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REMEMBER WHEN: Memories of McGill’s in Bertram

A.B. McGill & Co. General Mercantile

A.B. McGill & Co. General Mercantile in Bertram closed its doors in 1993. An antique store operated out of the space until 1997. McGill’s is believed to be the longest-operating mercantile in Texas history. Courtesy photo

More than 116 years of history crumbled to the ground March 22 when a 75-mph straight-line wind laid waste to the building that once housed A.B. McGill & Company General Merchants in Bertram. 

Although the building has been empty since 1997, it filled the hearts of many longtime locals with fond memories of buying wedding china, church shoes, party dresses, washing machines, groceries, and  caskets in the place where they also banked. 

“It was an amazing store inside,” said Burnet County Heritage Society member Judy Lively. “The bank was the most memorable part to me. It had a teller window with a marble top and iron bars. I remember that more than anything.” 

Rubble from old McGill building in Bertram
Maynard Construction Services of Burnet knocked down the remains of the A.B. McGill & Co. building on March 23, sorting and carting off debris. A recovered time capsule and a stone sign might become part of an exhibit at the Bertram Public Library. Photo by Mark Stracke

A day after hurricane-force winds scattered rock from McGill’s outer walls across Texas 29, bulldozers were called in to finish the job. Maynard Construction Services hauled away the rock, but not before residents could grab pieces as mementos.

“That was too much for me,” said Jim Carlile when asked if he went to the site after the building fell. “It was too sad to see it all in pieces. I was devastated.” 

Carlile spent much of his life working at McGills. He and his younger brother, Phil, now in California, lived with owners Bob and Ada Reed Brewer through their high school and college years. The brothers stayed with the Brewers after their parents moved from the area for work. Jim was 16, Phil, 15, and they wanted to finish high school in Bertram.

Judy and Jim Carlile
Judy and Jim Carlile look over old newspaper clippings as they reminisce about Jim’s years working for A.B. McGill & Co. General Merchants in Bertram. After years in Bertram, the couple recently moved to Burnet to be closer to the golf course, where Jim can be found on most sunny days. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Jim Carlile continued to work weekends at the store while in college and even when he and his wife, Judy, and their three kids lived in San Antonio. He moved back to help Bob with the store full time when Ada Reed died in 1991. He and Judy now live in Burnet near a golf course where he plays almost daily. The Brewers were family, he said; the store part of his DNA. 

“I can remember the McGill smell,” Carlile said. “It reminds me of a leather shop but not quite the same. You could smell the wood, the oil on the wood, the sawdust we used to soak up the oil.” 

Each section of the store had its own large tarp fitted to cover the displays and keep the dust at bay. The main cash register, a behemoth with keys in monetary denominations rather than single numbers, had a stack of drawers underneath: one for each employee to use exclusively. Display tables also had drawers under them for even more merchandise. 

“They never threw anything away,” Carlile said. “They just put it in a drawer. You never knew when someone would need just that thing.” 

Old newspaper clipping about McGill's in Bertram
A newspaper print of a photo of Jim Carlile (left) and Bob Brewer on the floor of A.B. McGill & Co. in Bertram during a going-out-of-business sale in 1993. Carlile is leaning on the bank teller window. The photo ran in the Austin American-Statesman.

Carlile’s fondest memories involve “just being with Bob and Ada Reed,” a couple whose name is still spoken today as one word. Similarly, Ada Reed Brewer is never referred to as just Ada or Mrs. Brewer. She is Ada Reed, a community supporter who still has an impact today, 30 years after her death. 

Ada Reed McGill Brewer’s grandfather Archibald Brown McGill began working at the store for $100 a month when it was T.S. Reed and Son. Reed moved it to Bertram from South Gabriel when the Austin and Northwestern Railroad bypassed the town in 1882. 

The original building was made from the stone of South Gabriel’s school building, carted from one town to the other. That building served as Reed’s store until son D.C. Reed had a new, bigger building constructed next door in 1905. The original building was also destroyed by the March 22 storm. It housed Bertram Blend & Boutique, a combination coffee shop and clothing store that was still in business.

The McGill building at 130 Texas 29 West stood a total of 116 years, serving in retail for 111 of those years, making it the oldest mercantile in Texas. 

McGill bought the store from Reed in 1912, and while they were no longer partners in business, they were still brothers-in-law, having married sisters Clara (A.B.) and Laura (T.S.) Moses. Ada Reed’s middle name — Reed — melded the two mercantile giants into a dynasty that continued until the store closed in 1993. 

A.B. ran McGill’s until his death in 1934. Wife Clara then took over, and daughter Ada Reed stepped in full time in 1939. When Clara died in 1949, Bob and Ada Reed became the final owners and operators. 

“Ada Reed was the store,” said Lynda Reed French (no relation), a lifelong Bertram resident. “She was always good at assisting us. We bought our cloth there for our 4-H projects, and she would help us pick out shoes and gloves and hats because we had to model our projects. She would even loan us stuff for modeling. And she always loved to know how we did, how we placed. She was always interested in everything.” 

Handkerchief and bag from McGill's in Bertram
Lynda Reed French has kept this white handkerchief with the price tag still on it, as well as a faded pink shopping bag, since she purchased it at McGill & Co. in Bertram sometime in the late 1960s or 1970s. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

French still treasures a faded pink paper bag with a black sticker that has the words “A.B. McGill & Co. YOUR FASHION ADVISOR” printed on it in white letters. Inside, she keeps a linen handkerchief she bought at McGill’s for $3. The price tag is still attached. 

“That’s from the late ’60s probably, maybe the early ’70s,” she said. “This pink used to be really bright, but it’s faded over the years.” 

Memories of the store have not faded, however, and are as cherished as French’s white linen hankie. 

Mary Bruce Allen, another lifelong Bertram resident, worked at McGill’s off and on for 22 years starting when she was 15. 

“It was something very unusual for a town this size to have a store of that caliber,” she said. “They carried Cybis porcelain and Lalique crystal. We had a lot of customers come just for that. They had some unique, limited pieces.” 

People came from all around to shop at McGill’s, said Allen, who now works as a teacher’s aide at Bertram Elementary School. She recalls a store stocked with just about anything you could buy, which made inventory each January a little overwhelming. 

Allen was heartbroken when she saw the building in a heap. 

“That’s a landmark; it’s always been there,” she said. “But it was 

also sad to see it sit there empty.”

Although devastated by the storm’s damage, Carlile grieves as much over the demise of the business. 

“It was just such an institution,” he said. “I hated to see it go. It was everything to the community.” 

The building housed an antique store until 1997 and sat empty ever since. Before it fell, it was listed for sale on several real estate sites for $1.5 million. 

For Carlile, the importance of the store goes beyond anything it had for sale within its walls or the value of the land beneath its cornerstone. He called the McGills “very generous people,” remembering how they often helped the community during times of need. They bought the town’s Christmas tree every year and helped bridge budget gaps at the fire department, just to name a couple of their contributions.

Burnet County Heritage Society members
Burnet County Heritage Society members Joy Taylor (left), Judy Lively, and Lynda Reed French recently met at Fort Croghan in Burnet to rehash memories of shopping at A.B. McGill & Company General Merchants in Bertram. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

They also put together a time capsule at some point in the store’s history. It was uncovered in the rubble. The capsule, a 500-pound cornerstone, and a sign with Reed’s name engraved on it will most likely go to the Bertram Library, said Lori Ringstaff, president of the Bertram Chamber of Commerce. She stressed that plans for where specific artifacts could end up have just begun.

“The time capsule was opened, but it hasn’t been gone through,” Ringstaff said. “There are some papers and other things, but we didn’t want to touch anything until someone can come and do it properly.”

The library will probably be the repository for most of the artifacts, she said.

“We want it to be somewhere where everyone can see it and have it be part of the town,” she continued.

For both Allen and Carlile, a library exhibit would be a fitting tribute to the couple who helped build the town and had such a positive influence on its residents.

“I learned a lot from those two people,” Allen said. “When I started there, I was a little shy, and it kind of brought me out of that. I think I have a good work ethic, and they taught me that. They were just really good people.” 

“Bob and Ada Reed, they made me and my brother,” Carlile said. “They gave us lots of guidance, helped us make the right decisions in life. It’s an honor to be part of that little bit of history.” 

suzanne@thepicayune.com