Uncle Bill, Mr. Braniff and the aviation bug

Topeka Capital Journal
July 10, 1987

Judge Roy Bulkley showed up at the Loafers lunch the other day wearing a new pair of suspenders. He said he’d gone to the Alco store in North Topeka to buy them, and they were such a bargain he bought two pairs.

The pair he had on were wide, and gaudy. But they were doing an admirable job of doing what they were designed to do, which is hold up his pants. He had such confidence in them, he wasn’t wearing a belt.

Still, some smart aleck at the table looked at them and asked, “if you bought two pairs, why are you wearing those?” He was implying, of course, that the other pair had to be better looking.

All this brought on a general discussion of suspenders, and some of the elderly in attendance recalled they once were called galluses. The dictionary says the word comes from gallows, and I suppose the idea there is that pants hang from the end of your suspenders.

Only a couple of us real experts, however, Remember that they also were known as braces. I qualify as an expert because my uncle, Bill Garthoeffner spent much of his life selling them.

He was a traveling salesman, and his line was Hickok, “belts, braces and garters.” Hickok was the Cadillac of the business, and its main competition came from an outfit called Pioneer. I grew up in awe of Hickok and hating Pioneer.

This was because my Uncle Bill was a great guy and gave me and my brothers a steady supply of sample belts when he was finished with them. We never were the best dressed kids in the neighborhood or in school, but I’ll guarantee you we were the best belted.

It was not unusual to see us in faded, patched jeans – which we called “overall pants” – wearing an alligator and a monogrammed belt buckle. Hickok featured only the finest cow hides and exotic skins, and the Snider boys were the envy of their peers when it came to keeping our pants up.

We never got into the braces and garters. We figured they were worn only by old men and sissies, but we never said that to Uncle Bill or our dad, who wore both.

Later in Uncle Bill’s career, Hickok started making leather coats, and they were of the same high quality as the belts. Due to the much higher cost, however, samples didn’t flow as freely as with the belts. I recall one he gave me, which I wore long after I had outgrown it. It was worth, at retail, at least twice as much as the rest of my wardrobe.

Uncle Bill was special in other ways, too, and one was flying. He learned to fly, bought a plane and took me and my brothers up dozens of times. He also gained renown as one of the nation’s first flying salesman, often covering his Hickok territory of parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri in his plane.

There was an airport two miles from our home in Britton, Okla., but it didn’t have a name until Wiley Post, an Okie, flew the “Winnie Mae” around the world in record time. From then on, it was Wiley Post Airport.

T.E. Braniff of Oklahoma City founded an airline to fly between Dallas and Chicago. The planes were Lockheed Vegas and Braniff serviced some of them at Wiley Post. From there, they would be flown down to the Oklahoma City airport to originate flights.

Because of this, some Braniff pilots lived in Britton and traded at Doc Snider’s drugstore. Uncle Bill and my dad knew them well, and my brothers and I idolized them from a distance.

One of them was Captain Melvin Sellmeyer, and one day, thanks to Uncle Bill, he took us for a ride in a Braniff Vega. Maybe that’s why, in later years, I flew Braniff by choice and never bad mouth the airline.

Some months later, Sellmeyer became even a bigger hero to us. When the Vega he was flying lost a wheel on takeoff, he managed to land it on one wheel without putting so much as a scratch on the passengers.

We didn’t know how seriously the flying bug had bitten Uncle Bill until one Sunday, we were all visiting the airport. He walked out of a hangar office with a parachute on and climbed into a Waco biplane with instructor Burl Tibbs.

He would go on from there to own nine airplanes, a Link trainer, and an airport of his own.

As soon as he learned to fly, he bought a 45 horsepower Velie Monocoupe. Before long, he was flying everybody around, including my mother. But he never got my dad in a plane.

The two of them would talk about it, and argue about it, and then have another homebrew. Usually, My dad would promise to take a ride “one of these days.” He died at 88 and never had been off the ground, with Uncle Bill or anybody else.

Uncle Bill really got into aviation. He got to know Wiley Post and Will Rogers and flew to New York with them once on a trip to promote commercial flying.

He bought a farm south of Oklahoma City and turned it into an airport, where he gave flying lessons and Link trainer instrument instruction. He was a World War One infantry veteran and during World War 2, when he was in his 50s, he volunteered to fly anti-submarine patrol over the Gulf of Mexico for the Civil Air Patrol. He did it in a single-engine plane far out over the water. Because of him, One of my brothers was a career naval aviator, and I have had more than a passing interest in flying all my life.

Uncle Bill died last year when he was 89. The last few times I saw him, his only complaint was that he couldn’t fly anymore.

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