Burnham Brothers Sporting Goods put Marble Falls on the world map in the 1950s and ’60s with a booming international business in predator calls and a storefront window full of live rattlesnakes. Siblings Rhonda Burnham Lange and Bill Burnham grew up in the business, taking care of the snakes, catching minnows to sell for bait, and doing any other “dirty jobs” their dad and uncle found for them.
“We always got the dirtiest jobs, but they were usually the most fun,” said Bill, who especially liked seining for minnows, though he could have done without cleaning the four minnow tanks every week.
The store opened in 1959 on the strength of its popular coyote call. It was located on H Street across the road from Blue Bonnet Cafe and next door to where Brown’s Cleaners used to be (now Double Horn Brewing Company).
“Our grandfather J. Morton Burnham discovered that coyotes would come to the sound of a rabbit in distress,” Rhonda said. “Winston and Murry developed it and made plastic mouth calls with a rubber band in the middle. It sounds just like a wounded rabbit.”
Rhonda and Bill’s father, Winston, and his brother Murry developed a four-piece call with a reed that could be mass produced. From there, the business took off, first as a mail-order company out of their homes.
When they moved into the store, the display window was set up to look like a campsite. Soon, they added a bull snake, but the 8-foot-long reptile kept escaping.
“It didn’t matter what we put him in, he could get out,” Rhonda said.
Not to be deterred, the brothers came back from a Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater one day with 100 rattlers they caught. They chose the meanest ones for the new window display.
“The meaner ones were more active,” Rhonda explained. “They would strike at the window. People really enjoyed watching them. They had only seen them in the wild.”
Bill and Rhonda learned to respect, rather than fear, the snakes, treating them with caution. Bill remembers the most excitement in the window happened when they added an alligator to the mix.
“It all went pretty smoothly until a snake bit the alligator in the eye,” Bill said. “The snake didn’t survive that. The alligator just chomped him. Alligators are truly fast when they want to be.”
For a short time, the Burnhams kept a box on the front counter labeled “Baby Rattler.” Inside was a tightly wound rubber band with a paper clip on it. When you opened the lid, it released the rubber band, causing the clip to strike the sides and sound like a rattler.
“We had a couple of people who got really frightened,” Bill said. “We had to stop doing that, but it was so fun when you saw people’s faces when they opened that box.”
Only one family member did not take to the snakes: their mother, Elizabeth “Tina” Burnham.
“She hated rattlesnakes, just hated them,” Rhonda said. “She would never look in that window. If she had to walk past it, she would pull her hat down or put her hand up so she wouldn’t have to see in there. That’s the only thing I can think of that she was ever negative about.”
Well known and respected around town in her own right, Tina was the first Head Start nurse for the Marble Falls Independent School District. During World War II, she served as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. She attended pharmacist school at Columbia University in New York to become a pharmacist first class SPAR. She later went to nursing school.
While everyone in town knew Tina, the hunting world was fascinated with Winston and Murry. In 1961, Hollywood star Roy Rogers asked the brothers to come out to Los Angeles to help him get rid of a coyote plaguing his ranch.
“I don’t know about Bill, but I was ecstatic,” said Rhonda, who was about 10 years old at the time. “Dad brought me back (a toy) Trigger and Roy Rogers on a horse.”
“I was too small to know about it,” Bill said.
As Bill grew, he related more to the famous hunters drawn to his father and uncle’s expertise.
“They knew everybody,” he said, naming Fred Bear, whose videos of hunting polar bears with a bow were popular at the time, and safari hunter Wally Taber, also known for his TV hunting shows, which were filmed in Africa.
Working together, the Burnham brothers were instrumental in getting several hunting laws on the books in Texas. They worked closely with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to establish an archery-only season for white-tailed deer. They also helped change a law prohibiting the sale of any part of a white-tailed deer. The brothers needed to buy antlers to make a hunting lure that could call up bucks.
“Once that law changed, we bought 2,000 antlers from someone and cut them up to make rattlers,” Bill said.
“We cut off the tips and put a string between them,” Rhonda chimed in. “They sold like hot cakes. We all helped make them.”
The Burnham family’s role in Texas history predates the predator calls that made them — and Marble Falls — famous in the mid-20th century. Rhonda and Bill’s fifth great-grandfather Captain Jesse Burnam (spelled without the “h”) rode into Texas as part of Stephen F. Austin’s original 300 settlers in 1821.
He established Burnam’s Crossing, a trading post and ferry on the Colorado River in what is now Fayette County. A historical marker at the site of the ferry tells of when Sam Houston and his army crossed to escape Santa Anna’s forces. Houston ordered Burnam to burn the ferry and station, which included his home and store. Burnam complied.
Burnam moved to Burnet County in 1855, where he raised sheep and grew wheat. More than 100 years later, the Burnham brothers established their successful joint business, which they eventually split between themselves. Murry built a two-story warehouse for his half — the mail-order business — near the intersection of U.S. 281 and RR 1431 where Broadway Showroom is now. Winston kept the retail store and the snakes.
Rhonda now lives with her husband in Harper, 20 miles west of Fredericksburg, though she visits Marble Falls often. Bill lives on a ranch in Round Mountain about 10 miles south of town.
Gary Roberson of Menard bought Burnham Brothers in 1991. He moved the entire enterprise to Menard, where it remains the oldest game-calling business in the world, sans snakes.