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"Hindsights"

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Armadillo Shell Baskets were Big Business in Comfort

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

An armadillo is half blind, dumb as a rock and ugly as a '62 Buick. Its appearance has been compared to a walking cannon ball, a 4-legged battleship, a cross between a pig and a Sherman tank and a 20 lb. rat wearing a suit of armor. It digs like an auger, shares its living quarters with skunks and rattlesnakes and devours 40,000 fire ants for breakfast. Oh yeah, and its shell makes a dandy sewing basket.

The Apelt Armadillo Farm, on Highway 27 between Comfort and Center Point, once sold armadillo shell baskets all over the world. The farm was a Hill Country conversation piece for most of the 20th century. As far as anyone knows it was the only business of its kind on the planet.

Comfort TX - Apelt Armadillo Farm
Apelt Armadillo Farm entrance
Photo courtesy Michael Barr , June 2020

Founder Charles Apelt was born in Muhlenberg, Germany in 1862. As a teenager he was apprenticed to a basket weaver. By the time he was 30 years old he was superintendent of a wicker furniture and basket factory in Bavaria. He came to Texas in the 1890s; drawn to the Hill Country by the impassioned letters of an uncle who settled in Kendall County in the mid-19th century.

One of the first wild animals Apelt saw on arriving in Texas was a 9 banded armadillo - a creature whose ancestors had migrated from South America. Because an armadillo cannot store fat and it doesn't hibernate, the northern migration stopped at deserts and colder climates.

The armadillo has terrible eyesight but hears well and possesses a keen sense of smell. It eats bugs and roots. It has few teeth, but its claws can be formidable weapons. It is a mammal, although some people think it is a reptile - a holdover from the age of the dinosaurs. Female armadillos always give birth to quadruplets, all of the same sex.

By the 20th century the bears and wolves that might have controlled the armadillo population had disappeared from the Hill Country. Today a Texas armadillo has few natural predators - mostly Fords and Chevys.



When Charles Apelt first saw an armadillo he thought the shell looked like a basket. He turned that vision into his version of the American dream when he started his armadillo farm in 1898.

In the early days Apelt conducted armadillo roundups. He placed ads in Hill Country newspapers offering $1.50 for live females. He then sold armadillos to zoos, for medical research and for pets, although a pet armadillo has its problems. An armadillo can dig under just about any fence and there's nowhere to attach the leash. Still, business was brisk. Apelt once sold 20,000 live armadillos in one year.

But by far the biggest part of the business was making and selling baskets made from armadillo shells. Apelt and his employees dried and shellacked each shell and then formed the handle by bringing the tail around and joining it to the snout. Workers also turned shells, which the armadillos surrendered unwillingly, into lamp shades, desk sets, smoking stands, cookie holders and wall plaques.

The baskets sold especially well. The Buckhorn Saloon in San Antonio was Apelt's biggest customer.

There was even a limited market for armadillo meat. (It tastes like turtle they say). Apelt's farm supplied armadillo meat to dude ranches near Bandera where cooks barbequed it and fed it to hungry tourists gathered around the chuck wagon. At least one fancy restaurant in Houston featured barbequed armadillo as a specialty on its menu.

When Charles Apelt died in 1944, his son Kurt and wife Katherine took over the farm. A son-in-law started a branch business in Salado.

Then in the 1970s the armadillo trade began to decline when treatment of all animals came under scrutiny. Besides, the novelty had worn thin. The rumor that some armadillos had leprosy didn't help.

The armadillo farm is no longer in business, but Charles Apelt's armadillo shell baskets are prized possessions of Texana lovers. They can be found in antique shops all over the country. Some sell for thousands of dollars.

I once had an armadillo in my back yard. I wanted to turn him into a basket.


Comfort TX - Apelt Armadillo Farm Historical Marker
Apelt Armadillo Farm Historical Marker
Photo courtesy Michael Barr , June 2020

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" June 15, 2020 Column

Sources:
"Armadillos: A Cash Crop," San Antonio Express and News, October 27, 1963.
"Protective Shell for Armadillo Farm," San Antonio Light, March 13, 1967.
"Armadillo fine Pet," San Antonio Light, March 14, 1967.
"Brothers want armadillos to be household animals," Odessa American, October 23, 1983.



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