The Texas History of Chili, Both Powdered and Canned

chiliby Steven Doyle

When it comes to modern home chili remedies we have a few people to thank. First there were the “powder men” from the mid 19th century, a term I believe chili maven Frank X Tolbert to have coined, and then there are the butchers who first canned and made brick chili at the dawn of the 20th century to sell to the chili loving consumer.

Tolbert devotes a chapter of his book “Bowl of Red” to the powder men, and waffles on who he thinks brought powdered and packaged chili to mankind. He first attributes William Gebhardt of New Braunfels, but paragraphs later he names DeWitt Pendery of Fort Worth. A little digging shows that both started grinding a powder chili mix in 1890, so it is easy to understand Tolbert’s quandry.   

chili pendery

Pendery’s Fort Worth business is still in operation 144 years later with an expanded catalog of mixes and peppers to kick up any home cook’s recipe for their very own bowl of red. Pendery came to Fort Worth by way of Cincinnati, Ohio via wagon and was given a Texas salute, which amounted to a shotgun blast to his hat. Pendery was a bit of a dandy and the local cowboys were not exactly tolerant of the citified look of Pendery. However, he took the blast in stride, picking up his silk stove pipe hat with nary a blink. That hat is still in the family, holes and all, proving Pendery’s cool demeanor which won the respect of the locals almost immediately.

In 1870 Pendery opened a grocery and catered to local flavors, supplying a variety of chile pods, and spices for both chili and tamales. In 1890 his stored burned to the ground so he decided to blend his own mix that included ground chiles, oregeno, parika, cumin, corriander, tamarind, an bay leaves. Pendery proved to be quite the marketer, selling the powder throughout the North and Midwest, boasting that his “chilimiline” was perfect for both chili and tamales, and had a certain amount of health benefits. Seems chili, as Pendery thought, improved the kidneys, skin and lymphatics. You can still buy that powder from Pendery which is located at  1407 8th Avenue in Fort Worth.

chili4

William Gebhardt also began his New Braunfels operations in 1890 using a grinding machine that is still on display today. Gebhardt used dried ancho chile pods, garlic, oregeno and cumin.  At first he called his chili powder “Tampico Dust”. In 1896 William Gebhardt opened a factory in San Antonio and was producing five cases of chili powder a week, which he sold from the back of his wagon as he drove through town. It was then he changed the name to Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand Chili Powder. He was also an inventor, and eventually patented thirty-seven machines for his factory.

It was about then he sold out to his brother-in-law. Although Gebhardt would market his brand as authentic Mexican flavor, it should be noted that our chili con carne is not something readily eaten in Mexico. Gebhardt is also a brand still known and available everywhere.

Perhaps one of the most prominent canned chili makers who actually does a reliable bowl is Wolf Brand. Lyman Davis started Wolf Brand in Corsicana and literally captured the planet with his recipe which was created in 1885. Davis used a recipe developed by a chuck wagon cook, and together they made giant pots of chili loaded in a wagon with an on-board charcoal  stove, selling to restaurants to serve to their customers.

wolf chili

In 1921 Davis began canning operations and hired a team of salesmen who would drive Model T Fords decorated with cans of the now famous Wold Brand. Some of the salesmen would have a caged wolf or coyote loaded in the car as well. These were colorful times for chili everywhere. One particular fan of the Wolf Brand was Will Rogers, who would always keep a case or two on hand to eat when he was not able to make his own or find a decent version in a cafe in whatever city he was in.

Brick chilis are still sold today, and are a by product of butchers with extra  scraps of meat. These bricks are formed from pots of chili, then frozen for convenient use. One of our favorite bricks come out of Fort Worth, the Texas Chili Company.

Chili continues to have a unique brand on Texas history, and is a true treat to find a beautifully made bowl of red.

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