With only a quarter to his name, Hilmer Schmidt, or Smitty to those who knew him, sold his first watermelon when he was 15 years old and trying to make it on his own in New Orleans. By the time he died May 26, he’d founded a successful full-line produce wholesaler, Northside Banana Co., and made a name for himself in horse racing.
He was 85, and had been ill for a few months, said Craig Butler, general manager of the Houston-based company.
Butler said Schmidt, who lived in Brenham, Texas, still came into the office about once a month, and called him every day up until the last couple weeks of his life.
According to an article written in 1966 for This is Horse Racing, Schmidt left school after fifth grade to help on his family’s cotton farm. He found himself in New Orleans after riding with his older brother, a truck driver, on a haul. His brother had met his fiancé on a leg of the trip, so Schmidt had the option of giving up his seat and riding in the back of the truck back to their Texas home, or to stay in New Orleans.
The story goes that Schmidt took the 25 cents his brother left him with and went straight to a local fruit stand. Although he was hungry, he purchased a 15-cent watermelon and set off to sell it. He spent the day going back and forth from the market, selling 15-cent watermelons for 25 cents door-to-door, and ended up with $3.75 by the end of the day.
At the last house he visited the first day, the homeowner offered Schmidt room and board if he would take on her son as a business partner. With the help of her son’s bike, Schmidt and his new partner spent the summer growing their watermelon distribution business, according to the article.
When Schmidt’s brother returned for him, Schmidt took his lessons in produce back to Texas. After serving in the U.S. Navy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Schmidt stayed in the city he was deployed in, San Francisco, and took business classes in the evenings while working odd jobs during the day, according to the article.
Schmidt headed back to Texas in 1958 and founded what is now Northside Banana Co.
“It’s really one of those rags to riches stories you have to admire,” Butler said.
Butler said Northside Banana Co. has a strong reputation today because of the way Schmidt wanted his company run.
“Everything was a handshake deal. He was very trustworthy,” Butler said. “We were taught how integrity worked in the business, and he really instituted that in me.”
Schmidt's other passion was horse racing, and he spent 26 years in Florida owning and operating horse breeding and racing businesses.
Schmidt’s wife, Faye, died in July 2009. He is survived by four children, Alan Schmidt, Norman Schmidt, Sue Polwort and Darla Henson. A memorial service is scheduled June 2 at Memorial Oaks Funeral Home in Brenham, Texas.