Interview: Mr. Bewley of A. N. Bewley Fabricators
This is an extended version of an interview with Mr. Bewley that ran in the New York Times on August 4th. I visited with Mr. Bewley in his house along with his daughter Rhonda and her husband Larry Lewis who now runs A. N. Bewley Fabricators in Dallas. Mr. Bewley was a pioneer in rotisserie pit building and worked with Herbert Oyler to design the first Oyler rotisseries. These are still being made today by J & R Manufacturing in Mesquite and are used across the country as the only wood-fired commercial rotisseries smokers on the market.
Daniel Vaughn: What does the A. N. stand for?
Larry Lewis: His name is Arthur Norman, but he goes by A.N. Bewley, but everybody knows him as “Bewley.” That’s been the way people refer to him.
A. N. Bewley: I was there in the shop one day, and one of the guys I graduated high school with came in. It had been 20 years since I had seen him. And he asked the guys there, “Is Norman around?” And they all looked around at each other, and said, “There’s no Norman here.” He said, “Norman Bewley doesn’t own this?” And they said, “Oh, yeah! Bewley does!” (Laughs.) They didn’t know my name was Norman.
DV: You went by Norman in high school?
ANB: Yeah. Then I started using A.N. because it was a helluva lot quicker.
DV: Were you born in the Dallas area?
ANB: No, I was born in East Texas, in De Kalb, Texas. Came off a farm, but all my life I said I was going to be a welder when I grew up. I watched the pipeline come through the country, and I’d follow it as far as I could to watch it being built, and they’d bring me home every day, and if they’d keep me there, I was gonna ruin my eyes. (chuckles). Anyway, I like to see the steel melting from a torch, and I told everybody I was gonna be a welder when I grew up.
DV: How old were you when you were following along the pipeline?
ANB: Eight years old.
DV: All day you’d just follow these welders and watch them? Wow. So, how did you make it to Mesquite.
ANB: I lived in Dallas for about ten, eleven years, even after I married I lived over there. This is the only house I’ve ever owned. I moved to Amarillo first to work for Chicago Bridge and Iron. They was still riveting everything. They taught me how to heat rivets and throw them and all that, but I wanted to weld I didn’t like Amarillo so I came back to De Kalb. Me and three guys decided to come to Dallas because there wasn’t anything happening there. We got our bus tickets, and out here we come.
DV: A one-way ticket to Dallas?
ANB: Yeah, a one-way bus ticket to Dallas. I had five dollars left when I got through with that bus ticket.
DV: Did you know anybody here?
ANB: The boys did. We moved in with one of them’s aunt. At one time she had thirteen boys living in one big room upstairs. It was in Dallas. I was on Beacon Street in Old East Dallas. Seemed like all the guys from East Texas lived out there in old East Dallas. I went out and got a job with Austin Brothers Steel, they had all welders.
DV: And that’s what you wanted to do, right?
ANB: Yeah. Just switching over from riveting to welding. They would put thirty of us around a jig, and the jig would move down in front of us, and all the parts would be laying in it, and they blow a whistle, and you better drop your hood. They blow a whistle again, and you better stop welding, or something might knock your head off.
DV: Did you stay there long?
ANB: No. I went to work for Kemp [Sheet Metal in Dallas]. The old man was brilliant. He used to tell me, “Write this letter for me. I just graduated from the sixth grade. You graduated from high school.” And I used to tell him, “There’s a lot of difference between graduating high school and having a high school education.” But I could read and write and spell. I stayed with his son Don seven years after Kemp retired. The last job I did for him was at Dr Pepper. Those big stainless steel hoppers that came on down into the office area. When you came into the plant, you’d see them, but they were actually used in manufacturing.
DV: Was this when Dr Pepper was over on Mockingbird and Greenville?
ANB: Yes, sir. I built those two stainless hoppers they put in there. They were fourteen feet tall, eight foot at the top and came down to one foot at the bottom.
DV: That’s a lot of welding.
ANB: Yeah. A lot of welding, a lot of polishing. I’ve had some tremendous jobs through the years. At one point on a job I fell and broke my foot shattered my knee and broke both wrists.
DV: How did that happen?
ANB: I was out on a ladder in the middle of the floor on a concrete-floor building, and cutting some stuff out of a ceiling. I jerked the ladder and it slid out.
LL: He was about twenty feet up on a concrete wall, with the ladder leaned up, and the ladder just kicked out from under him, and he just fell flat to the floor. At that time, the doctor told you you’d never walk again, didn’t they?
ANB: They told me that I’d be crippled in my left leg from then on, but I told them I didn’t go in there no damn cripple and I wasn’t going out one.
DV: So how long did it take to heal up from that?
ANB: A year.
LL: Mr. Bewley told me the story one time about Mr. Kemp right after the accident. He came out here and said he really needed to do some welding for him, could he take a couple of aspirin and come on in. And Mr. Bewley’s got one leg in a cast, both wrists…
ANB: No, that was when the horse knocked me down broke both of my wrists, and I was working for Kemp. I had to stay in East Texas at my dad’s to see the doctor before I left. I got here about noon and I called Kemp and told him what had happened, and I talked to his bookkeeper. And Kemp said, “Well, let me talk to him.” And he called me at the house, and he said, “Can’t you take a coupla aspirins and come on in?” And I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” (Laughs.)
DV: You had broken both your wrists? And this was doing what?
ANB: I was fooling with a wild horse.
DV: Back home?
ANB: Back home at dad’s.
LL: But for several weeks there, Mr. Kemp set him up on the work bench in there, and both hands were in casts, but he got one finger loose so he could work the Heliarc, and they’d prop him up and put stuff in front of him to weld for several weeks there.
ANB: Yeah, he’d work me Saturdays and everything. I was one of the few really good welders he had. But Kemp is where I learned to Heliarc weld. Work on welding machines and everything.
DV: So when when you were working with Kemp, they had their own line of pits that they made?
ANB: Yeah.When I started he tried to build a pit, but he didn’t use refractory [a high-heat insulating cement] or anything on the firebox. He used metal. I was working with a guy that sold refractory on the side, and I saw what it could do, because we was using it to line outdoor furnaces at all the Safeway stores. So I incorporated it into the pits and that’s what got me started. Then I got tied in with Mr. Oyler who had Oyler’s BBQ here in Mesquite, and he said, “Me and that refractory never have got along. I’m going to use steel in mine.” And he built five pits, and put a steel firebox in every one of them. And a few months later he was going back and changing them all out. I showed him how to build a round firebox, and pour it and everything.
DV: So were these the first few Oyler rotisseries, and he had already sold them with the steel firebox?
ANB: Yeah. I was working with him when he built those five, and he needed to change those out and so I showed him how to do the refractory. Basically, the rotisseries haven’t changed. I mean, ours haven’t changed, since then. We’re still insulating the same way.
DV: So Larry, the refractory was what you were showing me down at the factory?
LL: Yes. That lines a firebox. Mr. Bewley incorporated the same round firebox into the flat-rack pits that he built and sold.
ANB: First pit I built was two-door, and guy from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, came up and picked up one with two doors. And we were in the shop, walking around, looking at everything, and he said, “Well why couldn’t you build three doors?” And it kind of hit me. And I said, “Well, we can.” And he said, “Well build me one.” And so, I turned around and built him a three-door. And there’s that.
LL: The three door is our standard 11-foot, Model 1100 that we sell now.
DV: How did you come to meet Mr. Oyler and work with him?
ANB: I lived here in Mesquite, and his barbecue place was here. Kemp’s shop was over in Dallas, just down the street from where we are now. Mr. Oyler never owned anything except that barbecue place, a pickup truck, and a Chevrolet car. And he put up the money for anybody to do things. He tried several places to build his pits.
DV: So Herbert Oyler was looking around for somebody to build his pits and couldn’t find anybody to his liking?
ANB: Yeah, and he stopped in there in Kemp’s and the two of us got together. I started building his pits on the side, which Mr. Kemp asked me to do it instead of him building them. And that’s the way Mr. Oyler and I did it until he got killed with that train. We had a good working relation.
DV: Do you remember how many pits you built with him?
ANB: Oh, Lord. I don’t know many I built.
DV: But these were all rotisseries?
ANB: Yes sir.
DV: How did you already know how to build an insulated firebox?
ANB: I was building furnaces and they’re all lined with refractory.
LL: Like the big grocery stores used to have where they’d burn all their cardboard boxes and stuff like that, they had a big furnace out back–a lot of the old grocery stores still have them out there, but very few use them.
DV: That’s what you were building at Kemp?
ANB: Yeah. I learned about refractory like that. If I hadn’t been building those furnaces, I probably would have never run across it.
DV: On the side you made the Oyler’s for Herbert. Had Herbert asked y’all to make the pits, so how were you selected to do that, or did you volunteer?
ANB: Well Herbert got to talking to me, and he found out I was sharper than most of the men, so he asked me to build his pits for him.
DV: Did he already have a design of a pit when he came to you? Did he already have one at the barbecue joint?
ANB: He had built, had a small pit built like it the first one. He had a door raised up like this, ones that opened up like they do today. I don’t know. We made a lot of changes on the pit when I started building.
DV: So there wasn’t a set design? Basically, you helped design the Oyler pit.
ANB: Yeah. It is still basically the same thing that I was building back in those days.
DV: So how long were you building the pits for him before he passed away?
ANB: I can’t remember. About five, six, seven years. Something like that. A good while. Herbert was my second daddy. We would have big discussions with each other.
LL: But he put you to work drawing…
ANB: I drew the rotisserie pit, every part that went in it.
LL: We still got the original drawings at the shop that Mr. Bewley did in the hospital from his memory of building them. All the parts. He’s got the front and the side panels and the wheels and the firebox doors and all that stuff that he drew out in the hospital that time.
ANB: Herbert had taken out a patent on everything we’d done. He had other patents too. He’s the one where you remote push some buttons and the jukebox plays. He’s the one that invented that. He set it up in a motel. And he had six songs, you could punch a button, and you could play your song.
DV: After you put in a nickel?
ANB: Yeah. Later on, when Wurlitzer came out with it, he decided to sue and get some money. And he was working for S.H. Lynch, a slick beer distributor here in Dallas. Big outfit. During the day Herbert was going around to cafes and checking the jukeboxes and slot machines and taking the money out. During his work hours. Mr. Lynch also was putting in jukeboxes too, but he was using Wurlitzers. Herbert had to go to him and tell him that he was fixing to sue Wurlitzer and Mr. Lynch said, “Well I’m gonna be sued too, then.” So he had to quit him to sue him. (Laughs.)
DV: So did he win?
ANB: Oh, yeah. He won.
DV: What did he do with the money?
ANB: That’s where he got his money to get in the BBQ business.
DV: What was his first place called?
ANB: It was called Oyler’s Barbecue.
LL: Same building that Mesquite Barbecue is in right now, right?
ANB: No, no. He was out in Oak Cliff. And he had this big brick barbecue pit.
LL: That’s right. You told me he was selling rotisseries all over and he had a brick pit.
ANB: He’d bring his people in to eat at his place, and they’d say, well, what do you have? And he’d say, well mine’s the same thing as a rotisserie. He had a lot of bulls—. (Laughs.)
DV: So did he ever change over? Did he ever use his own rotisserie pit in the barbecue joint?
ANB: Nope. He never did. Nope.
DV: Why did he move to Mesquite then? Where Mesquite Barbecue is now?
ANB: Well, Oak Cliff voted dry. Herbert has the barbecue place out there that sold beer, and he had a nice home out there, so he got mad over it, sold out of everything, and moved to Mesquite. He bought him a home out there in the Buckner addition in Dallas, which put him about fifteen minutes from his shop out here in Mesquite. He was real happy after he moved.
DV: So did he put the rotisseries in at the new place?
ANB: Oh, no, no. He had a brick pit over here.
DV: Did he buy an existing barbecue joint, or did he build it new?
ANB: Minyard’s food store had a big parking lot down there, so they sold him a land lease, which he had to put a building up on it. He put a metal building and a brick pit. But Minyard’s liked Herbert, and they wanted him to have a barbecue place at every store they built. And Herbert tried it, and they’d steal all the money, so he pulled his horns back in. He used to have a big sign on top of this one down here, said “Herbert Oyler, World Famous Barbecue.” (laughs.)
DV: I’ve talked to the folks over at J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite a few years ago, and they said that after Mr. Oyler passed away, his wife then basically sold the Oyler name and the Oyler pit design. Was that something that you were also bidding on and trying to get?
ANB: Nope, no. I didn’t bid on it. J&R and I had a misunderstanding on the pits. (Laughs.). I built two pits and put them in, and they were going to sue me over it. I called an old boy I knew here who was an attorney, but he said, “Patents are out of my line. I can’t help you. But let me give you a name of a friend of mine in Houston. He’s the best patent attorney in the United States.” So I called him up, left a message with him, didn’t hear from him for two weeks, and one night around nine at night I got a call, and it was him. “I’m answering your call. What ya got?” I told him about the patent, and he said “It’s not a patent. You don’t have a patent until it’s been baptized. They go to court and court says you’re infringing on their patent. You say you’ve changed up the damper through the years? They don’t have a patent. They’ve never had a patent. It says ‘Patent Pending.’ Herbert never did baptize that thing. I’ll tell you what to do. Next time that lawyer calls you, you talk to him a little bit, and you give them my name. Everybody in the patent business knows my name, and you just tell them your attorney told them to go f— themselves. I guarantee you’ll hear a click on the other end of the phone. And that’s the last you’ll hear of them.” I did just exactly what he said.
DV: Was that a bread machine that he had first started using?
ANB: I don’t know how he came up with that bread machine, but we built it. Kemp did a tremendous amount of work for Texas Meatpackers. I had built a flat-rack pit and put it in there, and it wasn’t producing enough. So we started doing ribs on that rotary, and they were packing them in the truck, shipping it to New York. Selling every rib they could cook. Tom put on there “Designed and Built by Mesquite Welding.” About fifteen years ago I heard somebody came up and found that old pit in Houston.
DV: Texas Meatpackers did they do raw meat and cooked meat as well?
ANB: Yep. Archie Sloan owned it. And he was quite a guy himself. He bought the name of Red Bryan’s out. And he was selling those ribs in the sauce and everything, like Red Bryan.
DV: When was this?
ANB: It was in the sixties.
DV: And is that building still there?
ANB: It’s gone and then some. Archie moved over to Fort Worth. Then his wife shot him and killed him. She was a lot younger than he was. And David Harris got the name Red Bryan back. He was a friend of the lawyer that was handling her stuff after she’d killed her husband. The lawyer asked him one day, “How would you like to have the name Red Bryan’s back?” And he said, “I’d love it.”
DV: Is this David of David’s Barbecue in Pantego?
DV: Did you go from straight from working for Kemp to starting Bewley Fabricators?
ANB: Yep. First job I had was two rotary pits. I worked night and day.
LL: Kemp was right down the street from where his shop is now and he went several years working at Kemp all day and then coming back to his shop at night and building pits at night, until bedtime. And then he’d go to bed, or work all night, and then go back to Kemp’s the next morning.
DV: How did you get the building that you’re in now?
ANB: It had been a body and fender shop that was cut up into four different shops. I had a little ol’ wing over there on the side for my office. I rented a portion of the shop for $150/month. One thing happened right after another, and I just kept rolling and rolling and rolling. And finally, Joe [Nettles who ran Bain Sheet Metal in the same building] died and so I bought his side out.
LL: He ran the building for years on a handshake with Mr. Harris, the owner. His daughter has it now, and she’s in her 90s. We’ve never had a written lease–
ANB: Yeah, I did one time. People got to coming around, and they’d say “who owns this?” And we got scared to tell them, so finally I told Joe one day, “We gotta get a lease on this thing or someone’s going to lease it out from under us.” So I called Mr. Harris, and asked him, and he said, “You write up the lease and I’ll sign it.” That’s kind of unusual for a landlord, so I got Joe’s brother-in-law, which was an insurance man, to draw me up a lease. And I carried it out there to Mr. Harris, and Joe said he wanted in on that too. So I took a ten-year lease, and with the option for ten more. Mr. Harris read it over andsigned it. That’s the only lease I ever had. When he died, well, of course the lease was canceled. His daughter came in and said I needed to rent the whole thing. We settled on $700 a month.
DV: You said you started off building two rotisserie pits on your own. Who were those for?
ANB: They were Penny Pinchers BBQ in Dallas.
DV: And so what did Mr. Kemp think about you going off and building pits on your own. That was taking away some of his business, right?
ANB: Oh, no. Kemp or Don, his son, would call me up every now and then, and he’d say, you remember so-and-so, and I’d say, “yeah.” “Can you handle it?” And I’d say, “yeah.” So they’d give me the jobs.
LL: I think Mr. Kemp always felt that the barbecue pit deal was kind of more of a nuisance to his business, so every time somebody would come in to talk about barbecue pits, they’d say, “Well talk to Bewley.” They would kind of push it his way.
ANB: The original Dickey’s Barbecue was a Kemp-built pit.
DV: At the original place on Central and Henderson?
LL: Yes, yes. Still has a Bewley rotisserie that we kept going all these years. We put some new fireboxes in them. When they started franchising the stores, they ended up going with Ole Hickory pits that were gas-fired. They felt like they were easier to train people on, and they probably are. Probably doesn’t take as much of a pitmaster to cook on some of those as it does on some of the wood-fired pits. The majority of our customers through the years are successful because they’re the ones that are more the mom-and-pop type places where the owner or someone has a really vested interest in running it through the day. One of Mr. Bewley’s closest friends is Roland Lindsay of Bodacious BBQ. When he first got started in DeSoto, we got hooked up with him. Through the years, I know I have, and I think Mr. Bewley is the same way, have learned a lot about building barbecue pits through him.
ANB: He told me, when I built him the first rotisserie–I was working for Oyler then–he said, “Have you ever cooked on one of these?” I said, “No. But we build a damn good pit.” “I know you do. But until you cook on one, you’re never gonna know how to build one.” So I listened to him. So every time I’d go down, I’d get him to tell me some of his secrets. I’ve actually designed pits as close to him as I can. Like the inlet and the outlet is the same. Stuff like that. He’s quite a guy.
DV: When did the business officially become A.N. Bewley Fabricators? When did you start putting that stamp on there?
ANB: When I left Kemp and went down there on my own is when I put A.N. Bewley Fabricators up on the building.
DV: So when did you start building the flat-rack pits?
ANB: I started building them before, a good bit before I left Kemp’s.
DV: So when did the business get large enough that you could start hiring some people to help you? Did it take a long time?
ANB: It really didn’t. Let’s see. Glen Lancaster – he and [Kemp’s son] Don got into it one day, and he grabbed his toolbox up, and he come down there and cleaned out his shelf under the table where he set his box. And he said, “Okay, I’m yours.” And he came to work for me.
DV: So how long did it take before you could leave Kemp and just do barbecue pits and all your own work full time?
ANB: Seven years. I had enough business and then some. And then I left on good terms. There was no hard feelings from me or him. In fact, I used his shop for three years after I got my shop. I’d go down the evenings, when everything was closed up, fabricate my stuff, then go back up there and put it together.
DV: How much the business now is the rotisserie pits?
LL: I built one this year, and it was the first we had built in two years, I think.
DV: And how many of the flat-rack pits do you do?
LL: We build fifteen on a good year. It kind of varies a lot. It seems like it always comes in spurts. We’ll have five or six places that will order pits, and then we may not build a pit for a couple of months. And then we’ll have five or six more. It seems like it kinds of runs in cycles. That’s one reason we’ve tried to stayed diversified through the years, and we’ve had some other accounts in our stainless work that we do. Right now, it’s been real good. We’ve stayed busier longer this time than we typically do. And I hope that’s a sign of good things to come.
DV: You said you just got Schmidt Family Barbecue, down in Bee Cave?
LL: Yeah, we’re doing one for them. And then doing one for an individual in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that’s actually, he said he had an extended family up there and he’s doing a commissary outdoor kitchen deal for a family gathering.
ANB: You have an idea of what those rotisserie pits sold for originally?
DV: What do you sell them for today?
LL: The last one we did sold for $22,000.
DV: We’ve talked about the rotisserie pits and the flat-rack pits, but I’ve also seen a number of built-in Bewley pits. Like built within the brick. Smokey’s in Fort Worth, and some of the Hardeman’s locations. Did y’all ever do pits that were built into a brick pit.
ANB: I didn’t do the brick work. I did the steel work.
LL: We’ve had some people through the years that have approached us about a brick pit, but with steel doors and metal racks and a drain pan in them. And we’ve worked with their mason doing the brick work. So we’ve done components for the brick pit like that.
DV: So how often do you still get down to the shop?
ANB: About three times a month. Sometimes once a week. Less during the summer or the winter because it’s too hot or cold.
DV: Do you miss the welding?
ANB: Yeah. I really do.
Rhonda [Bewley’s daughter]: You really haven’t welded in many years, right? You ran the shop, but you haven’t welded in a while.
LL: Except when he’d get mad and tell somebody to hit the road, and he’d pick their hood up and get to welding. (Laughs.)
ANB: I would fire a man in a minute.