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Food & Drink

The Man Who Invented Chili Powder

DeWitt Clinton Pendery came to Fort Worth with a carpetbag and a dream. Almost 150 years later, his family continues to sell chili blends and spices.
By |
Elizabeth Lavin

The family behind the oldest family-owned and -operated business in Texas never really wanted outsiders to know: DeWitt Clinton Pendery was a true carpetbagger. In 1870, he packed up some samples from the family spice and tea business in Cincinnati and hopped on a stagecoach to seek his fortune. After surviving the teeth-rattling, 1,000-mile journey, he disembarked in Fort Worth looking downright dapper, sporting a waxed handlebar mustache and long frock coat. It didn’t take long for a Cowtown cowboy to bid the Yankee welcome by taking a potshot through the top of his silk stovepipe hat. According to family lore, he didn’t flinch. And so, Pendery’s World of Chiles & Spices was born.

The family further claims that DeWitt invented chili powder, the now ubiquitous blend of ground chile pods and spices used to season chili, which may very well be true. It was certainly invented in Texas. Chili historian Joe Cooper credits William Gebhardt, a German immigrant, with first pulverizing dried chiles in a meat grinder in New Braunfels in 1896. But Fort Worth was electrified more than a decade earlier, and so, probably thanks to a mechanized chile chopper, DeWitt was already marketing a chili blend called Chiltomaline in local newspapers by 1890.

“He was selling it up and down the Wells Fargo stagecoach line,” says great-great-grandson Clint Haggerty, who has been the general manager of Pendery’s since 1999. “They had a little flyer, equivalent to a mail-order catalog just like we have now, and they had these little wooden cases. They would have glass bottles of chili blend in it.”

Clint’s grandfather, also named Clint, was born at home in Fort Worth, a couple of blocks away from the store across from the Wells Fargo stagecoach line. He ended up marrying a girl from Dallas. She wanted to stay close to her family, so the couple moved into a house in Highland Park, and Clinton C. Pendery commuted to work for the rest of his life. Clint remembers his grandfather’s well-tanned left arm from driving the whole way—pre-air conditioning and pre-highway—with the windows rolled down.

Clint’s mom, Mary Haggerty, née Pendery, was the first woman to get into the family business, along with her husband, Pat. For investment purposes, the family bought a building on Manufacturing Street in Dallas. When the business outgrew the Fort Worth shop, they moved the warehouse to the Design District location to handle blending, packaging, and shipping.

The company’s consistent focus on quality over quantity is what sets it apart from bulk brands like McCormick, Clint says. “We use natural spices, not synthetic oils and extracts. Whether it is the wholesale customers or the retail customers, we try to have a great product and keep the customer happy.”

Even though wholesale has become the majority of the business, Clint plans to open a second retail location on the side of the Design District building this summer, where customers can come and shop from a wide selection of coffees, teas, spices, herbs, and blends.

He hopes to continue the business into its sixth generation. “I don’t have any kids,” Clint says, “so maybe one of my nieces or nephews will eventually take over.”

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