Wolf Brand Chili, a Texas legend?
By Jeri Mills
Some of my early happy childhood memories occurred when my mother would put my brother and me in my father's truck with a brown bag of something to eat and a jar of iced water while we went on delivery trips with my father. One such trip was from Tyler to Corsicana where my daddy delivered a load of commercial goods to one of his "boss man's" store in Corsicana. Before making the drive back to Tyler, my Daddy decided to get "some good chili" he heard about in Corsicana. Well folks when I was a child you can bet we did not go and sit in a Texas restaurant. I recall my daddy parking his truck on a back street where we could see only back doors of stores. Later, he came back to the truck with a can of something thick, red and smelling so good. I think he also had a white can of crackers. We did not have plastic bowls or cups and I do not recall how the four of us ate this chili from a can. Like all African American mothers during this time, they were very resourceful when it came to traveling knowing the public facilities were not available to African Americans. From a back door, a few good white people would give African American travelers water if they had their own container. I later found out this was Wolf Brand Chili originating in Corsicana, Texas.
Research revealed the Chili Carne concept dates back to the Spanish as early as 1519 when they boiled tomatoes adding salt and peppers together with or without meat. During the early frontier or western life, a version of chili was processed by drying meat, peppers and tomatoes together resulting in dried brick of the former items to be pulled out and used adding water for a meal while on the trail. The Chili idea or concept was introduced officially in America during the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. In 1977 Chili became the official dish Of U.S. at the 65th Texas Legislature. We know chili cook-offs take place all over the states including Texas during the cooler seasons. Lyman T. Davis was 16 years old when he started selling chili from the back of a rickety old wagon in 1895. The aroma from this bubbling mixture actually stopped people on the streets of Corsicana causing them to willingly pay 5 cent a bowl for the "chili." Later he began to package the spicy meaty product in a "chili brick "form. By 1920, his success continued and he was able to put the chili mixture in cans with the first name after his pet wolf, "Kaiser Bill," later becoming Wolf Brand Chili as we know it today. By 1924, Davis sold his chili business to two friends Fred Slauson and J.C. West, who in turn sold many cans of the chili to the roughnecks in the oil fields. Davis left the chili business and went into the oil industry which flourished in Corsicana at the time.
Under the leadership of Slauson and West Wolf Brand chili experienced more success because it had a reputation for treating employees as family members allowing them to take daily showers, have clean uniforms, and when the day heat became unbearable, they switched to working the night shifts. What stands out to me personally is minority workers were generally treated as well as other workers, loaning them money for homes, cars and schooling. Wolf Brand Chili sponsored a team in the Negro Baseball League during the 30's! Read Brick Streets and Back Roads, a publication of Navarro Council of the Arts or more about Wolf Brand Chili.