Editor’s Note: This article about Columbus resident and entrepreneur Jerry Mikeska, written by Bob Lowe, was originally published in the Jan. 2, 2019 edition of The Citizen. Mikeska, nicknamed “Barbecue King of the Southwest,” passed away last week at the age of 96. The Citizen is rerunning Lowe’s feature story in Mikeska’s memory. MIkeska’s obituary can be found on page A2 of this issue of The Citizen.
Jerry Mikeska was one of nine children born on his family’s farm, a few miles outside of Taylor in 1923. He was the fifth child of six sons and three daughters. He and all of his siblings helped their parents farm cotton and corn and raise cattle.
They owned no tractors and used a plow pulled by a mule to work the fields and picked cotton by hand. Jerry and his brothers and sisters went to Taylor’s only school, and completed grades one through seven. After the seventh grade, at age 14, Jerry found a job at a meat market in Taylor.
Jerry managed to scrape up $50 to buy a used four-door Terraplane automobile to get back and forth to work. He began learning the skill he would use for the rest of his life.
His boss was pleased with his work as a butcher. One day while at work, Jerry watched a man come into the meat market who approached his boss and said, “I have a wife and 2 kids, and I desperately need a job. You should let that young boy go and hire me!” To Jerry’s surprise, his boss responded, “Sorry I can’t help you, I have no reason to fire the young man, he is a hard worker. Besides, I only pay him $1 a day and that would not support you and your family.”
By the time he was 19 in 1942, World War II had begun, and Jerry anticipated receiving a draft notice. He decided enlisting would give him a better chance to enter the U. S. Army Air Corps, so he went to Houston and enlisted.
He reported to Ellington Air Force Base, just outside of Houston. From there he was sent to Coffeeville, Kansas and assigned to the mess hall, working as a meat cutter, because of his experience as a butcher.
Soon, he volunteered to serve overseas. Working as a cook, Jerry was promoted to Mess Sergeant, feeding troops in Italy, France, and then Germany. In April of 1945, Germany surrendered.
Jerry awaited repatriation to the U.S. at one of the “Cigarette Camps” before embarking on a large transport ship that sailed to New York City. He returned to Texas, expecting orders to ship to the Pacific to participate in the invasion of Japan. Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August of 1945 and the war was over.
During the War, Jerry’s family had moved to Round Rock. After his discharge from the military, Jerry moved in with them, and got a job at a grocery store in nearby Georgetown. The owner of the grocery store had a fully equipped butcher shop, but was unable to buy meat because of rationing of meat during the War. He offered free rent and use of his equipment if Jerry would operate a meat market in his store.
He suggested that Jerry buy meat from his family’s farm. Soon, meat rationing ceased and Jerry’s meat market did well. A few years later the owner of the grocery store sold his business to a new owner and Jerry decided to move elsewhere.
He found an opportunity in Bastrop, and opened up a meat market there for several years. As he struggled to grow his business, Jerry watched for better locations. Finally, in 1958, Louis Voskamp, of Columbus, put his meat market up for sale, and Jerry decided that this was the location he was looking for.
His shop was located a block west of the Colorado County Courthouse, on Walnut Street, which was State Highway 90, and the main thoroughfare for traffic between Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Interstate 10 would not be constructed for another ten years. He built his own slaughterhouse on another piece of property he owned and purchased his beef at the local auction barn. Jerry’s thinking was correct and he built a growing business, selling meat, sausage, and his excellent barbeque. He also began catering events such as weddings and parties.
Jerry became very active in the local community and was an avid supporter of the Columbus High School FFA program. For 25 years, he purchased the Grand Champion Steer at the Columbus FFA’s annual Livestock Show and Auction.
The local chapter honored him by taking him to a National FFA convention in Kansas City, Kansas where he was presented a special award for his years of support.
Jerry was also an important part of Saint Anthony Catholic Church and always donated to their fund raising activities. Jerry was called on by local state and national representatives and senators to cater political and campaign functions.
On four occasions, he flew to Washington DC to serve his famous barbeque to U.S. Congressmen at functions put on by Texas politicians. During his visits, Jerry was given a grand tour of the U.S. Capitol building and even an invite to the White House during Texan George H. W. Bush’s presidency.
Once Interstate 10 was complete in 1968, highway traffic was diverted away from Highway 90 (Walnut Street in Columbus), and Jerry began to gradually feel the effects on his business. By 1986, he approached one of the local banks and borrowed the money to purchase an ideal location on Interstate 10, just east of Columbus, and build a new facility to house his restaurant, kitchen, and catering business. Once again, Jerry’s decision paid off and his business blossomed.
In October of 1986, Texas Monthly featured an article on “The Barbeque Brothers”. It told the story of Jerry and his brothers, all learning to cut meat back in Taylor during their youth. All six Mikeska brothers went on to open meat markets and then barbeque restaurants, drawing on cooking skills they acquired from their parents and during their military service. Each brother opened his own establishment in a small town that included Taylor, Smithville, El Campo, Bastrop, Temple, and Columbus. They became known statewide for catering large groups and frequently called on one another to help serve groups as large as 18,000 people!
In 2014, after 76 years of hard work, saving, reinvesting, community service, notoriety, and enjoyment, Jerry Mikeska sold his beloved business to his valued and loyal employee of 30 years, David Divin. However, David bought it with the stipulation that Jerry continue to appear at the restaurant, wearing his familiar white shirt and black bow tie, daily, as long as he is capable. When you stop in for some great Mikeska’s barbeque, chances are, Jerry will be there to greet you!