A Burnet Telephone Company customer gave owner James Leslie Luther Sr. his worse chewing out ever when he began moving party line customers to single private lines in the early 1960s.
“This lady called him up and told him he had ruined — just ruined — everybody’s social life,” said Burnet native Jim Luther Jr., James’ son. “Party lines were where everybody got their information back then.”
That sense of community still thrives in Burnet, despite the loss of phone operators plugging and unplugging connections from their posts on the second floor of the historic Badger Building on the courthouse square.
Now the Precinct 2 commissioner for Burnet County, Luther can see the Badger Building from the eastside courthouse lawn. He recently inspected the new Texas Historical Commission plaque affixed to its limestone facade.
“It mentions the telephone company right there,” he said, touching the raised metal lettering. “This is the first time I’m reading this.”
The building now houses Wedding Oak Winery, a newcomer to the square.
As a small child in the 1960s, Luther spent a lot of time on the second floor of the building at 229 S. Pierce St., where his dad often dropped him off for the operators to babysit.
“Every time somebody would get a new line, they would cut the screen out a little bit bigger to run the line through the window,” Luther said. “That hole just grew bigger and bigger.”
So did Luther Sr.’s company, which he purchased in 1954 with business partner J.D. McDuff. The pair soon owned telephone businesses in Killeen, Copperas Cove, Crockett, Fort Hood, and other small communities. It grew so big that the company acquired a Douglas DC-3 plane similar to the military version C-47 Skytrain for transportation.
“We lived out near the Hill Country Fellowship church,” said Luther, referring to the church on Burnet’s southside near the municipal airport. “Dad built that house. I grew up in there. When Dad would come in, they would buzz the house with those twin engines — they were loud — and that’s how we knew we had to go out and pick Dad up.”
Luther’s father, known as “Big Jim” Luther, died in 2018 at the age of 90, just six months after a series of interviews with the Burnet County Historical Commission. An entrepreneur who opened one of the first car lots in Burnet, the elder Luther and wife Sissy were both licensed pilots. He served on the Texas Aeronautics Commission and was instrumental in bringing Southwest Airlines to Dallas Love Field. He also helped establish Shepperd Memorial Hospital in Burnet, where Luther Jr. was born in 1963.
A 1982 graduate of Burnet High School, the younger Luther left town for college but came right back after receiving his degree from Tarleton State University in Stephenville.
“I got back home as soon as I could,” he said. “This is where I wanted to be. I have never wanted to live anywhere else. I’ve always loved Burnet County.”
Since his return, he has owned a feed store and a speciality advertising business. After years as a volunteer firefighter, he trained at the academy, and when then-Chief William DeLeon offered him a job, decided to take it. He was deputy chief when he retired as a firefighter, just before being elected to the Commissioners Court in 2016.
Growing up in Burnet, he recalls a community that lived life at a slower pace than today and where residents never felt the need to lock their doors.
“I remember when you could pull up at the intersection at (U.S.) 281 and (Texas) 29 — the only red light in town — and know somebody at one of the other three corners,” he said.
The place to meet and greet, whether young or old, was A&O Pharmacy on the square. That’s where kids would sometimes run into Sheriff Wallace Riddell, the longest-serving sheriff in Texas.
“If you ran in Wallace, he would take a quarter out of his pocket and lick it real good and stick it in the center of your forehead,” Luther said. “And that thing would stick! You got to keep the quarter when it fell off.”
A&O Pharmacy is long gone, as is Sheriff Riddell, but their impact on Burnet and the people who call it home lives on.
“Burnet County will always have its identity,” Luther said. “Forty years from now, somebody will be standing here telling someone else how good the good old days were, and they’re going to be talking about what it’s like right now.”