Come gather ’round Liberty Hill’s Table of Knowledge
By MIKE SCHOEFFEL
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and Bob Seals, 80, is hanging out at the Mercantile Feed Store on RR 3405, seated at the Table of Knowledge, cracking wise with four of his quick-witted cronies.
On the fridge over his shoulder is a picture of an elk, and another of a longhorn with a rack curving downward, taken by one of the men seated near him at The Table. Coffee gurgles and brews in the background.
Brown-smudged ceramic mugs dangle from the walls, along with other historical knick-knacks, and one sign in particular that Seals can’t help but point out.
“We’ve got a sign hanging up there that says ‘Hunters, fishermen, and all other liars gather here,’” he says with a grin. “There’s a lot of truth in that.”
Mercantile Feed opened in 2000, mainly because co-owner Rusty Childers, who wears a gray beard and loose denim overalls (on this day, at least), was looking for a tax write-off. He debated buying a new pickup to serve the same purpose, but after thinking it over, decided he wanted to build something. So he got busy erecting the structure that would eventually house his new business, Mercantile Feed.
But when his work was complete, he had an empty building and no idea what to put in it. With Liberty Hill being a rural town, Childers figured a feed store might be a good fit. So as the world turned a fresh page to a new millennium, Mercantile Feed opened its doors to the public for the first time.
As Childers recalled, it was a low-risk endeavor.
“If I didn’t sell any feed, so what?” he said. “I wasn’t paying rent, so there was no overhead. But over the years, it just kept growing and growing, and these guys started showing up, and here we are, 15 years later, doing pretty well.”
Except for Childers, everyone seated at the table on this particular Saturday — Seals, John Bruce, Lloyd Luker, and Bob Pool — started as customers. There are other regulars, too — Harvey Chaudoin, Billy Pearson, Larry Lacey, and Tom Nash — but they were working on Saturday, or tending to other weekend obligations.
The store’s evolution into a social hub has unfolded organically. Guys would come in to buy feed, and after a while they’d start drinking a cup of coffee or two, hanging out, shooting the bull. Soon enough, a group of regulars was gathering at the shop on a daily basis, and not long after that, friendships began forming.
Today, seated in a circle around The Table of Knowledge, telling fibs and sharing one story after another.
“These guys come here and drink my coffee and lie to me,” laughs Childers. “It was a word-of-mouth thing. I’ve never advertised. We’re a little feed store in the country. I try to let it be what it is.”
What it is now, of course, is encapsulated by what is happening here today: a group of wizened ole’ Texans, sipping coffee and giving each other a hard time, riffing on football and history and the weather and everything under the Texas sun, all in the name of good old fashioned camaraderie and friendship.
“I came here to get an education,” says John Bruce, a bespectacled, bearded fellow in a green and navy plaid shirt. “I’ve certainly gotten a heck of an education.”
Bruce is the only man at the table with a northern accent. He hails from Eastern Washington State, where he was employed as a construction worker and a law enforcement officer. Since retiring, he’s become what he calls a “full-time RV-er,” and spending much of his time in Texas visiting his son, who lives in Austin.
Bob Pool, who never misses an opportunity to rag on one of his buddies, won’t let Bruce live down his northern roots.
“He’s a Yankee, but we don’t hold that against him,” he jokes. “Okay, maybe we hold it against him a little bit, but he can’t help it.”
“I’ve been putting up with that for four years now,” retorts Bruce. “And for some reason, I still hang around here.”
In addition to being the lone Northerner at the table, Bruce is also a skilled woodworker and an avid nature photographer. Those pictures on the fridge, the elk and the longhorn? They’re his. One of his beloved wooden carvings is laying at the center of the Table of Knowledge. It’s an intricate, highly-detailed piece of artwork depicting a deer, a regal-looking bird, and a rustic landscape in the background. All-in-all, a fine piece of craftsmanship. Though it’s good enough to sell, Bruce doesn’t profit from his work. Instead, he gifts his completed projects to friends and family.
As Bruce picks up the wooden carving from the table, Childers looks at his buddies and smiles. Then he stands up and sneaks back between the shelves filled with feed and other farm products.
Lloyd Luker, seated to Bruce’s left, speaks up. Luker retired from the University of Texas print shop in 1996, and has lived in Liberty Hill longer than anyone else at The Table.
His claim to fame (or at least one of them) is the Ruby Cake he brings in for the guys every Tuesday. It’s an old recipe he pulled from a family cookbook that dates back to the 1800s.
So where did it get its name?
Says Luker: “The woman who first made it, her name was Ruby. She was a distant relative.”
Wearing a camouflage baseball cap and a button-up long-sleeve denim shirt, he grips a Styrofoam cup and reminisces about the many changes he’s witnessed in this town over the past half-century.
When he moved to Liberty Hill in January 1948 — 56 years ago — Route 29 ran through the heart of downtown.
“Can you imagine that?” he asks, shaking his head.“(State Highway) 29 going through downtown Liberty Hill?”
There have been other changes, too. He remembers when the high school complex had, as he puts it, “outdoor potties”, and the varsity basketball team played on a dirt-covered outdoor court. There were only 16 kids in his graduating class. He recalls the days when a Model A Ford cost $8-$15 and those years in the mid-20th Century when he could drive a truck to little league baseball games as a 12-year old without so much as a double take from law enforcement.
He also recollects one fateful day in the ‘40s when the temperature descended to quite un-Texas-like lows.
“On Jan. 30, 1949, it was zero degrees,” he said. “We had the White Death. It was a record, as far as I know.”
Childers returns from between the shelves with a black-and-white picture in hand. In the foreground are two women, perhaps in their 20s, wearing white cowboy hats and standing in downtown Liberty Hill of yesteryear.
“This picture was taken in January of 1953. Most of these buildings are still there,” he says, pointing to the print. “That was the original grocery store until it burnt down. There’s the Church of Christ sign, that’s still down there. There were three grocery stores, too, right Lloyd?”
“Yep,” replies Luker, and names all three without hesitation.
“And they had a cotton gin over there,” continues Childers. “Couple of those, wasn’t there, Lloyd?”
“Yep. A bank and a college, too. And an old drug store. You could go in there anytime and get a malt or whatever else you wanted.”
Childers looks up as if pondering something.
“January 1953,” he says whimsically. “That’s when I was conceived. I was born in October of ‘53, so some sparks must have been flying right around the time this picture was taken.”
“And now you see the results,” he adds with a smile.
“Must have been one bad fire,” Lloyd retorts. The Table erupts with laughter.
It’s around this time that Pool returns inside the store from the parking lot with some pressing news: “There’s a rabbit stuck in the grill of a low-rider out there,” he announces.
“Should we light a fire and cook it?” quips Luker, without hesitation. The Table cackles in unison.
Directly across The Table from Luker is Bob Seals, the football guru of the group. He’s pulling for the Broncos on Super Bowl Sunday, but admits the Panthers pose a stiff test.
He started coming to Mercantile Feed about eight years ago to buy supplies for his son, who owns livestock in Liberty Hill. Seals was retired and looking for a job to pass the time, so he mentioned to Childers that he was interested in helping out around the store. Childers accepted the offer. Nowadays, Seals looks after the place when Childers isn’t around — Childers has even dubbed him “the boss.”
“I hang out, drink coffee. Every once and a while I’ll sell some feed,” says Seals. “One day, Rusty’s going to start paying me.”
Seals admits he knew very little about feed when he started working at Mercantile. But he was knowledgeable about retail, having been employed at Firestone for a number of years. As he says, he was lucky enough to meet a group of guys who could teach him the finer details of feed products, so he could do the job to the best of his ability.
That’s partially how The Table of Knowledge came to earn its name — if Seals had a question, he could have a seat and ask about anything that was giving him trouble.
“It’s like this,” says Pool. “If you have an electrical problem, you can sit down here at The Table of Knowledge, drink a few cups of coffee, and learn how to fix it.”
“Granted, you may end up getting electrocuted,” he added. “But you’ll certainly learn how to fix the problem.”
There’s also a social aspect to The Table’s informal “educational process.” That becomes apparent from spending an afternoon here, listening to the guys bicker and banter like old military buddies. It’s about learning all you can about your fellow man: what makes him tick, how to make him laugh. It’s about discovering how to live a fulfilling life in the company of others. How to make friends, and how to be a friend, too.
And if you think this group of guys is only here to fool around, you’re wrong. They’re quite handy, really.
“We’ve got a saying around here for the ladies,” says Childers. “If something goes wrong at the house and your husband’s out of pocket, call the feed store. There’s always a husband down here somewhere.”
“I have fixed water lines, replaced light bulbs in well houses during the winter time, caught livestock,” he says. “There’s always a husband here, that’s the truth.”
The guys say they perform all necessary handiwork out of a sense of community service, no compensation needed. Although Pool admits to having “gotten banana pudding for my services” in the past.
Pool, feeling a bit devious, looks over at Seals. “Say Bob,” he asks, “how many Super Bowls has Tom Brady won?”
“Four, I believe.”
“And how many did Terry Bradshaw win?”
“I believe he has three or four as well.”
“And he could always beat Dallas,” chimes Luker, bringing the Styrofoam cup to his mouth.
“Old Bradshaw. He was a heck of a quarterback,” says Pool.
Bob Seals leans forward. “I remember the Houston Oilers were playing the Steelers in the AFC championship back in the ‘70s,” says Seals. “Houston had a wide receiver that if you got the ball within five yards of him, he’d catch it. He caught the ball in the back of the end zone right at the end of the game, both feet were in bounds. But the referee called him…”
“Bob, look! A squirrel!” Pool interjects. “See, you have to break his train of thought. He could talk about football for hours.”
Pool sets his cup of coffee down on The Table.
“I give him a hard time, but how many 80-year olds do you know that can still load a 50-pound bag of feed into the bed of a truck?” Pool said.
“Not too many, that’s for sure,” says Bruce.
As the conversation winds down and the guys disperse — Luker and Bruce chatting in a pair, Childers rummaging through the shelves, Seals helping a customer with a purchase — a thought comes to mind about something Childers said earlier in the day, a quote that accurately summates the Mercantile Feed experience, and why this group of witty men gather here nearly every day, under the gaze of Bruce’s elk and the watchful eye of coffee mugs past.
It went something like this.
“Have you heard the saying ‘two old men in a fishing boat?’ That’s what you’ve got here. We give each other heck, but if you cross one of us, you’ve got the whole group to deal with.”
“We’re pretty tight knit, and that’s just the way we like it.”