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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Hand-tooled Holsters
Tell Stories

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

People 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.

The 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 from Germany.

A.W. Brill (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 lot.

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 the governor.

I guess the story behind those two old holsters is why Granddad held on to them until he died.



© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 12, 2017 column


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