History

Purses, Chili, and Lampshades: The History of The Apelt Armadillo Farm

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Texans love armadillos. Gary P. Nunn and Robert Earl Keen, Jr. wrote songs pertaining to them. We made them our small state mammal in 1927. Ever seen someone with an armadillo tattoo? Sometimes, people make things out of their shells and adorn with them. In fact, just outside of Comfort was home to The Apelt Armadillo Farm which had a booming industry for roughly 80 years. Marked by Texas Historical Marker 15777, the story of The Apelt Armadillo Farm goes something like this:

Charles Apelt was 15 years old when he emigrated from Germany to Comfort, Texas in 1887. A background in basket-making provided the inspiration for turning armadillo shells into baskets (their meat was turned into barbeque & chili which was popular at the time), and in 1898, Charles opened the armadillo basket factory. Within the first six years, 40,000 baskets had been sold and shipped throughout the United States and the world. A visit to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis helped promote the business.

Texas basket

Photo: Facebook/Mike King

Plain baskets started at $2.50 apiece, while fancier versions sold for $4 and up. Floor lamps on wrought-iron stands ranged from $15-$25; smaller table lamps went for $12.50-$18. Bed lamps and wall fixtures were also available, along with smokers’ stands, ladies purses, and wall banners. Armadillos were both caught in the wild and bred onsite in elaborate burrows and tunnels. In the 1940’s, a large armadillo fetched a dollar, while smaller ones went for .75 cents. Often, the animals were sold to hospitals and medical research facilities for study, as well as circuses, zoos, and to private individuals as pets.

Mirrors in the lids

Photo: Honky Tonk Foodie

The Apelt armadillo enterprise was owned by the family for seven decades. In 1947, operations moved to Salado, Texas, but did not prosper there and were moved back in 1951 to its original location in Comfort. Business declined overall and, in 1971, The Apelt Armadillo Farm shut its doors permanently. The property sold to various parties, and then finally to Harriette Gorman, a local antiques dealer who spent years painstakingly completing 17 historical restorations. A Texas State Historical Marker, sponsored by Walter Apelt, Charles’ grandson, is located on TX Hwy 27, about six miles east of Center Point and on the outskirts of Comfort. Be sure to also visit the Armadillo Haus Museum and General Store, located at 1201 Sisterdale Rd in Sisterdale, which contains artifacts from the farm’s restoration (UPDATE: a reader informed us that the Armadillo Haus Museum has moved to 636 High Street, Comfort, TX. 78310.)

Here are some fun facts about armadillos!

  • Although there are about 20 species of armadillo, only the nine-banded variety (Dasypus novemcinctus) is found in North America; the rest are in South and Central America.
  • Nine-banded armadillos became increasingly populous in the Hill Country near the turn of the century. According to the Handbook of Texas Online, although they had been found primarily in the lower Rio Grande before the 1850s, by 1880, they had migrated into the Hill Country. They eventually ranged into Oklahoma and Arkansas, and eastward to Georgia and Florida.
  • Every litter is always four in number and are all of one sex—four males or four females, never mixed. Due to this, scientific institutions throughout the world study the odd development and heredity of the armadillo.
  • As a pet, the armadillo is shy and retiring, but very intelligent.
  • In captivity, armadillos eat grain, eggs, and vegetables, but in the wild, they eat insects and flesh, both good and bad.
  • Although similar looking to a turtle, the armadillo’s head does not need to be drawn into the shell because the armor covers the animal right down to the nose.
  • One reason they are so often killed along highways is due to their “startle reflex.”  They often run from sensed danger, but will also use their powerful muscles to launch themselves straight up, into the air. This startles their predators into stopping dead but vehicles don’t give quite the same reaction.
  • They can hold their breath for minutes at a time for digging in the dirt. This trait is also useful when confronted by a stream, as an armadillo simply takes a deep breath and walks across the bottom. If a river’s too wide for the creature to ford by walking, it fills its intestines with air and starts swimming, having become its own personal flotation device.

If you see an armadillo in the wild, please be kind and leave these fascinating creatures to themselves. They deserve some peace and quiet after being hunted for purses!

References:

http://blog.modernmechanix.com/armadillo-farm-is-oddest-money-maker/

https://3traveling.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/march-2012-comfort-texas-the-armadillo-basket-company/

https://shoreacres.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/home-with-the-armadillos/

http://wkcurrent.com/apelt-armadillo-farm-restored-after-years-of-blood-sweat-tears-p1797-71.htm

https://tpwd.texas.gov/publications/nonpwdpubs/introducing_mammals/armadillos/