The Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Texas Treasure Business Award (TTBA) stands out from most of the agency’s programs by honoring active establishments that are rooted in both the present and the past. Unlike more traditionally preserved historic things such as houses, forts, battlefields, artifacts, and documents, this program recognizes historic businesses while they are still in operation, treating them as living history that should be preserved for future generations.
The TTBA program was created in 2005 to recognize businesses that have stood the test of time and made exceptional historic contributions to communities across the state. To qualify, businesses must have been in continuous operation for at least 50 years. Many of them have been owned by a single family through the generations.
Last year, the TTBA received a necessary tune-up, as program staff implemented upgrades to make the process of nominating a business much smoother. The improvements also help collect comprehensive information, providing a meaningful glimpse into the labor involved with keeping a business in operation for half a century or more.
New questions on the nomination form ask, “How has the industry changed since you first opened?” “Does your building have a personality of its own?” and “How does your business reflect your community’s values?” The stories they tell are shared on social media, where the public can participate by adding their own memories alongside the owners’. It’s not uncommon for the locals to have a personal stake in the historic legacy of hometown businesses.
Another update: The program now accepts nominations four times a year to guarantee faster processing behind the scenes. In addition, TTBA staff engages more with agency partners. Since it can be difficult to source the necessary archival documentation that proves a business’ founding date, staff connects Texans with regional THC partners and community members who can help find missing information.
So, what prompted the TTBA program to get a tune-up in 2022? According to program coordinator Mallory Laurel, one of her first assignments upon joining the THC in 2021 was to interview several TTBA businesses to help promote them as travel destinations.
“Once I started looking into the program I realized its untapped potential, not just as a tourism initiative, but also as a community heritage project,” Laurel says. “Most people don’t think of businesses as figuring into capital-H History. But when they’ve witnessed the community change to the extent they have, and are records of that change, it’s hard to deny these businesses are indeed sites of historical significance.”
Laurel adds that, in many cases, these companies are testaments to sweeping changes across entire industries. Talking to the original owner or even the second- or third-generation owners presents a tremendous opportunity to preserve hyper-local history before it’s lost.
According to Laurel, the TTBA has seen an uptick in applications since last year’s changes, and she anticipates it will grow once the program’s profile increases and people adapt to the quarterly schedule. She notes that a recent success story has been a partnership with Texas Monthly and its Barbecue Editor Daniel Vaughn to honor around 40 of the oldest barbecue joints across the state. Program staff honored businesses last fall at Texas Monthly’s annual BBQ Fest in Lockhart.
Next up: finally recognizing dozens of historic taquerias and tortillerias across the state, a project that was kicked off last summer, when San Antonio-based THC Preservation Scholar Natividad Roman used a THC social media campaign to crowdsource nominations. She went on to research nearly 35 eligible businesses, including a beloved local tortilleria (see inset).
Laurel says it’s important for Texans to nominate and support these historic businesses because the appeal of the TTBA program is as emotional as it is practical.
“Can participation in this program help raise the profile of your community as a historic destination? Yes,” she says. “But the beating heart of this program is being able to say to these hard-working business owners, ‘Something you started is now part of the historical record. Your life’s work will always be remembered.’”
Laurel recalls that she spent a long time trying to find the right literary quote to capture the magic of a historic business for the program’s brochure. She finally came across one from The Wind in the Willows: “But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.”
She elaborates, “We often have to learn the hard way how important a place is to the community. We learned this lesson too many times during COVID when businesses were shuttered left and right, and all that remained was the sinking feeling that we had lost something more than a good or service. When we talk about the character of a place or a community’s identity, these businesses, the ones we grew up with, are what come to mind.”
In other words, these places are home.
“That’s why we should be doing everything we can to uplift these businesses, preserve their history, express our gratitude for their place in our lives, and keep them around for as long as we can!” Laurel says.
To learn more about the TTBA, visit thc.texas.gov/ttba.
A modified version of this article previously appeared in the summer 2022 issue of the Texas Historical Commission’s The Medallion.