The Great Depression and the Boll Weevils came and went leaving the town abandoned like a neglected antique in the attic of Texas history. Sleeping no more, Gruene is alive with the spirit of adventure, commerce and history.
On a back road between San Marcos and New Braunfels near the banks of the Guadalupe River rests the community of Gruene, Texas. The whole town is a historical landmark registered with the prestigious National Registry of Historic Places.
Founded over a hundred hears ago by Ernst and Antoinette Gruene from Hannover, Germany, the town was once an important way station between Austin and San Antonio. It served as a stage stop for the Brown and Tarbox Stage Coach Lines for years; then in 1900 it was a station stop for two railroads. The town prospered at the turn of the century through cotton production. The cotton gin, general store and grist mill hummed with business until the boll weevil and the great depression virtually emptied the town.
After years of silence and neglect the town came back to life. By 1977 a saddle factory, winery (since closed), dance hall and numerous shops opened attracting neighbors and tourists alike.
To get a real feel for what’s happening in Gruene you should spend a long afternoon and visit many of the other flourishing businesses around the downtown area.
Ironically, if the town hadn’t been abandoned for so long it probably wouldn’t be worth going to today.
As a designated historical landmark all of the buildings in town are being restored to their original condition. There are some excellent examples in Gruene of 19th Century Victorian and mid-century German colonial buildings.
Gruene Hall, built as a saloon by H.D. Gruene in the 1880s is a major attraction on thee weekends for some live country music. Such notable musicians as Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, and George Strait began their careers there playing on the weekends. Also, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Dixie Chicks have held center stage at “the oldest dancehall in Texas”.
Grist Mill Restaurant
Next to the dance hall is a restaurant in the building that was once the grist mill. Today, The Grist Mill Restaurant makes a most unusual place for dining. The atmosphere is literally open air. You can relax at their full bar, enjoy beautiful patio dining and buy a t-shirt to commemorate the visit.
Since 1977. Uniquely Texas, casual dining. River Room with hill country fireplace, Garden Bar, multi-level deck and patio dining. Beneath the water tower overlooking the Guadalupe river in an 1870s cotton gin. Steak, fish, chicken, burgers, soups, salads, sandwiches and incredible desserts.
THE GRUENE MANSION INN
This is a premier bed and breakfast experience smack in the middle of Texas’ finest history. Sleep in the H.D. Gruene’s 1872 mansion / corn crib carriage house / barn, next to the Guadalupe River. Henry D. Gruene’s Victorian home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated Texas Historic Landmark.
Located in a “turn of the century” barn featuring hand-thrown, wood-fired utilitarian and decorative stoneware pottery. Watch a fine craftsman at work.
Sure, I knew how to get to Gruene (25 years ago) so naturally we got kinda lost. “Buy a map,”. We were already on the wrong side of Interstate 35 and the Guadalupe River.I knew that much — so I stopped for gas (and a map).
With a map in the hands of Ms. Intrepid and mine on the wheel we found ourselves within 100 yards of Gruene. Nothing to stop us now but a low water crossing — flooded and impassable.
The last big rain was a week ago so it must have been a real gully-washer upstream. We stopped for a pictures while a few brave souls with kayaks put in for adventure.
Using our new “Guadalupe River Map” we worked around the problem discovering along the way that the map was NOT to scale. However, it served us just fine and we found Gruene in short order.
Unlike many Hill Country towns luring tourists, the businesses in Gruene are open on Sunday consequently the place was alive with slow moving cars and casual pedestrians.
After cruising around for a little drive-by shooting (of photos) we finally found a place to park Nigel the Land Rover and wandered about taking more pictures.
One of the first places I wanted to check out was the Grist Mill. I was there once when they first opened and I was curious to see how the place had changed.
Frankly, I remember it being smaller, which could have been the case. In any event the decor was really excellent, starting with the clever up-side-down Christmas tree in the main entrance. The outdoor dining area wraps all around the place which rests on a hillside along the Guadalupe River giving the area a treehouse experience. You can check out their menu here.
Gruene Hall bar
At high noon we headed for the Gruene Hall bar. As I mentioned earlier I had been to Gruene in the distant past and snapped a photo of a feller at the bar . I always wanted to put a name to the face. Ms. Intrepid and I figured it would be as good a way as any to start up conversation with the bartender and pry loose a few facts about Gruene in the process.
Well, the bartender didn’t know mostly because when the picture was taken he was about -2 years old. Then he called on Rex Sullivan who has been involved in the restoration of Gruene since 1975. As it turned out we were college classmates back in the early 70’s in San Marcos.
After a little catch-up after some 25 years Rex did help me identify the feller. His was Frank Schlather, saddle maker and fire starter. A regular at the Gruene Hall bar, Frank worked in the local saddle factory and, during the winter months, he had his own key to the bar and would let himself in every morning and fire up the wood stove.
Frank wasn’t just any regular. If he wasn’t there all of the other Gruene Hall visitors would ask after him, especially the women. A likeable character, Frank passed away on July 14, 1993 at age 72 and is fondly remembered.
Ms. Intrepid and I were leaving just as a musician began setting up in the end of the bar for some Sunday afternoon entertainment. Focused on the task at hand, we needed to take a few more photos, and just as we hit the sidewalk the musician walked up and asked if I was Ira Kennedy. He looked kinda familiar. Turns out it was Van Wilks, another classmate from the early 70’s.
It’s a task to catch up on a quarter century on the sidewalk, but we did our best. The topic turned to Rumors, an entertainment publication I edited back in 1977. An in-house publication for The Too Bitter, a nightclub in San Marcos, we featured Van on the cover. He still has it along with a poster I did of Beethoven. It’s always a delight to find out someone has held on to some of my work.
With a host of accolades and awards, Van gets some well deserved attention from the media. According to The Austin-American Statesman, “Wilks’ two-handed fret fingerings and other talented tricks make him a perfect cross between Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen, a title he and his fans should be proud of.”
Back inside. The just-past- noon crowd was gathering at this old watering hole while I divided my time between a Lone Star, the digital camera and just listening.
It had been decades since I last had the opportunity enjoy the talent of Van Wilks and this moment seemed the perfect conclusion to an afternoon day-trip.
GRUENE COTTON GIN
Built on the site of an earlier Grist Mill, the Gruene Cotton Gin was constructed in 1878 by H.D. Gruene. Powered by the Guadalupe River, the gin was steam-operated and served to process the vast amounts of cotton grown in the area. The gin played an important part in the economic development of Gruene, a community dependent upon the cotton crop.The gin was destroyed in a 1922 fire, and only part of the boiler room remains. A new electric gin was built at another location and served the community until the cotton crop was lost to a boll weevil infestation in 1925. –Texas State Historical Marker / Photo: Ira Kennedy