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Blackwell Cactus Pear Burner

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In 1914, Bunyan Blackwell (pictured here with his son Loyd in 1918) produced the Blackwell Pear Burner, which singed the thorns off prickly pear cactus. In arid lands where prickly pear flourished and cattle feed could prove scarce, cactus burners became lifesavers to animals and ranchers alike.
With his invention of the Blackwell Pear Burner in 1914, John Bunyan Blackwell helped change prickly pear cactus from foe to friend. His hand-held burner singed the thorns from cactus, thereby making it edible by cattle when feed was scarce. According to Bunyan’s son Loyd of De Kalb, “Cattle love hot cactus as if it were a chocolate bar.”

Born in 1882 in Mississippi’s piney woods, Blackwell probably saw no prickly pear cactus until his family moved to Texas in 1889. By 1906, he was living in Moore, in the heart of Texas cactus-and-cattle country. In 1914, while working at his father’s cleaning and pressing shop in San Antonio, he produced the first Texas Pear Burner. Slow at first, sales picked up quickly as word of the new burner spread among Texas ranchers. (The state’s driest year on record—1917, with only 14.80 inches of rain on average—doubtless also helped sales.)

“The cattle soon learned that the roar of those burners meant food,” observed rancher Robert Kuykendall of Tilden in 1964. “They’d come running, so hungry they’d eat the cactus as hot as they could stand it.”

In the early days, the burners sold for $12.50, the same price as a cow, says Loyd, who worked for the family business for 31 years. Eventually, the Aeroil Company of New Jersey bought out the Blackwell Company. (Aeroil no longer makes the machines, but Reeves Roofing Equipment Company in Helotes makes propane weed burners and pear burners under the Reeves Company name.)

A man of many interests, Blackwell became an ordained Baptist minister at age 60. He established new churches and missions, wrote several books, and became co-chaplain of the Texas Trail Drivers Association. In 1954, he also started a small museum in Bigfoot to honor Bigfoot Wallace, the famous scout of Texas’ frontier days. The two men had met while living in South Texas. The Bigfoot Wallace Museum (see “Western Museums,” January 1995), whose building replicates the frontiersman’s last log cabin, displays some of Wallace’s personal possessions, as well as several of Blackwell’s early pear burners.

Since prickly pear cactus, a native of the Western Hemisphere, spread several centuries ago to many other countries, pear burners still prove useful not only in Texas but around the world.

Read 10191 times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06

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