If it weren’t for the Alamo, bluebonnets, longhorn steers, and Willie Nelson, I’ve no doubt the lowly, nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) would trundle to the top of the list of Texas icons.
It’s a strange one, this tank-like creature. Named for nine parallel scutes neatly tucked between somewhat larger hip and shoulder scutes, it’s the only armadillo species in North America. Whatever outsiders think of the creature, it’s been granted status as the official small mammal of Texas, and everyone from dry cleaning establishments to bars seems eager to cash in on its popularity.
Austin’s beloved and just slightly weird Armadillo World Headquarters may be gone, but Gary P. Nunn still brings a tear to the eye of displaced Texans everywhere with his plaintive longing to be “Home with the Armadillo,” and more school districts than you might imagine have adopted the animal as a mascot.
Still, drivers on Texas highways sometimes suspect the only armadillos left in the state are dead ones. Most armadillo sightings involve unfortunate creatures who’ve met calamitous ends. You see them everywhere — tipped onto their backs with feet splayed heavenward, tumbled into ditches, or smeared across the concrete.
One reason they’re so often killed along highways is their strange ‘startle reflex.’ They’ll sometimes turn and run when they sense danger, but just as often they’ll use their powerful muscles to launch themselves straight up into the air.
Animal predators find the unexpected behavior so surprising they stop in their tracks, giving the armadillo a chance to scuttle off to safety. Unfortunately, jumping into the air in front of an F-150 isn’t so effective, and another armadillo bites the dust.
They’re better at crossing rivers. Burrowers by nature, they’ve developed an ability to hold their breath for minutes at a time while face-deep in dirt. Confronted by a stream, an armadillo simply takes a deep breath and walks across the bottom. If a river’s too wide for the creature to ford by walking, it fills its intestines with air and starts swimming, having become its own personal flotation device.
Away from the highways, finding a live armadillo is easier than you’d think. Their preference for a diet of ants, beetles, grubs, and spiders means they gravitate toward gardens and lawns, and they’re fond of roaming wooded areas filled with moisture and decay.
Armadillo stalking can be great fun. Their hearing and sense of smell are highly developed, but their eyesight is poor. If you happen upon one browsing for dinner and remain very, very quiet, you can walk up to it from behind, reach down, and grab it at the base of its tail.
What’s next is up to you. Catch-and-release is the best option, although some people have taken it home for dinner. During the Great Depression, East Texans frequently ate the creatures, calling them ‘Hoover hogs’ — a reference to the President they blamed for the Depression and a nod to the armadillo’s pork-like flavor.
Over the years, armadillo chili gained favor. At Apelt’s Armadillo farm in Comfort, Texas, you could have armadillo barbeque, sold from this little stone building at the side of the road.
Charles Apelt, a German immigrant who came to this country in the late 1800s, didn’t begin by cooking armadillo. Instead, his background in wicker furniture-making and basketry, combined with an unexpected new-world experience, launched a unique and remarkable Texas business.
One day, while walking about his farm, a strange little animal sprang up and began to hop away. Mr. Apelt picked up a stone and with excellent aim hit the animal’s head. Otherwise, the plated armor would have turned the missile aside, like the armor on a battleship.
When he gathered up his game he surveyed it with wonder. When he went out to tack that hide to the barn in some sort of fashion, the hot sun had dried it until it began to curl up. He picked it up and instinctively he said, “Basket.” Then he fastened the end of the tail to the head and made a handle… As it dried he shaped it with his hand, and lo, the first armadillo shell basket that the world ever knew became a reality.
Charles Apelt on the steps of his showroom at the Armadillo Farm
After perfecting a way to preserve the hides, Apelt opened his factory in 1898 and sold 40,000 baskets in the first six years. Plain baskets cost $2.50, while fancier versions sold for $4 and up.
Human creativity being what it is, the Apelts soon began innovating. Customers could purchase fringed or unfringed floor lamps, table lamps, bed lamps and wall fixtures – all made from armadillo shells. As production peaked in the 1920s, fifty hunters were employed to supply the critters, and at least a cook or two was hired to turn all that meat into barbeque.
As demand for their novelty grew, the Apelts supplemented the supply of armadillos provided by hunters by actually “farming” the creatures in an elaborate series of concrete burrows and tunnels built into their front yard. Not all became baskets — many were sold to zoos, medical research facilities and private individuals seeking an unusual pet.
The family owned the business for seven decades. After Charles’s death, his second wife Martha took it over until her death. Daughter Ruth Dowdy assumed control in 1947 and moved the operation to Salado, Texas, but it returned to Comfort in 1951.
At that point, Apelt’s daughter-in law Kathryn took over, continuing the traditions of the farm and producing the same baskets and shades that had made it famous, shipping them to shops and individual customers world-wide.
This vintage advertising card shows a display of Apelt products on one side, and a snippet of explanatory text on the other:
Published by Chas. Apelt, Wholesale and Retail dealer in Original Armadillo Baskets, Colored Souvenir Postals, Comfort, Texas.
Its shell or armor is fashioned into pretty and novel baskets, suitable for cut flowers and hanging baskets. The shells are also lined on the inside with bright colored silk, making very beautiful work baskets for the use of the ladies.
Sybil Sutherland of Kerrville remembers her aunt, Vida Lowrance, working for the Apelts.
She would line the armadillo baskets with bright colored satin, the kind of colors you don’t usually see anywhere else. Lots of kids around here would go out and catch armadillos and sell them for a quarter apiece to the farm, and put them in tow sacks. They caught them by the thousands! I went out with them sometimes, too, with a boy named Paul Harbin. Even though he used a crutch, he was usually ahead of us all.”
Clyde Beaver remembers being one of the kids who hunted them, and the need for finesse.
You had to be careful not to pull them too hard by the tail, or you’d yank it off,” he said. “If they got down into a hole, you’d have to just pull on them gently, and get them out little by little.
Just as an aside, it’s worth noting that, had the Apelt Family started their business in the Pleistocene era, they might have been able to expand their offerings even farther.
The Gylptodon, one of the biggest ancient armadillos and an ancestor of our Texas cutie, originated in South America before moving northward, perhaps as far as Texas. Like the nine-banded armadillo, it was well-armored, with a dome-shaped body, a helmet-like head, and bony rings around its tail.
Glyptodons survived well into early historical times, going extinct about 10,000 years ago, Huge and slow-moving, they probably were hunted to extinction by early humans, who no doubt favored them not only for food but also for shelter. Evidence exists that early South American natives sheltered from snow and rain under Glyptodon shells — shells roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
Today, cottage industries based on nine-banded armadillos have become extinct as the Glyptodon, and the Apelts’ Armadillo Farm is due for more changes. Several owners have held the property since the business closed in 1971, but thanks to antique dealer Harriet Gorman of Comfort, Texas, and her late husband Bill, the house and its outbuildings were brought back to life.
The old Armadillo Display Room (where Charles Apelt is shown sitting, above) became a three-room cottage: serving as a home for Harriet during two years of the restoration process.
The newest addition to the property, a Texas State Historical Marker, was sponsored by Walter Apelt, Charles’ grandson. Conveniently placed for inspection by the antiquers and vacationers who frequent the area, it provides a brief introduction to the complex and interesting story.
Tonight, the glyptodons are gone. The hunters with their dogs have disappeared into the darkness; the basket-shapers and lamp-makers, seamstresses and cooks have faded into the hills.
With the restoration of the house completed, passers-by who notice the sign stop for photographs, and ponder what they cannot understand. In the little stone house by the road, barbeque has been replaced by memories of Hill Country life — the pungent, smoky taste of meat exchanged for the taste of another time.
Amid these implacable changes, the armadillo still roams. Burrowing in peace along the moonlit banks of the Guadalupe, foraging amidst the sweet, bending grasses, rooting up bits of history embedded into the banks of its ancestors’ creeks, it murmurs to itself as it passes.
Perhaps it remembers. Perhaps not. Disappearing into the damp, moonlight-soaked earth, it leaves behind only the faintest tracing of life along the trails of the night — the whisper of the armadillo.
Comments are welcome.
For my encounter with an actual armadillo, see “There’s No Place Like Home” on Lagniappe.