Memories of New Braunfels

Growing up as a child in Houston, my family would spend summer vacations in New Braunfels, one of the old German communities nestled on the edge of the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio. Blessed with artesian springs and the cool waters of the Comal and Guadalupe Rivers, the town became a tourist destination in the early 20th century and advertised itself as “The Beauty Spot of Texas.”

My parents began going to New Braunfels around WWII and they first stayed at Camp Giesecke, an old tourist camp situated on the horseshoe bend of the Comal River.  The camp had small cabins that were more like screened-in porches built on stilts with no air conditioning.  The iceman would deliver a block of ice to each cabin in the morning and place it in the icebox.

Camp Warnecke, across the street, was another of those old-time river camps; its main attraction was the Warnecke Rapids on the Comal.

So my parents introduced us to New Braunfels on our family vacations and we thought it was the most wonderful place in the world, and for kids, it probably was. We looked forward to that trip all year. I can remember leaving Houston early in the morning (to avoid the heat) and heading west on U.S. 90, with great anticipation of stopping in Schulenburg for breakfast at Bob Adamcik’s Café or Frank’s Restaurant.

In the 1960s, when I have the most memories of New Braunfels, our family stayed at the Stockade Cedar Lodges on the tiny Comal River. It was a great place for kids because of the large swimming pool. The weather was always hot, but the broiling sun didn’t matter to us because we were in the pool or the river all day.

The Stockade featured air-cooled cabins using a water cooler contraption that sat in one of the windows and kept the rooms cool and comfortable. Each cabin had a kitchenette but no telephone or television. But who needed TV, computers or video games?

The grounds of Camp Landa, a more modern resort facility, adjoined the Stockade and sometimes our group of kids would go there to try out their swimming pool.

My mother would prepare a light breakfast and lunch in our cabin because there weren’t many restaurants in those days, and certainly no fast food chains. But I do recall going to eat dinner at Krause’s, which featured German food, and Ol’ Bossy, an iconic ice cream store run by the Ol’ Bossy Dairy and Creamery.

Ol’ Bossy

Ol’ Bossy, which was downtown, had an old-fashioned soda fountain and grill, and it seems to me they made the best hamburgers, malted milks and ice cream I’ve ever tasted. It was a true New Braunfels landmark and very popular with tourists and local residents. The juke box would be blaring out the latest tunes from Jan and Dean, Jimmy Clanton, Connie Francis, the Chiffons, the Beach Boys, and of course, the Beatles.

Downtown New Braunfels was compact and orderly, but very active. The castle-like Comal County Courthouse overlooked the picturesque town square with its bandshell, statues, and shade trees.

Landa Park was the big attraction for picnics and swimming in the spring-fed pool; the water was icy cold. Some evenings the family would ride up River Road to see the Guadalupe River.

Many times other families we knew from Houston would be at the camp, and one of the parents would pack us into the station wagon and take us to spend the day at Aquarena Springs in nearby San Marcos. Sometimes the kids would go to see a movie—most likely a Walt Disney film– at the classic, neon-lit Brauntex movie theater (downtown by the passenger train station) or play miniature golf at the park.

New Braunfels was loaded with character, charm and small-town appeal.

Unfortunately, that New Braunfels has disappeared forever. Today, the town seems way overcrowded … a minitropolis booming with tourism, commercial growth and traffic.  It is disturbing to see double-length buses bumper-to-bumper hauling sun-burned tourists clinging to their inner tubes from spot to spot along the overburdened Comal River. It is even more distressing to hear news reports of drunken college students tubing the rapids and thoughtlessly discarding their trash and beer bottles on the once-pristine river bank or in residents’ yards.

Comal County Courthouse

The courthouse still stands tall and majestic, but New Braunfels is practically a suburb of San Antonio, and a busy eight-lane interstate freeway cuts through the town connecting San Antonio and Austin. The usual franchise restaurants cluster at the freeway exits.

Ol’ Bossy is no longer in business—probably too old-fashioned for modern tastes. The Stockade Cedar Lodges and Camp Landa are long gone and the property is now a part of Schlitterbahn, a huge water park.  Camp Warnecke’s buildings are still there, but they are also part of the water park.

I suppose growth is good for the New Braunfels economy but sad for those of us who have nostalgic memories of this special place.  Let’s hope the current residents appreciate and protect the town’s unique heritage.

New Braunfels, thanks for the memories!

NOTE: New Braunfels was founded in 1845 as one of the original German settlements in Texas. Thousands of German immigrants arrived at Galveston and moved over land to the area, and by 1850 it was the fourth largest town in Texas and the seat of Comal County. Agriculture and the mills were the main industries, but today it is a popular tourist destination. The Comal County Courthouse, built in 1898 in the classic Romanesque Revival style, has been enlarged over the years but maintains the same front and overall architectural style. The historic Brauntex Theater is now a performing arts center.

New Braunfels and the Comal County Courthouse were featured in the PBS television documentary, “The Golden Age of Texas Courthouses,” produced by Sunset Productions in association with Texas Foundation for the Arts.

James Bailey is a Houston-based writer and director of documentaries focusing on Texas history and Texana. He is a member of the Harris County Historical Commission, the Rice Historical Society, the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, and the Texas Foundation for the Arts. He is a native of Houston and a graduate of Baylor University.

Texas Courthouses – Wharton County Courthouse

Texas has 254 counties and each county has a seat of government and a county courthouse.  Many counties have historical courthouses that date back to the 1880s.  In fact, Texas has one of the most remarkable collections of Victorian buildings in the U.S.  Only a few years they were considered endangered landmarks, and some were even demolished to make way for modern buildings.  Over the last ten to fifteen years, many Texas counties have restored their historic courthouses.  One interesting example is Wharton County.

In 1889, Wharton, a small farming community an hour’s drive south of Houston, hired Houston architect Eugene T. Heiner to design a brand new county courthouse.   It was built in a classic Victorian design and overlooked the Wharton countryside and the Colorado River.   The design was a combination of two popular Victorian styles — the Second Empire style and the Italianate style.  It was a three-story masonry building with limestone trimmings that was surrounded with a mansard roof and a central clock tower.

But by the 1930s Wharton County officials considered the courthouse to be old-fashioned and they wanted a larger, more modern-looking courthouse.  So they removed the large clock tower, the mansard roofs, and the brick façade, and redesigned the building in the more fashionable art deco look.  Wings were added to the building which totally changed the original design.   The brick and limestone walls were covered in stucco to represent the very clean lines of simplicity associated with the art deco.

Sadly, the once-beautiful Wharton County Courthouse had been left unrecognizable from its original design. Famous playwright Horton Foote, who grew up in Wharton, was very upset the courthouse had been changed and he referred to it as the Sulphur Block because it was painted yellow.

In the late 1990s there was talk of demolishing the old building and erecting a brand new courthouse.  But local preservationists quickly organized and looked for a way to save the historic structure.   They considered the courthouse to be the heart and soul of Wharton County.

Architect David Bucek commented, “When we found out that there was a Victorian building under the art deco building we began to think what would happen if we restored the courthouse to its original look.  We thought restoring it would help the county because it would change the perception of Wharton.  People would identify with the courthouse in their county.”

Restoring the 1889 Wharton County Courthouse became an emotionally charged issue among county residents.  While the preservationists wanted to save the building, other residents thought it should be demolished and replaced with a new modern-looking structure.  Many people thought it couldn’t be done – removing the art deco exterior and restoring the Victorian design.

Finally, the preservationists won the argument, and after four years of planning and fundraising, the tedious task of restoring the historic Wharton County Courthouse began.  The courthouse would be fully restored to its Victorian grandeur.

In order to give the courthouse its original Victorian look, the wings that had been added to the building in the 1930s would have been to be completely removed as well as the art deco stucco facade.  Restoring the building also meant the roof would have to be rebuilt and a new clock tower put on top.

One of the greatest challenges of the restoration was that no blueprints could be found and the building had been altered with drastic changes from the original look.

After the 1930s additions to the building were demolished, the stucco on the exterior walls was removed and replaced with brick and masonry.  The interior of the courthouse was also gutted to be completely renovated and updated.  Gradually, the look of the building began to change and county residents took notice of the restoration.

Finally in August of 2005, Wharton residents gathered on the courthouse square to watch as the massive clock tower was lifted to the top of the building.  Rebuilding the clock tower on the courthouse has created an enormous sense of pride with Wharton residents and has given a new look to the downtown.

The new clock tower is an exact replica of the original, except it was fabricated in Kentucky and trucked down to Wharton.  The courthouse bell had been saved by the First Baptist Church where it stayed until it was returned to the county.

Wharton resident Jeffrey Blair said, “It’s like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon because it was covered up.  No one had any concept of what it was like.”

Today, the restoration of the historic 1889 Wharton County Courthouse is complete and Wharton residents are thrilled with the way the building now looks.  The restored courthouse seems to speak to the people of Wharton and reminds them of their county’s heritage.

These county courthouses, large and small, are symbols of Texas history and represent the vision and dreams of the people who built this state.  So when traveling by car across Texas, why not venture off the interstate to visit one of this beautifully restored county courthouse?    Spend some time on the courthouse square and reflect on life in Texas in a different era.

(The Wharton County Courthouse is featured in the PBS television documentary, “The Golden Age of Texas Courthouses,” produced by Sunset Productions in association with Texas Foundation for the Arts.)

History of Shamrock Hotel Houston

One of the most colorful events in Houston history was the grand opening of the famous Shamrock Hotel in 1949 on St. Patrick’s Day.

The hotel was built on fifteen landscaped acres at the intersection of Main Street and Holcombe Boulevard by Houston oilman Glenn McCarthy, a wildcatter who personified in many ways what some people still think of Texans to this day.

Approximately 50,000 people attended the grand opening, reputed to have been the wildest party in the city’s history. The rich and famous of Texas society all wanted to be there, and so did everyone else. Life Magazine called it “…the most dazzling exhibition of evening dresses and big names ever seen in Texas.”

Movie star Dorothy Lamour broadcast her national radio show from the hotel during the party. McCarthy wore dark glasses to hide a black eye reported to have been received in a fistfight at the train station when he went to meet the Hollywood celebrities arriving for the party.

One Houston resident recalled, “I still remember the Shamrock. It was fabulous in every way, perhaps overdone to some degree. The Emerald Room was the big ballroom, all decorated in emerald green as a tribute to McCarthy’s Irish ancestry. And there were many exciting events that took place there.”

Hotel guests and Houstonians flocked to the fancy retail shops and various restaurants, including the Cork Club, a nightclub that featured big-name entertainment.

The 18-story Shamrock had more than 1,100 guest rooms and poolside bungalows called lanais.

Its swimming pool was a 50-meter, Olympic-sized pool with three-meter and ten-meter diving platforms. It was big enough to accommodate a boat pulling water skiers when shows were held for the guests.

“The Shamrock was just a very glamorous place to be in Houston. It was unique; it was a place to be seen,” another Houstonian stated.

The hotel became so popular with the city’s social set that it was affectionately referred to as the “Houston Riviera.”  Everything in the hotel was a little extreme, but that was typical of Glenn McCarthy, who was known to be Edna Ferber’s prototype for Jett Rink in “Giant,” her novel that was later made into the classic movie.

In the mid-1950s Conrad Hilton acquired the property and renamed it the Shamrock Hilton.  Trader Vic’s, the popular restaurant opened at the hotel and caught the attention of Houstonians with its unusual Polynesian décor and food.

Some said the hotel was too big to be profitable and others thought it was too far from Houston’s central business district. It began to lose favor when newer, more modern hotels were built.  The once-glamorous Shamrock Hotel, which had become a symbol of Houston, fell on hard times in the 1980s. It was demolished in 1987 and replaced with a parking lot.

The story of the Shamrock Hotel is featured in the television documentary “In Search of Houston’s History,” produced by Sunset Productions in association with the Friends of the Texas room and the Houston Public Library.

Gonzales Played Early Role In Texas’ Fight For Independence

Founded 186 years ago, Gonzales is one of the earliest and most historic Anglo-American settlements in Texas and the first west of the Colorado River.  It was named for Rafael Gonzales, the governor of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas.  Tracing its beginning back to 1825, the town of Gonzales played an important role in Texas’ fight for independence from Mexico.

Because Gonzales was the site of the first gunshot of the Texas Revolution, it became known as the “Lexington of Texas.”  The story began in 1831 when the Mexican government gave a small cannon to the Gonzales settlers for protection against Indian attacks.  When hostilities broke out between the Texas settlers and the Mexican government, a contingent of Mexican soldiers was sent from San Antonio to retrieve the cannon. The Texans, however, were prepared and had created a flag with the words “Come and Take It” written on it.  They successfully resisted the Mexican troops in what became known as the “Battle of Gonzales.”

In 1836, Susanna Dickinson, the widow of one of the Alamo defenders, and Joe, the slave of  Colonel William B. Travis, fled to Gonzales with news of the massacre at the Alamo.  General Sam Houston was in Gonzales organizing the Texas army and anticipated the town would be the next target of the Mexican troops.  He had the town burned to the ground and ordered the Texans to retreat, in what became known the Runaway Scrape.

After Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, the town of Gonzales was rebuilt on the original site which is near the Guadalupe River.  It was designated the county seat of Gonzales County, and by 1850 had a population of 300 people.  The population of the town grew to 1,703 in the 1860s, and reached 4,297 in 1900.*  The town’s newspaper, The Gonzales Inquirer, was established in 1853, one of the first in Texas.

Just like other counties in Texas at the time, Gonzales wanted a grand, impressive courthouse that represented the wealth of the county.

Construction began in 1894 on the Gonzales County Courthouse, which is still standing.  It is the second building to serve as the county courthouse; the first one burned in1893. The three-story building– designed by prominent architect J. Riely Gordon in Romanesque Revival style–was built with red brick and white limestone trim.  Gordon also designed the Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio

The building has many architectural features such as cupolas, verandas, and arched entrances at the corners of the building.  The imposing clock tower overlooks all the other structures in the town.  The courthouse, which was the most important building in the county, was completed on April 8, 1896, at a cost of $64,450.

The courthouse went through a detailed historic restoration in 1997, and today it still serves the people of Gonzales County, standing majestically in the town square.  On the same square is the historic Gonzales jail, now a history museum.  The courthouse and the museum, as well as an authentic 1840s log house, are popular sites where heritage tourists visit.
Gonzales is located about seventy miles east of San Antonio; it maintains the same street pattern today, just as had originally been surveyed.  The 2010 population of the town is estimated to be 7,500.

*In comparison to other Texas cities in 1860– San Antonio had an estimated population of 8,235; Galveston, 7,307; Houston, 4,845; New Braunfels, 3,500; and Dallas, 2,000.

(The Gonzales County Courthouse was featured in a television documentary series, “The Golden Age of Texas Courthouses,” produced by Sunset Productions and Texas Foundation for the Arts, in association with HoustonPBS.)

LBJ National Historical Park – Austin

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, situated 50 miles (80 km) west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, looks after the home, birthplace, and ranch of Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States. The National Park is divided into 2 distinct visitor areas separated by a distance of nearly 14 miles (22 km). These visitor areas include the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall and the Park Headquarters in Johnson City. The Park Visitor Center, situated 60 miles (97 km) north of San Antonio, is managed by the State of Texas.

The LBJ Ranch, on the other hand, is managed by the National Park Service. The bus to the Ranch House can be boarded at the Visitor Center. The LBJ Ranch House was considered to be the Texas White House during Johnson’s Administration. The other sites preserved at the Ranch include the President’s birthplace, first school, and the Johnson Family Cemetery. The main highlights of the Park Headquarters in Johnson City include the National Park Visitor Center, the boyhood home of President Johnson, and his grandparent’s log cabin settlement, the Johnson Settlement.

The Park was designated as Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Site on December 2, 1969. It was later re-designated as a National Historical Park on December 28, 1980. At present, the Park encompasses an area of nearly 1,570 acres (6.36 sq. km.), of which 674 acres (2.73 sq. km.) are federal. The National Historical Park offers the visitors an imitable perspective into one of the most noteworthy citizens of America. A number of costumed or ranger-guided interpretive tours and self-guided tours of the Johnson Settlement are offered to the visitors as staffing permits seven days a week.

  • Visitor Center Hours: 8:45 AM – 5 PM daily. Park closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
  • Website: www.lbjlib.utexas.edu

The Alamo – San Antonio

The Alamo (San Antonio de Valero Mission), situated in San Antonio, Texas, is the first in a chain of missions established along the San Antonio River. The mission was endorsed by the viceroy of New Spain in 1516 and was finally established in 1518 by Fray Antonio de Olivares. After the mission was abandoned, The Alamo was converted into a fortress compound by the Spanish Empire in the 18th century in order to educate the local Native Americans after their conversion to Christianity. In the 19th century, this fortress was also the scene of several military actions, including the 1836 Battle of the Alamo between Mexico and the Republic of Texas. The church building was officially purchased from the Catholic Church and was given to the city of San Antonio in 1883. Since then, this building has been renovated a number of times, most notably for the Texas Centennial in 1936. The Alamo was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

At present, The Alamo is a well-frequented museum that attracts thousands of visitors every year. It features several permanent exhibits that illustrate its history and the history and culture of the other four missions in San Antonio. It also hosts a number of programs and annual events that give an opportunity to the visitors to understand and explore the history of the state. The Alamo is rich in culture and history, and is also well known for its architecture. It is a great learning experience and well-worth visiting.

  • Address: 300 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, TX 78205
  • Telephone: (210) 281-0710
  • Website: www.thealamo.org

Blanton Museum of Art – Austin

The Blanton Museum of Art, situated in Austin, Texas, is the art museum and research center of the University of Texas, under the College of Fine Arts. Founded in 1963, the Museum was formerly known as the University Art Museum and was later renamed the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, in 1980. On April 30, 2006, a new 155,000 square ft (14,400 square meters) facility was established by the Museum. Finally, the Museum was named as the Blanton Museum of Art in honor of its former chairman, Jack S. Blanton.

The art museum is dedicated to building the finest collections possible, being a center of excellence, knowledge, and learning, and serving as an important resource for teaching in a wide variety of disciplines. The Blanton serves as a gateway between the University, the city of Austin, and the State of Texas. Over the years, it has played an integral role in building an engaged and dynamic community of art lovers of all ages. The museum holds nearly 17,000 works from the United States, Europe, and Latin America. It is internationally acclaimed for its modern and contemporary American and Latin American Art, and European Old Master paintings.

It also provides extraordinary, personal experiences to the visitors, helping them to connect art and ideas. Besides, the Blanton Museum of Art also features an encyclopedic collection of drawings and paintings. The major historical landmark nearby is the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. The Museum Complex offers breathtaking views of the University to the north and the State Capitol to the South. This art museum is the largest university art museum in the country and is well-worth visiting.

  • Address: 200 East MLK, Austin, Texas 78701
  • Main Telephone (recorded message): (512) 471-7324
  • Front Desk: (512) 471-5482
  • Tours: (512) 471-5025
  • Hours: Tues – Fri, 10 AM – 5 PM (third Thurs of each month till 9 PM), Sat, 11 AM – 5 PM; Sun, 1 – 5 PM; closed Mondays.
  • Website: www.blantonmuseum.org

Bayou Bend – Houston

Bayou Bend, situated in Houston, Texas, is one of the most important museums of American decorative and fine arts in the country. It was designed by a renowned architect John F. Staub and was constructed in 1928 for Miss Ima Hogg and her brothers, Michael Hogg and William C. This magnificent house features 28 room settings, including elegant parlors, a grand reception hall, stylish bedrooms, and a fashionable dining room. In addition, over 14 acres (5 hectares) of breathtaking woodland and formal gardens encircle this elegant pink stucco home.

Bayou Bend is an amazing legacy of a remarkable woman and has been wonderfully restored. It is situated on Buffalo Bayou and is just five miles (8 km) from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Miss Hogg donated her home and her fabulous collection to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1957. It was in 1966 that this cultural treasure of Houston finally opened to the public. At present, this house-turned-museum is well known for an extraordinary collection of American decorative arts. This collection comprises of over 5000 objects, including paintings, ceramics, textiles, glass, silver, furniture, and works on paper. The main highlights of this unique collection include outstanding paintings by John Singleton Copley and Charles Wilson Peale, exceptional furniture of John Townsend and John Henry Belter, and stunning pieces of silver by Paul Revere and John Coney. All the exhibits depict the inspiring artistry of early America, from 1620 through 1870.

Bayou Bend is certified as a Texas Historical landmark and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Museum also offers several Family Days programs that provide a variety of fun activities for both children and adults. Besides, several teacher workshops, summer camps, student tours, and student tours are also hosted by the museum. Bayou Bend has an unmatched collection and is certainly not worth missing.

  • Address: 1 Westcott Street, Houston, TX 77007
  • Hours: Tues – Fri, 10 – 11:30 AM & 1 – 2:45 PM; Sat, 10 – 11:15 AM (90-minute tours offered every 15 minutes)

Dallas Museum of Art

The Dallas Museum of Art, situated in the Arts District of downtown Dallas, Texas, was established in 1903 as the Dallas Art Association. The Association’s collection was initially exhibited in the Dallas Public Library and was later shifted to the Free Public Art Gallery of Dallas, Fair Park in 1909. It was in 1984 that the Museum was relocated to its current location and was given its current name. Located along the Woodall Rodgers Freeway between Harwood and St. Paul, the Dallas Museum of Art holds a number of impressive collections such as the $38 million Wendy and Emery Reves Collection,$20 million Hamon Building collection, and over 400 pieces of Nubian and Egyptian art.

The most impressive exhibit at the Museum is an ornate, 15,000 sq-ft (1393.5 square meters) replica of the Reveses’ Villa La Paula home in Italy, where the original works were initially displayed. This exhibit features the entire Reves Collection that comprises of sculptures, paintings, and works from early modernist, post-impressionist, and leading impressionist artists, such as Degas, Renoir, Monet, Gauguin, Cezanne, etc. A part of the Reves wing is dedicated to decorative arts and features Oriental and European carpets; Chinese Export Porcelain; European Furniture; rare books; antique European glass; and iron, bronze, and silver work. The memorabilia of the Reveses’ friendship with Winston Churchill are also displayed in this wing. The major cultural attractions located nearby include the Arts District Theater, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Ad-Libs Improvisational Comedy Theater, Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, the Trammell & Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, and the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. The Dallas Museum of Art is a great place to visit for those interested in art and history.

  • Address: 1717 N Harwood Street, Dallas, TX 75201
  • Telephone: (214) 954-0234
  • Hours: Tues & Weds, 11 AM – 5 PM; Thurs, 11 AM – 9 PM; Fri – Sun, 11 AM – 5 PM; Closed Mondays, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas
  • Website: www.dallasmuseumofart.org