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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

Stonewall's
Button Factory

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Buttons were once a big business in Stonewall, Texas. And if you think buttons aren't important, just try keeping your britches up without one.

Buttons have been around for a long time. You might even say the button business began in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve's fondness for fruit led to the garment industry.

Buttons were ornamental until some genius figured out a way to make them functional. Button makers used seashells, bone, paper mache and wood to make buttons until plastics took over the whole world in the 20th century.

In 1945 B. B. Bohls and his wife Lydia Lindig Bohls founded Capitol Plastic Art Company in Austin. B. B. could have gone into business with the guys who made Glastron Boats, but he chose to make buttons instead.

The machines to mass produce plastic buttons didn't exist in 1945 so B. B. Bohls bought a metal lathe and built them himself. As a boy in Taylor, Texas, B. B. was fascinated with machinery. While other guys wasted time with bicycles and baseball bats, B. B. played with lathes, drill presses and grinders.

Stonewall TX - Button Factory
Capitol Plastic Art Company
Photo courtesy Stonewall Heritage Society

In 1946 B. B. and Lydia moved their business to Lydia's hometown of Stonewall into a building located at the intersection of Loring Street and what is today Ranch Road 1. The place was originally the Kallenberg Store. After the store closed the building served as a movie house until the projector broke

B. B. and Lydia's company was the only button factory on Texas. You might say Stonewall had the Texas button business all buttoned up.


Capitol Plastic Art Company made buttons from a transparent thermoplastic called Lucite. It came to the factory in 6 by 6 sheets. An employee first cut the sheets into small squares and then fed the squares into a machine that shaped and rounded them to the proper size. A tumbler polished the buttons for 72 hours. Another machine drilled the holes; then it was back into the tumbler for another 72 hours. It took a week to make a button.

The first buttons were clear. The only color added was inside the holes, applied by hand with a toothpick dipped in colored liquid plastic. The color of the hole reflected throughout the button.

After a year or so the company made different colored button by boiling them in dye. By 1953 the company could buy sheets of Lucite in different colors.

In the beginning B. B. Bohls set the machines for specific cutting jobs on weekends and spent the week on the road as a traveling salesman. He sold buttons under the trade name Color Gem Buttons. At its height the company sold buttons in 8 states - from Texas to Florida.


The button business was seasonal - September to March. After March 1, the company made dominoes. B. B. and Lydia guaranteed their dominoes for life. If an overly enthusiastic domino player broke one, he got a new set at no charge.

After Lyndon Johnson became president the company made and sold LBJ souvenirs. Lydia and Lyndon went to grade school together.

The button factory was open to visitors. School children made field trips to the button factory.

In addition to buttons, the Capitol Plastic Art Company of Stonewall made a complete line of sewing notions. In the 1960s the company opened a retail fabric store in Fredericksburg and one in Kerrville. There was a shipping office and warehouse in San Antonio.

B. B. Bohls died in 1966. Lydia ran the button factory until the business closed in 1977.


Even today it's hard to imagine life without buttons. All of us over the age of 5 spend a part of each day buttoning this or unbuttoning that. Buttons are a big part of our daily lives.

There is even a phobia called Koumpounophobia - fear of buttons. I'm not making this up. Steve Jobs had it. That's why he wore turtlenecks. He even feared buttons on a keyboard. That's why Apple Computers have touch screens.

Good thing I don't have Koumpounophobia. How would I keep my pants up?

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" September 15, 2020 Column

Sources:
"The Stonewall Heritage Society Newsletter", vol 23, no. 4, October 2017.
Otto Lindig, 100 Years: Historical Recollections of Gillespie County, pp. 71-72.



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