tell stories, but so do inanimate objects.
When my granddad died in 1984, I inherited everything from his library
to his hunting and fishing gear. For years, I kept his old gun cabinet
but finally let go of it when I came to understand it wouldn't take
a burglar much more than a can opener to get inside. The cabinet
was made of sheet metal, nothing like the modern gun safes that
would do for a small bank.
Among the items Granddad had stored in that cabinet were four old
custom-made leather handgun holsters. Two were made by the famous
Texas leather man S.D. Myers, who started out in Sweetwater
when it was a fairly wild and wooly West Texas town and later moved
to El Paso,
which was wilder and woollier.
Back in the 1930s, Granddad joined the El
Paso County Sheriff's Pose and on occasion, toted a revolver.
Carrying a pistol either concealed or openly was not legal in those
days, but members of that posse could do so for parades and the
occasional man hunt. After all, they were sheriff's deputies, though
serving on a volunteer-honorary basis.
Two other holsters Granddad owned were less familiar to me. I don't
know what kind of pistols he had kept in them, but he had long since
sold or traded off whatever they were. What is obvious is that the
holsters were custom-made by someone who knew what he was doing,
a fine leather craftsman.
For a man who had carried a handgun as a reporter and city editor
in Fort Worth back
during Prohibition, and whose father had once been a gun-packing
deputy sheriff in West Texas,
Granddad had a cautionary attitude about pistols. "All a pistol's
going to do is get you in trouble," he told me when I was a teenager.
two empty holsters each were stamped "A.W. Brill/Maker/Austin,
Tex." Unfortunately, I never got the chance to ask Granddad
when he got them, what kind of "get you in trouble" piece he kept
in them, and of most interest at all, who was A.W. Brill?
Well, thanks largely to research done by Vintage Gun Leather, a
retailer of old holsters, gun belts and scabbards, finally I know
something about this man who made holsters in the Capital
City long before it began proudly proclaiming its weirdness.
August William Brill was welcomed into the world by his parents
in Welcome, Texas
on May 1, 1872. Welcome is a small town in Austin
County, which had a large population of German Texans. In fact,
Brill's father Henry was a farmer who had come to Texas in 1844
(as he was later better known) apparently stayed in Austin
County through his teenage years. Seventy-two hours after Independence
Day in 1889, young Brill joined the Texas Militia (forerunner of
the Texas National Guard) and served in a unit based in Sealy.
Around the turn of the century, he moved to Austin,
where he was listed in the city directory as a saddle maker and
salesman at W.T. Wroe and Sons Saddlery. Somewhere along the way,
Brill expanded his leather-crafting skills and began making holsters.
Brill holsters, sometimes called Austin holsters, became particularly
popular with Texas Rangers as well as county and city lawmen. Of
course, anyone was welcome to buy one of his hand-tooled holsters.
Brill had married in 1895 and a year later his wife gave birth to
a son they named Arno William.
By 1912, Brill had either established his own business or bought
out Wroe & Sons. Not hide-bound to saddles, holsters and other handmade
leather goods, Brill survived the transition from oat-eating four-footers
to gas-burning four-wheelers and by the 1920s was making everything
from harnesses to holsters to leather for automobile interiors.
As a youngster, Arno began working with his father, having learned
the leather-working trade from him. Though the A.W. Brill Company
continued to sell holsters and other leather goods into the 1950s,
they did not live by tanned cowhide alone. In the 1940s, father
and son got into the dirt-selling business as well. They either
already owned or purchased for a song a fair amount of acreage around
newly created Lake Travis and subdivided the acreage for sale by
The senior Brill and his wife Kathleen had five grandkids, two girls
and three boys. The oldest was a girl, Idanell, born on Feb.
24, 1919 in Austin.
Idanell lost her grandfather August Brill on Sept. 12, 1954, when
the longtime craftsman and land developer died in Bandera.
Her father lived on until Aug. 2, 1968. When she and her husband
John attended the funeral, only a few people knew her as Idanell.
For years, she had been far better known by her nickname -- Nellie.
The granddaughter of a well-respected saddle and holster maker,
Nellie's married name was Connally. She had met her future
husband in 1937 while they were students at the University of Texas
and married him three years later.
Now, as Nellie mourned the loss of her father, her husband was well
into his third and final term as governor of Texas and she was first
lady. Four years, eight months and 11 days earlier, on Nov. 22,
1963, Nellie and her husband had been in the open limousine when
Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in downtown
Dallas and gravely wounded
I guess the story behind those two old holsters is why Granddad
held on to them until he died.
"Texas Tales" July
12, 2017 column