J. Ross Martin has long been involved in Conroe’s business, city government, and civic activities. In recognition of his promotion of the development of downtown Conroe and its arts district, the Greater Conroe Arts Alliance bestowed the Visionary Award on Martin on Aug. 2. Postcards Magazine recently caught up with him and his wife, the former Ruthie Polk, for a look back at some highlights of his life, reflections on Conroe, and insights about the startup and successful development of a restaurant-entertainment venue, The Red Brick Tavern, 119 Simonton St.
Yes, my family came here in the early 1900s. My uncle was the mayor of Conroe and county clerk, and my grandfather was the sheriff. My family has been pretty active in politics and stuff. My dad and former mayor Carl Barton owned a car dealership, called Standard Motors. It was a Dodge and Chrysler dealership.
I went to Conroe High School, TCU, and transferred to Sam Houston State University and graduated from there. I majored in government. I was going to go to law school, but I didn’t.
I was on the golf team here, and when I was younger, my goal in life was to make enough money where I could retire pretty early. I didn’t have Paris in my sights, or Australia, or someplace like that. What I had in my sights was the old Conroe Country Club, where I could go every day and play golf and gin rummy and drink beer. That’s not much ambition for a youngster. I was in my early forties thinking that. Life changes. You’re dealt some different hands.
I was a realtor and appraiser. I had a company. We had a building out west of town. That’s where I got hit by a car in 1997. In about 1999, I realized I wasn’t ever going to recover enough to get back into that, and I had lost some of my passion for it anyway. I sold out to my partner. Since then, I’ve been kind of retired.
JAY: I had known her for a while. My previous wife, Sherry, had passed away in 2002 from epilepsy.
RUTHIE: My sister had passed away at about the same time. We were both grieving. Our families had lived here all our lives, so it was hard not to know each other. We got married in 2006 in Key West, aboard the old Schooner Western Union.
Do you have children in Conroe?
JAY: I have a daughter, Leslie, in Austin. She has a coffeehouse and vegetarian café in South Austin.
RUTHIE: I have a son, Daren, who also lives in Austin.
I was elected to the Conroe City Council in 2002 and came out of office in 2010. My brother Guy was elected to the council in 2010. Being on the council gave me something to do, but man, when I came off the Council, I caught myself one day looking at the TV and I said, ‘You know what, here I am watching soap operas, and this is not going to happen. I’m not going to vegetate on this couch.’
JAY: This was an old domino hall.
RUTHIE: It goes back to 1931. R.A. Talley opened it in 1932.
JAY: Old men played dominoes here, spit on the floor. They didn’t allow women in here until 1986. It had no women’s bathroom, and the men’s bathroom had no roof. It was a rough place. When LBJ (Lyndon Johnson) was running for the Senate back in the 1940s, he stopped his train trip in Conroe—he was picked up and brought over here and they locked the door to do some political strategy. It was pretty famous back then. I always wondered how they got away with not allowing women in here. The first one that got in here was in 1986, and the Civil Rights Act passed in ‘64. Well, Mr. Talley figured since he never got a copy of that, as far as he was concerned, it didn’t exist.
No. My parents wouldn’t let me come in here. My mom, when she was growing up, women had to walk on the other side of the street. They weren’t allowed on this side of the street.
Mr. Talley passed away in 1982. Eventually, Rigby Owen bought the building; he donated it to the Crighton Players, a theater group. The Players closed down the domino hall and used it for storage. In the meantime, they had gotten a historical grant. You paid a real low interest for it, for like 10 years—after that, if you had complied with all the requirements of the grant, they tore up the loan. So what happened was, they were storing props in here, there was no business here, and that was one of the requirements. I was on the city council, and they sent me over here to talk to the Crighton Players, to tell them they had to do something or the state was going to call in the note.
They called me three weeks later. They said they wanted an outsider to buy it, and they wanted to sell it to me.
We opened on Sept. 8, 2013.
No, I have a business partner, Debbie Glenn.
We did research in Houston and The Woodlands, but mostly in Houston, in the Heights—a lot of foodie places—and places in Austin, anyplace that had a reputation for pushing the envelope with food. We came up with the idea we wanted to do something like that.
We were told by everybody, ‘First of all, nobody is going to come downtown to eat. Second, nobody from the Crighton is going to support this place. They’re not going to go into an old nasty domino hall to eat. Nobody goes downtown, and the food you serve is too weird for Conroe.’
We call it upscale comfort food. Not everything is something you’ve never had, but it’s the way we fix it that’s different. We have meat loaf. We have Shepherd’s Pie, but it’s a different kind of Shepherd’s Pie. We use lamb. We do fried oysters. So does every seafood restaurant in the country, but instead of using corn meal and deep frying them, we use Bisquick and bacon grease and fry them in an iron skillet so they have a bacon flavor to them. That’s why we call them bacon fried oysters.
Our chef is Steve Cook. Before joining us, he was with Amedeo’s Italian Restaurant in Kingwood. He’s a purist. We’re fortunate to have him. He’s not only a great chef with a great imagination, he’s also a home brewer. No one thought people in Conroe would drink craft beer. ‘Who’s going to drink it?’ they said. ‘They won’t even know how to pronounce it, much less drink it.’ I said, ‘Why does Conroe always have to be hillbilly Dogpatch, U.S.A?’ We’ve got twelve taps here. We never replace a tap or keg with the same kind of beer. It’s always new. Our beer is the primary source of income on the bar. These craft beer drinkers, it’s like they’re on a quest to find the perfect beer.
We have bands in here. We have mostly acoustic music songwriters. Some of these people on the wall here (points to photos of musicians, such as Vince Gill, Leroy Parnell, Merle Haggard, and many others) have played here because they were playing at the Crighton Theater. Ruthie, myself, and my partner are all members of Sounds of Texas Music Series.
On Monday nights, we have Blue Monday—it’s the old blues, not like Jimi Hendrix, but like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Delta blues men, Appalachian blues men; we play Leadbelly and all that stuff.
On the second Tuesday of every month, we have jazz night. The proceeds go to the Rotary Club’s water well program that builds wells for third-world countries.
On Fridays and Saturdays, at 10 p.m., the main kitchen closes and we tell customers, ‘This is now a listening room.’ We expect people to please pay attention to the artists. Leroy Parnell, a famous guitar player, called three or four months ago and said he wanted to play at the Red Brick Tavern because, ‘I like y’all, I like to play. I’d drive to Conroe just to eat the food, if chef is there.’ So he came here and played. We would not normally get someone like that, but we’ve promised to be a listener to artists.
We don’t use music here to sell alcohol; we have music because we like the music. If it’s music that I hear every day on the street, we don’t want it here. If its food I can eat anywhere in Conroe, I don’t want it here.
The Series is about 11 years old. I was president of the Friends of Conroe, the umbrella group for that series. It takes a non-profit agency, because these artists know the money is not going into my pocket or anybody else’s pocket—and that makes them more interested in playing. The Friends of Conroe started with the Catfish Festival, and then they took on this project, and both of them have been a real boost for the city. It’s amazing what’s happened with the Sounds of Texas. It’s more well-known probably nation-wide than it is in its own community.
I would love to be creative. I can’t paint, I can’t write, I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument, but those things just really push my buttons. I just love listening to talented people, if they’ve got something to say. They ought to mean something. But some of these songs—if I hear another version of “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” I think I’m going to the men’s room, and…
We’ve got another building down the street at 219 Simonton St. We may put a catering service in. We get calls all the time for catering. We’re getting close to coming up with a set of drawings we can live with.
I can’t sit still. I am old, I know that, and I make jokes about it, but I don’t want to feel old. I’m going to be 66 this month. I’m the kind of person that, if I had to slow down—well, I’d go under fairly quickly. If I’m going to live, I want to be doing something.
This is not the same Conroe. Years ago, we were a small town. The old Dogpatch, U.S.A. is gone. Conroe is going to grow, whether we like it or not. We only have two choices. It’s up to us to pick how we grow. I want people to know that I’m proud of the community.