Galveston’s Kettle House: Legacy and Landmark

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Anyone who’s driven west down the length of Galveston’s Termini-San Luis Pass Road (FM 3005) has no doubt marveled at what most Galvestonians refer to as the Kettle House. A fixture on the island for roughly 50 years, the bowl-shaped steel structure with the lid-like roof has weathered everything from Hurricane Ike to legions of gawkers (both of the well-meaning and shady varieties). In fact, the steel beast has become an unofficial landmark that has delighted entire generations of islanders and travelers.

However, with few people seen coming or going from the property and its obvious vacant appearance, a cloak of whimsical mystery blankets the iconic structure. Nobody seems to know who built it or, more specifically, why. Was it intended to be a vacation home or storage building, or was it a real-estate boondoggle? Do people still — or did they ever — live in the structure? And for heaven’s sake, what does it look like on the inside?

Fueled by legends and creative imaginations, fanciful tales surrounding the property have sprung up like mosquitoes after a spring storm. Some say the building floated to the island via a mysterious unmanned barge. Others claim a farmer recycled an old silo top to craft a vacation home. Still others say it’s alien space junk. But somehow, over the years, nobody has completely pulled back that cloak — until now.

In a recent interview, Mary Etheridge-Rachels, the current owner who also had a hand in building the Kettle House, set the record straight about its origin, purpose, and current condition. Plus, she shed some light on the unassuming, hard-working man who brought this one-of-a-kind structure to life — and inadvertently set us all atingle on our drive down the 3005.

Skill, Hard Work, and Happenstance

According to Etheridge-Rachels, the Kettle House was built by her father, Clayton E. Stokley, in the late 1960s. Born in Alabama in the early 1920s, Stokley served in the U.S. Army during WWII and received the Silver Star, Gold Star, and Purple Heart medals during his service. After he returned from the war, he worked as a welder in Alabama’s shipyards. Ultimately, he married, and he and his wife Patsy Lou relocated to Pasadena, TX, where he began work at Todd Shipyards Corp. of Houston. While he honed his already above-average welding skills, Patsy Lou was busy at home with their three boys and one girl, i.e., Mary Nell Stokley (aka Mary Etheridge-Rachels).

Soon, however, a job opportunity arose at Graver Tank & Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Pasadena, and Stokley jumped at the chance to shift his welding skills into another arena and work a bit closer to his wife and kids. Graver Tank manufactures massive steel tanks that are often used for oil storage, and at the time, the firm just so happened to offer employees a special deal on steel; specifically, workers could buy steel products at cost.

Now keep in mind, Stokley wasn’t your average nine-to-five Joe. This fellow had ambition — and according to his daughter, a keen sense of humor and killer work ethic. “My dad was my idol,” Etheridge-Rachels says. “He always believed in helping people around him, and he taught us kids about the value of honesty. He also loved to tell jokes, but he’d die laughing before he could get to the punch line. And of course, Dad was a hard worker. He loved to fish but hardly got the chance because he was always working, and he eventually became the shop foreman at Graver.”

Being named shop foreman is no easy feat, but Stokley didn’t stop there. He found a clever way to put Graver’s employee discount to use. “My dad took various steel tanks and tank parts from Graver and created stores out of them throughout the Houston area,” Etheridge-Rachels says. “He ended up with three different ‘tank’ businesses: a convenience and liquor store on Navigation Street, a convenience store on Harrisburg, and a nightclub off 45 and highway 646.”

Not surprisingly, then, around the late ‘60s this welder-slash-entrepreneur set his sights on another store, this time located on land at 1410 Miramar Drive in Galveston. And it just so happened that right about the time he had this island-based inkling, a very unusual structure became available at Graver Tank. “Graver had created a massive sphere for a client made out of three-eighths-inch steel,” Etheridge-Rachels says. “However, the deal fell through, and Graver was left with this giant, hollow, steel ball. So my dad bought it and decided he’d build a convenience and liquor store on the island.” And, as they say, the rest is history.

Not Quite Kettled In

So contrary to popular folklore, the Kettle House wasn’t shipped in on a barge, it didn’t wash up on shore, and it wasn’t dropped from a UFO. “We broke it down into parts and shipped the whole thing to Galveston on an 18 wheeler,” Etheridge-Rachels says. “Then my dad and everyone he could find — myself, my brothers, my mom, our uncles, our cousins, distant relatives, and friends — went down there on the weekends to construct the building ourselves.”

Over several months, the unlikely construction crew completed the exterior, which at the time looked almost as it does today, albeit for a bit of rust courtesy of the sand and sea. Since the structure was supposed to be a drive-up convenience and liquor store, Stokley laid out a mostly functional floor plan for the interior. It was to have a ground-floor entry and an open floor plan for the store. However, he also envisioned a spiral staircase in the middle of the space leading to a second floor, which would house living quarters for the store manager. It was a perfect, practical setup.

Unfortunately, however, Stokley’s plans never came to full fruition. Shortly after construction of the exterior shell was completed and the bare bones of the interior were installed — including little more than the spiral staircase and second-level floor and supports — Stokley suffered a stroke. While he survived the experience and ultimately passed in 2005, the stroke left him unable to complete the project and left the interior unfinished. While the family was “all in” with Stokley’s initial dream, the project just wasn’t the same without him involved. So after the stroke, instead of moving forward with the interior work, the family decided to simply maintain the exterior and perhaps finish the second story at a later date.

As it always does, time marched on, and Mother Nature took her toll on the Kettle House roof. “I don’t remember exactly when, but the original roof rusted and caved in at some point, so we replaced it with a traditional, yet oddly shaped, composite roof,” Etheridge-Rachels says. This repair, then, also set in motion a bit of work inside as well. “While we redid the roof, we installed the windows and the French door on the second level to increase ventilation, and we finally sectioned off the upper level for a small living quarters. While not finished by any means, it has a living room and small kitchenette. We also added a tub, sink, and lavatory upstairs, and there’s an air conditioner and small water heater. I planned to build an outside deck and stairs leading up to the second-floor French doors, but we haven’t gotten around to that.”

Despite the fairly recent improvements, Etheridge-Rachels has never truly tested her work. That is, no one has ever lived in the Kettle House. “We always saw the place as more of a project than somewhere to live or vacation,” she says. “One year I let some friends stay in it for the biker rally. But those are the only people that have ever stayed in it overnight.”

One might ask: “How could you not finish this monument? Over all these years, surely time and money would have become available.” As it turns out, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as Etheridge-Rachels has a serious work ethic, just like her father. In addition to raising two children, she spent 19 years working for NASA. “I recently retired, but I used to work at Ellington Field where I bought aircraft parts for NASA.”

Aside from being busy, however, her heart just wasn’t in it. Shortly after her father passed and willed her the Kettle House, Etheridge-Rachels’ husband was diagnosed with cancer. Not surprisingly, the diagnosis immediately put any construction plans on hold. Sadly, Etheridge-Rachels’ husband passed away in 2016 after a 12-year fight with myeloma.

So what’s the current condition of the Kettle House (which should probably be named the Kettle Store given its true purpose), and what’s in its future? Etheridge-Rachels periodically checks on the property to ensure its safety, which is real concern. “I was just down there recently because someone broke into the place and spray-painted parts of the inside,” she says. “I boarded it up so nobody could get in again.” In fact, given the vandalism and the maintenance, it might be time for the Kettle House to change hands. Etheridge-Rachels says people hoping to buy the property have contacted her over the years, but it never seemed like the right time. “Now, I think I’m ready, and I have a buyer,” she says.

As of early August 2017, however, Etheridge-Rachels still owns the structure — which is not only a piece of her father’s legacy but also a Galveston treasure. But even if the Kettle House changes hands, the legacy will likely live on, for according to Etheridge-Rachels the structure’s not going anywhere anytime soon. “It’s a giant steel bowl that’s going to be there for years to come,” she says. “The only things that’ll ever alter it are salt air and time.”

Linda Armstrong is a senior writer and awards manager for EXHIBITOR magazine, a how-to print and on-line publication for trade show exhibit and event managers. Currently residing in a suburb of Dallas, she, her husband, and two fur kids regularly frequent their Galveston vacation property, passing by the Kettle House multiple times during each stay. Contact: lindaarmstrong111@gmail.com.

The author assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of the statements made by the source, as relayed via interview on Aug. 7, 2017. No portions of this blog or its entity may be reproduced without the written, expressed consent of the author, Linda Armstrong.

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