. “From approximately 11:30 to 12:30, if you order something from the menu rather than our daily lunch special, you can expect a 30 minute wait. We do appreciate your business, but if you need something really fast, we suggest you try one of the other fine establishments in Huntsville.”
While most of the food was fresh and prepared in-house and on-site, a few smaller items, sides and compliments may have been ‘outsourced.’ And it was one of those items which almost won an award. One longtime waitress recalls a funny story in which a Texas Monthly reporter writing a piece on the best chili in Texas came into the Café, had some chili and proclaimed it was some of the best they had ever had – they wanted very much to include it in their special write-up! The only problem? It was canned Wolf Brand Chili.
Café Texan in the spotlight
Whether because of its proximity to the downtown square, or the unique cast of characters found in the regulars who congregated for coffee every day, the Café Texan often found itself thrust into the spotlight – sometimes with the national and international media.
Only a few blocks away from the Texan sits the Huntsville “Walls” Unit, the oldest prison unit in Texas, constructed in 1849. The Walls Unit is notable for two things, both of which often seemed to envelope the Texan: inmate releases and the death penalty.
The Walls Unit is the site of one of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s inmate release hubs, meaning throughout the week, inmates discharging their sentences or being released on parole walk out the doors of the unit, either into the waiting arms of their friends or family, or to the local bus station, a block away and situated just between the unit and café. If their bus wasn’t leaving for a couple of hours, it was not uncommon for an inmate to wander down to the Texan for a taste of their first home-cooked meal, sometimes in a very long time.
Strickland recalled one inmate – or ex-mate as he called them – who had obviously been a repeat guest of the TDCJ, who inquired about a waitress he recalled from a previous visit.
“I did get tickled one time,” Strickland said. “Lola Mae worked at the restaurant for 30 years or better – little short, white-haired lady. I had one guy come in – one of the ex-mates – and he asked ‘Is that little white-headed lady still here?’ I had to ask, ‘Is this your second time around?’ He remembered her from 15 years prior.”
But the unit also is home to the nation’s most active death chamber, where Texas’ lethal injections are carried out. As such, reporters from around the world often converged on the Texan, looking for a soundbite or local to interview about the executions going on in their town. It was apparent some reporters were seeking to exploit what they believed to be the Texas stereotype, explained Strickland in a June 2000 interview with John Tarleton for an article titled, “A Long Day in the Capitol of Punishment,” for his blog, “On The Road With John Tarleton.
“East Coast media and out-of-state media look for the most redneck person they can to say something asinine that will go out all over the country,” Strickland told Tarleton. “We’re a mixed blend of people like everywhere else in this country. We have differing opinions on issues like capital punishment and abortion.”
A good example of this might be when the New York Times found one Café Texan regular and made him famous – or infamous – for his blasé comments in the September 6, 1986 article, “Texas Town Leading in Executions in a New U.S. Era of Death Penalty.”
“One afternoon regular at the Cafe Texan is a beefy man of 74, Sam Gilstrap, who has particularly strong memories of the chair. He was the prison system’s master mechanic from 1948 to 1964, and part of his job was to make sure the chair was working correctly. He witnessed about 125 executions as part of his job.
“I would rather have electricity than the needle,’ he said over coffee at the cafe. ‘If a man is convicted of a crime and they put him to death, he ought to have something to fear of being executed rather than laying in there and putting a needle in him and letting him go to sleep. When you kick that motor on and you hear it moan – well that gets him a little upset.’”
“I regret one (interview) – it was for The Discovery Channel,” Strickland said. “A couple of young women came in and said they were with Discovery Channel. I had just been burned by a reporter out of New York so I told them I would let them do it, but not to come in just to try to make Huntsville look bad.
“They went in the back dining room and I thought, ‘I hope they don’t find some ‘Hang ‘em high’ types.’ They got started and I heard them ask, ‘Do you think they should bring back hangings?’ so I said ‘Stop. We’re done. You’re not going to make us look bad – Huntsville, the city, the Café, or the people.’”
But other reporters seemed genuinely appreciative of the Café’s homey atmosphere, and frequently mentioned it as part of the “color” for their articles, with descriptions of the restaurant reaching readers far and wide.
For example, former Texas Monthly star reporter Pamela Colloff, in town to cover the high-profile execution of Texas death row inmate Napoleon Beazley, wrote in her June 2002 article, “Napoleon’s Last Stand,” about the ordinariness of the day as Beazley’s execution loomed.
“Napoleon’s execution would take place on a languid spring day when the crape myrtles were in bloom. Laundry churned around in soapy circles at the Sunshine washateria. Watermelons were on sale for $3.99 at Brookshire Brothers. The lunch special at the Café Texan was, as usual, chicken-fried steak with cream gravy.”
In late 1967, famed Texas author and Houston newspaper columnist Leon Hale wrote a funny tale about a local Huntsvillian who was asked to have his tracking dogs run a bear…only to have the situation soon turn and find the bear would be running him. It seems Hale had heard buzz around the Huntsville downtown square about a local who had chased – and then was being chased – by a black bear a few miles north of town.
The story unfolded on the stools of the Texan, where Hale noted, “I went in the Texan Café and sat down and waited because I have learned if there is a story of any kind going around Walker County, sooner or later somebody will come in the Texan Café and tell it.”
Turns out he only had to wait 20 minutes for the subject of the story himself to come in, taking a stool between Leon and then-owner Joe Burns, so he could spin his yarn, a humorous only-in-Texas tale that ended only when the man apparently finally hit the bear “upside of the head with a pine knot,” and finally scared it away.
While Hale was a beloved Texas media figure, the Café had its share of national media celebrity visits as well, including shock tabloid daytime talk show host Jerry Springer, and perhaps equally controversial journalist, one-time tabloid talk show host and frequent political commentator Geraldo Rivera.
“Springer came in first – he was in town for one of the executions,” recalled Strickland, “He was standing in front of the Café and Kelly, one of my waitresses at the time, said, ‘That’s one of those TV people!’ I told her I couldn’t think of his name but we see him on TV – she said ‘It’s Geraldo.’ I said ‘No, that’s not Geraldo.’
“Anyway, they came in and ordered and Kelly kept saying, ‘Can I ask him? Can I ask him?’ So she went over and leaned on the counter and asked ‘Are you Geraldo?’ and he said, ‘Oh goddamn, no!’ And then a year or so later, Geraldo pulled up out front and the antique store next to us on 12th street, the awning had fallen off and hit a car that was parked in front of it. There was an old man trapped and all kinds of mess. Geraldo came in and said, ‘Well you have that execution tonight – has that created a lot of fervor and activity?’ And I told him that the damn awning falling off gets more than an execution does – we hardly ever know about it until the following morning when we read about it in the newspaper.
“They had finished eating and I went up to him and said, ‘I want to relay something comical that happened a while back. Jerry Springer was in here and one of the waitresses leaned over the counter and said, ‘You’re Geraldo!’ And Geraldo just stared at me.”
So in the end, Geraldo wasn’t terribly amused he was confused for Jerry Springer. And Strickland wasn’t terribly impressed with the Cleveland resident’s sense of humor – or lack thereof.
Not all flower arrangements and orchestras
The Café Texan and its rival restaurant played roles in the civil rights movement, although initially, neither was particularly positive.
Although the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, large pockets of businessowners in some communities, including smaller Texas towns like Marshall and Huntsville, refused to comply with the provisions set out within it, which would have given equal rights and accommodations to African Americans.
Some businesses and corporations were embracing the changes, such as Mid-South Electric, which took out a notice in the September 1, 1965 edition of The Item to state its commitment to complying with “all the requirements of the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” including not discriminating against any minority submitting applications for services. But other local businesses weren’t so cooperative. Growing frustrated with this resistance, many African Americans and supporters began to stage protests at businesses which refused to comply with the provisions of the Act, including desegregating areas which had previously been designated as “whites only.”
Tellingly, finding full accounts of these protests can be daunting because the city’s newspaper, The Huntsville Item, all but refused to cover the protests at the time while allowing editorials titled, “What’s Wrong With Civil Rights?” and “What About The ‘Rights’ Of Others? to appear. When asked for an article titled, “Pride and Prejudice, Huntsville Faces Dilemma of Racial Unrest” for Texas Magazine as to why he wouldn’t allow coverage of the very newsworthy protests happening in his town, the Item’s editor and publisher Don Reid stated “We don’t want to give them any publicity, that’s what they’re after. It’s what they need to keep going.”
In his historic dissertation titled, “The Civil Rights Movement in Texas: Desegregation of Public Accommodations, 1950-1964,” professor Dr. Martin Kuhlman wrote of the events that unfolded in downtown Huntsville beginning on July 18, 1965, kicking off with a protest in front of downtown’s Life Theatre, which was still segregating Black patrons to the theater’s balcony.
“Employees refused to allow 30 youths, the majority of whom were black, to purchase tickets for the white section. When the activists began to gather pickets, hurried consultation between theater officials led to the protesters being sold tickets for mixed seating. The activists then moved on to the exclusionary Texan and Raven cafes to find themselves locked out.”
In his book titled “From Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas,” author Brian D Behnken, wrote how a group of students from Huntsville’s all-black school, Samuel Walker Houston High School had formed an activist group called Huntsville Action For You, or HA-YOU. It was this group who found themselves locked out of the Café Texan, so they then opted to picket the restaurant.
“The protest at the Texan Café continued the following day,” Behnken wrote. “But when served by the eatery’s staff, the activists again felt disappointed. These protesters needed white resistance to legitimize their protests. So, believing they had no recourse, the HA-YOU activists refused to pay their check and police arrested them for theft. Once more they found their plans foiled when someone paid the check and police released them. The group then decided to picket the downtown courthouse. This protest incited white resistance. One white man attacked a photographer and broke his camera. A white farmer beat an activist.”
Upon seeing the protests at the Café Texan and the restaurant’s resulting decision to desegregate, Café Raven owner Abe Dabaghi made what he believed to be a concession of sorts, agreeing to allow two African American patrons in at a time. But HA-YOU considered this to be a “token” integration and they staged a large sit-in at the restaurant involving some 24 individuals, as reported in the August 6, 1965 edition of The Texas Observer, who did extensively cover the Huntsville demonstrations. Dabaghi refused to fully integrate the restaurant and all the protestors were arrested, including men and women, some of whom were white allies.
According to Behnken, the demonstrations in Huntsville continued for several months, but finally succeeded in desegregating the reluctant community businesses. Still, it would be another four full years before the Huntsville school district would begin fully integrating its schools in 1968.
In later years, the Café Texan managed to avoid conflict except one: Strickland’s ongoing beef with the local Huntsville-Walker County Chamber of Commerce.
Beginning around 2000 and shortly after the US Census numbers were released, Strickland went head-to-head with the Chamber, accusing them of using an inflated city and county population number, double-counting some students and including inmates in their population counts in an effort to entice new businesses to come to town.
After some private meetings turned the relationship between the two sour, a Chamber official took a shot at Strickland via a Letter to the Editor in The Huntsville Item, which kicked off a back-and-forth letter writing campaign and turned the disagreement public. Many community members began visiting the Café in droves, Strickland said, siding with him on the issue. Strickland took the dispute up a notch when he made a large banner to hang outside the restaurant that stated in large letters, “We are NOT a member of the Chamber of Commerce but you are welcome to eat here anyway!”
End of an era
After an 83-year run, the café closed its doors in August 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with a simple Facebook message posted to the eatery’s page on a Wednesday morning: “We will miss everyone. Thank you for all the years!”
The announcement didn’t go unnoticed, with the restaurant featured on numerous national news and foodie-driven websites with stories dedicated to the fallen businesses of the pandemic era. One news site listed the Café in December 2020 among the “50 Most Popular Restaurants That Have Closed Permanently Due to the Pandemic,” featuring it alongside other popular shuttered eateries across the United States, including the 97-year-old Sokolowski’s University Inn in Cleveland and well-known 100+-year-old Pacific Dining Car in Los Angeles.
“It’s a real tragedy that we had to close it down,” Strickland told The Huntsville Item at the time. “When I closed up because of COVID-19, I had not intended to close it permanently.”
The demise of the Texan came quickly once the pandemic set in and restaurants were forced to close for a time. While restaurants sat empty and no income was coming in, Strickland was still paying his employees, spending close to $40,000 so they would be able to pay their own bills. To save money while the Café was shuttered, Strickland asked the City of Huntsville to remove a dumpster that was costing around $400 per month to have outside the building.
The City responded that the only way to remove the dumpster would be to turn off the water to the building, which Strickland did.
“When I turned the water off, they considered the place closed, and at that point it was not grandfathered, which meant that to open it back up, I was going to have to spend about $80,000 dollars on the kitchen,” Strickland told The Huntsville Item, noting that restaurant codes had changed drastically since the time the kitchen first had opened. Retrofitting the place to meet modern-day codes to reopen would be more than he could spend. The tough decision was made to close for good.
While looking back on his 23-year Café Texan career, Strickland recounts a time spent helping the community. He was known for always pulling out his checkbook for charity – whether it was for the local Child Protective Services, a Little League baseball team or the HEARTS Veterans Museum of Texas. Part of that giving spirit was rooted in a Corsicana childhood spent with little.
“I grew up dirt poor,” he said. “At school lunchtime, I would go out and find a tree to sit under to read because I didn’t have lunch money. Somehow, I always felt more fortunate than others and could see their plight – I just can’t resist to help.”
He also recalls his formula for success. While many restaurants don’t succeed – indeed many fail within the first couple of years – Strickland’s mantra was simple: treat your employees right.
“I applied the same principles with the restaurant as I did with the military,” Strickland said. “You do your job and work hard and you’re good. You don’t, and I fire your ass. I’d get a new employee in and I’d tell him, ‘I’m the easiest guy in the world, just do your job and we’ll get along great. After a month or so, I’ll look at getting you a pay raise.’ I paid my employees well. I put a few of my employees through college. I never had a dispute with an employee in public or in front of other employees. I paid them well and treated them right.”
As a testament to that, many of the employees still keep in touch, especially via Facebook. They even get together every once in a while for breakfast.
The closure of the Café Texan ultimately paved the way for the new Café Texan History Museum and Library as it exists today. Opened in 2022 by Vance and Karen Howard, the new Café Texan History Museum and Library includes a high-end and avant-garde upscale eatery featuring coffee, cocktails and bites among an eclectic collection of rare artifacts from all over the world.
Diners are able to enjoy drinks and cuisine in what has always been the original Café eatery and was the side favored by locals and regulars, while the north side, which was once the portion dedicated to a switchboard, barber shop, boutique and later, the non-smoking side of the restaurant, now houses the museum.