Like many Texans, I always assumed that Howard Edward Butt was the mastermind behind our state’s favorite grocery chain. The business is named for his initials, after all. Women tend to be relegated to minor roles in rags-to-riches stories, when their names are remembered at all—and it’s time to correct that. H-E-B—arguably the most beloved brand in the state, with roughly 430 stores and a well-oiled disaster-response machine that Texans trust more than the government in times of crisis—wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Howard’s mother, Florence Thornton Butt, who opened the family’s first store, in the Hill Country town of Kerrville, in 1905.
She did so out of desperation. Florence’s husband, Charles Clarence “C. C.” Butt, fell ill with tuberculosis and couldn’t work; it was up to Florence to support the family, which included three young sons. In the days before antibiotics, prevailing medical wisdom held that tuberculosis could be cured through rest and exposure to fresh air in warm, relatively dry climates. Butt’s doctor had advised him to move to such a place. The family chose Texas—moving first to San Antonio, in 1904, and a year later to Kerrville, a half hour southwest of Fredericksburg. Today the town is a tourist destination, known for its spring wildflowers and summer folk festival—but a century ago it was a remote, rugged place where chronically ill Americans sought refuge. Physician George Parsons, from Chebanse, Illinois, had himself recovered from tuberculosis in the Hill Country town; he later wrote about his experience in a medical journal and started Kerrville’s first sanatorium, bringing still more patients hoping for a cure.
Florence Butt came to Kerrville with her husband, their three preteen and teenage sons, and at least one older stepson. Initially, the family may have lived in a canvas tent near the Guadalupe River. Tent camps were full of tuberculosis patients and their families trying to get adequate fresh air and sleep close to the ground, as doctors recommended. As she tended to her family in this primitive setting, Florence had to find a way to provide for her ill husband and her children in a town where she knew no one. In time, she would open a successful store, become a leader in the local Baptist church, endure the death of her husband and one son, and develop a reputation as a generous community leader.
“She perseveres,” says Joe Herring Jr., a lifelong Kerrville resident, a former mayor, and the town’s amateur historian. “And she does all this when she’s not even allowed to vote.”
Florence Thornton was born into a farming family in Buena Vista, Mississippi, on September 19, 1864, during the last year of the Civil War. Her obituaries say she graduated with honors and as the only woman in her class at Clinton College. (This might have been the now-defunct Clinton College in Kentucky, or perhaps Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi, outside Jackson—although the latter did not admit women at the time and does not have a record of her attendance.) She taught school and then, at 24, married Butt, a widower sixteen years her senior who ran a drugstore. Their wedding announcement in the Grenada, Mississippi, Sentinel describes him as an “accomplished gentleman and a popular citizen” and her as “a lady of rare intelligence.” The couple lived in Duck Hill, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, before C.C.’s tuberculosis diagnosis and their migration to Texas.
In Kerrville, Florence, then 41, initially tried door-to-door sales for the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, or A&P, which by the 1920s would become the largest grocery retailer in the world. She visited people’s homes to offer them a list of items they could order, which she would later deliver. At least once, a woman slammed the door in her face, saying she didn’t buy from peddlers. “Mother was a very refined woman, and this hurt her deeply,” her son Eugene later wrote.
Scrappy Florence Butt changed tactics. Stories about the original H-E-B suggest she opened the store with around $60 in grocery stock—equivalent to about $2,000 today. She rented a two-story wood-frame building on Main Street, near the Baptist Church (Florence was a devout Baptist) and Masonic Lodge (C.C. was a Mason), that had a few hundred square feet of space on the first floor and living quarters above. On this spot in 1905, she opened the store that became the first Butt family grocery enterprise.
Although later accounts call it “C. C. Butt Grocery” or “Mrs. C. C. Butt Staples and Fancy Groceries,” Herring points out that the first reference to the store in the Kerrville Mountain Sun suggests it originally operated under Florence’s name. An ad in the April 27, 1907, issue of the paper announces the availability of Bailey’s San Antonio Bread. “We give a nice premium with each box of Baking Powders, bottle of extracts, teas and spices,” the ad continues. “Also on all orders for $2 and $3 worth of coffee. Store on Main Street. Telephone No. 72. Mrs. F.T. Butt, Kerrville.”
In addition to bread and spices, the store likely sold sugar and salt, flour, cheese carved from a wheel, preserved meats, medicines, and canning supplies. Early photos show Butt, bespectacled and with hair piled atop her head, standing at the counter. Behind her, high shelves are lined with neatly arranged canned goods. Not pictured, but likely present, are barrels of crackers, pickles, sauerkraut, and molasses.
At that time, grocery stores were full-service operations. Customers would explain what they needed to a clerk, who would then scoop crackers from the barrel, retrieve cans from the shelves, and slice and wrap the cheese. Some customers placed orders on credit, and the store delivered the goods to their homes. Florence fulfilled her orders by way of her youngest son, Howard, then ten. Later newspaper stories report that he hauled the goods in a baby carriage or a child’s toy wagon over the unpaved streets.
The business was undercut somewhat by Florence’s generosity, an adult Howard later told the San Antonio Express. “Neither Mother nor I were very good credit men,” Butt said. “Mother would give anything we had in the store to anyone who came in and said he was a minister, or a member of any church, or just from Mississippi . . . and I wasn’t much better.”
But Herring thinks this compassionate approach resonated with townspeople, helping the Butts overcome factors that weren’t in their favor. “It wasn’t a good business plan,” he says. “There were a lot of grocery companies downtown. A lot of people probably wouldn’t want to buy from that family because they had someone who was sick. Florence, in my opinion, had so much grit and so much warmth for people who needed help that the community started shopping there and supporting them.” That approach will sound familiar to millions of Texans today who have experienced H-E-B’s generosity during and after storms, power blackouts, and other disasters. Howard’s son, Charles C. Butt, the current chairman of H-E-B, has carried on Florence’s giving spirit by making large contributions to hurricane relief and programs supporting public education.
Somehow the store gained a foothold in a crowded market. It moved to progressively larger spaces as Howard took a greater role in its operation. After serving in the Navy during World War I, he returned to Kerrville and took over as manager. By then, Florence was in her fifties. In the early 1920s, Howard converted the store from credit-and-delivery to cash-and-carry, then a novel concept. For the first time, customers chose items from the shelves and brought them to the counter to pay. Without the expenses of delivery services or bad debts, the store could lower prices. It could also serve more shoppers more quickly—because they largely served themselves.“You will find a new pleasure and interest in personally attending to the securing of your family food supplies,” promised an advertorial in a 1930 Kerrville newspaper.
The system had first been used in 1916 in Memphis by Clarence Saunders, founder of the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain, as author Michael Ruhlman explains in Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America. Self-service was widely adopted by the 1930s as Piggly Wiggly stores proliferated through the South and Midwest. Howard Butt, meanwhile, experimented with opening additional grocery stores in Hill Country and South Texas towns, but none lasted until he opened a store in Del Rio in 1926. He then bought three Piggly Wiggly stores in the Rio Grande Valley and continued expanding into Corpus Christi (1931), Austin (1938), and San Antonio (1942).
For a time, his stores were known by both company names. A November 1930 story in the Kerrville Mountain Sun lauds the twenty-fifth anniversary of the C. C. Butt Piggly Wiggly chain and mentions that Mrs. Florence Butt is vice president of the company (bless their hearts—the local journalists refer to her as helping lead the “Piggly Wiggly-Butt Company, Inc.”) Mrs. Butt expressed her pleasure over the anniversary in characteristically generous terms:
“I feel that I have something to be really thankful for this Thanksgiving, because the people of the Hill Country have been good to us,” she told the newspaper. “Through their continued patronage, we have been enabled to expand and make possible the fulfillment of my son’s vision, placing him at the head of a successful chain of grocery stores.” In 1942, the company opened its first store under the name H-E-B, in San Antonio.
By the 1930s, when she held the title of vice president, Florence had become a leading citizen in her adopted town. She was an active member of the Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization connected to Masonry, and she organized a chapter of the Order of the Rainbow, a Masonic organization for young women. Florence also was a leader in the Sunday school program at the First Baptist Church and led the establishment of the Oak Park mission, a new church across town. A history of First Baptist credits her and her daughter-in-law with getting the Oak Park building constructed, debt-free, in the early days of the Depression.
She collected food and clothing for needy families at the holidays and for families in crisis. She evidently made it her business to know who needed help and where they lived. She visited indigent tuberculosis patients living in tents along the river, just as she likely had done when her family first moved to Kerrville. She remembered being poor, Herring says, and she empathized.
She also lost two family members to tuberculosis: her husband, who died in 1915, and her oldest son, Charles, who died in 1926. Antibiotic treatments for tuberculosis wouldn’t become widely available until the early 1950s. For all Kerrville had given the Butt family, its climate was not able to deliver the cure they had sought.
Florence lived out her golden years in a cottage Howard built for her near the new First Baptist Church. Her other surviving son, Eugene, lived next door. After she died at 89 on March 4, 1954, every H-E-B store in the state closed for a day in her honor. Three months later, an expanded H-E-B—“Kerrville’s newest and most modern grocery store,” with more than 10,000 square feet of shopping space—opened.
Florence was buried in Glen Rest Cemetery, near Schreiner University, alongside her husband. Her simple granite headstone is silent on her professional accomplishments, identifying her only as “Mother” and as “Wife of C. C. Butt”; she never remarried. Below those lines, the marker quotes the opening line of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Her grave rests near the edge of the cemetery, and the din of traffic from busy Memorial Boulevard is constant. Yet amid the noise, the plot is imbued with a graveyard’s reflective calm. Two miles away, the biggest and newest incarnation of the Kerrville H-E-B—now measuring 114,000 square feet—opened in November 2020. The curbside-pickup entrance features a replica of the facade of the original store, just five blocks from where Florence Butt opened it in 1905.