Gruene Gruene Gruene

Created Thursday, 25 March 2010 18:22

Gruene, Gruene, it’s Gruene they say . . .

I think that play on the New Christy Minstrels’ song is about the only play on words left unmade, in reference to that little suburb of New Braunfels – there is the Gruene Leaf, the Gruene Door, the Tavern on the Gruene and so forth. Which is not bad for a pretty little neighborhood, perched on the bluffs overlooking the Guadalupe River; it might almost be preserved in amber. Gruene was first settled by German immigrants, who are ubiquitous in this part of Texas.

They were moving out from an already well well-settled New Braunfels. Astonishingly, Gruene was a center of cotton production until local cotton crops were destroyed by the boll weevil and the cotton gin buildings burned down. The neighborhood gently decayed for a number of decades. In the 1970s, it barely escaped being demolished to build a high-end development; fortunately, saner (and more historically-oriented) heads prevailed. It still is one of those semi-obscure yet charming places that you wouldn’t really know about, unless someone took you there, or you went to eat at the Gristmill Restaurant, went tubing on the river, or to a concert and dance at the Gruene Hall, billed as the oldest existing dance hall in Texas.

There a handful of shops – selling a variety of antiques, crafts, garden items, sporting goods and Texas edibles, such as jelly-beans the size of cocktail weenies (yes, everything is bigger in Texas!) and the Great Texas Pecan Candy Company, which had pecan brittle and sweets which were so deliciously fragrant that they could be smelled all the way out to the sidewalk on Hunter Road. There was more candy and food, along with books and other souvenirs at the Gruene General Store. Most of Gruene itself is anchored by the Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar – this is a rambling establishment built up, in and around the remnants of the old cotton gin boiler house. Several levels of terrace overlook the river below, and the bar spreads out onto picnic tables in a grove of trees.

There is no better place I can think of for miles, to sit back on a fine, mild afternoon and enjoy. Many of those buildings which now house the various commercial establishments in Gruene are recycled from what they were before (generally houses of varying degrees of size and splendor) but the Buck Pottery was a turn of the last-century barn. It is now outfitted as a workroom and show-place for hand-made pottery, items both useful and ornamental. (And a bit on the pricy side, I might add, somewhat wistfully.) But one of the tiniest building existent was the mill-owner’s office; hardly the size of a back-yard playhouse. I don’t know what it is used for today – it’s one of the buildings still in private use in Gruene.

Gruene is about twenty minutes drive from Northside San Antonio. Take the 191 exit on IH-35 and go west to Hunter Road, then turn left and go another half mile. If you pass the water tower, and go down the hill to the bridge over the river, you’ve missed it.


Winter Texans Venture Over the Border to Progresso Mexico

Created Sunday, 21 March 2010 14:45

Texas Road Trip – Over the Border

So, when reading the news from cities along the borderlands lately, it may not seem like such a good idea to travel over to Mexico for a day of shopping or an evening out. Which is a bit of a pity, for an excursion like that always seemed to be a fun thing; to visit a foreign country for a day, to enjoy the differences of “someplace else.” There was always a little frisson of excitement, to the experience; here was another language, different tastes, bolder colors, spicier tastes, exotic music on the radio, unusual things for sale in the shops . . . heck, even the shops were different, some of them being pushcarts, or even just a picnic rug spread on the sidewalk.

The US is such a large country – as comedian Bill Cosby once observed, you could drive for days without ever hitting another language. Living somewhere within driving distance of a national boarder is therefore, a treat not generally bestowed upon most Americans – and that current threats prevent us from taking full advantage of that treat – well, it’s just sad that some of the bigger cities on the Mexican side of the border are just not safe at present.

Under certain circumstances, and in smaller border-towns, though, it still seems to be safe enough to pay a visit – as long as one stays on the main streets and with friends. When I visited friends of a friend a week or so ago, at a Winter Texan/Snowbird nesting area in the Valley, we ventured over the border to Progresso, Mexico for an afternoon – and an absolutely splendid afternoon it proved to be, too.

Progresso is a very small and well-condensed, as border towns go; the international shopping part being about six blocks long and maybe two or three wide, on either side of the Avenida Benito Juarez, which stretches from the international bridge. There were generous numbers of bars and honky-tonks, but they seemed to be rather straight-up places offering tasty adult beverages and soft-drinks, nothing skeevy or red-light-district-ish about them. Actually, I think the bars and honky-tonks were far outnumbered by pharmacies, dentists, plastic surgeons and beauticians – which is far more revealing about what Progresso’s economy is really based on.

Oh, and there were heaps of jewelry stores, with lots of silver and semi-precious stones on display: some from sidewalk vendors, but the very best was in permanent storefront establishments. The city fathers of Progresso have also set up a couple of huge, multi-storied mercados – with neatly organized aisles of glassware and pottery, leather-work, fashions, art and kitchen utensils. Really, you could spend hours in the largest of them, which was barely half a block from the end of the bridge from the Texas side, and never had to venture any farther – but then, what would be the fun in that?

Our friends recommended parking on the Texas side, and walking over – rather than be hung up in the traffic jam of vehicles returning. Be warned – New rules going into Mexico you will need a passport, or some kind of ID which is specific about your nationality and/or place of birth, in order to guarantee a hassle-free return – and be straight-up about what you have bought and are returning to the US with, as well. Other than that – Progresso is as much pure fun as a trip over the Border used to be.


San Antonio Road Trip to Highs in Comfort Texas

Created Monday, 15 March 2010 02:15

Texas Road Trip – Comfort


Yes, there is a town called Comfort in the Hill Country., and another called Welfare; which if I were so inclined, I would make a small joke about. I will save the lame humor for the nearby town of Waring – which if it had it’s own high school would certainly have a sports team called the “Waring Blenders.” Alas, Waring appears to outsource their students, so there goes a good joke as well as terribly profitable sponsorship deal. But Comfort itself is a pretty little town, dating from the 1850s, situated a comfortable driving distance from my San Antonio home, just a little off of IH-10 by the turnoff towards Fredericksburg.

There had once been a more or less permanent Indian encampment on that spot, convenient to water, to groves of pecan trees and plenty of game. Comfort was established by pretty much the same solid and canny German immigrants who settled throughout the Hill Country, and contributed immeasurably towards the cultural and business life in San Antonio, itself. The founding fathers of Comfort settled on a tract of land where the road between San Antonio and Fredericksburg crosses the Guadalupe River, and set about improving themselves and the land.

They built the usual sorts of enterprises and establishments suitable to a frontier town founded by generally forward-thinking and educated settlers – all but one feature. There would be no church in Comfort until late in the 19th century. Those founding members of Comfort included a large proportion of nonconformists and free-thinkers – that is to say, those of a somewhat agnostic and intellectual bent.

There were several attempts at building water-powered mills at Comfort, and the settlers tried to grow the sort of crops they were accustomed to growing in the Old Country, before realizing that the area was more suited to ranching; of cattle, sheep and goats. Lumber and shingles, pecans and burnt limestone for making mortar and plaster – any and all of that were produced in the Comfort in the early years.

Presently, Comfort is known for the historic district, centered on half a dozen blocks along High and Main Streets – late 19th century homes and businesses, interspersed with gardens and trees, and sometimes with curious adornments . . . like a row of sculptured birds along the store-front. We spent what seemed like hours, exploring the Comfort Antique Mall – which seemed like an ordinary little store-front on High Street, but went back, and back, and back and back forever, with every nook and corner stuffed with interesting oddments.

When in search of something to eat, we were directed to a converted garage, which now houses a bakery-café-bookstore-gifts-and-wine-tasting establishment; it’s called High’s – and the food was original and delicious. No ordinary fast-food this, but home-made soups, and sandwiches, home-made pita chips with hummus and crab-cake – the last of which was assembled tower-fashion, on a foundation of toasted bread. The tables in the café part of High’s were scattered out among the shelves of books and artworks, or we could have eaten outside, on the deep verandah, and just watched the world go by.


Lone Unionist Monument South of Mason Dixon Line

Created Thursday, 11 March 2010 03:11

True to the Union

There is a unique monument in Comfort, Texas – the only memorial dedicated to Unionists, south of the Mason-Dixon line, and one of only a handful of places where the 36-star American flag flies at half-staff, in perpetuity. Virginia split into two states, and Missouri and Kansas bled over the matter of secession and slavery – but who would ever have thought that right in the middle of a stoutly Confederate state, there would be a large population of stubborn Unionists? But there were, and what is odder still is that most those Union loyalists were only recent immigrants to Texas and the new world.

When Texas departed the Union, it was over the objections of a substantial minority, including those German settlers who had come to the Hill Country and built towns like Fredericksburg, Comfort and New Braunfels in the years immediately before the war. When a general conscription law was passed, essentially declaring that every white male between the age of eighteen and thirty-five were liable for military service, feelings in the Hill Country were bitterly resentful; opposed to slavery and secession, many found it deeply insulting to be forced to fight in the defense of an institution they despised, and for a political body whose existence they had opposed. And, too – Gillespie County was very much still a part of the frontier. Fighting off war-parties of Indians was a much more immediate concern.

This resulted in Gillespie and Kerr County being put under martial law, in the spring of 1862, and all men over the age of 16 ordered to register with the local provost marshal and take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. Suspicion followed by repression bred resentment and further defiance, which in turn bred violence… and resistance. Men of draft age took to hiding out in the brush. A company of Confederate partisans under the command of Captain James Duff were sent to keep order. By summer, Captain Duff ordered the arrest of any man who had not taken the loyalty oath. His troopers waged a savage campaign; flogging men they had arrested until they told his troopers what they wanted to hear, wrecking settler’s homes, arresting whole families and confiscating foodstuffs and livestock.

Late in the fall, thinking that they had been offered a thirty-day amnesty by the Governor of Texas and the opportunity to depart Texas unmolested, rather than take the loyalty oath, a party of sixty men gathered together, led by a settler from Comfort named Fritz Tegener. They intended to travel westward towards the Mexican border; most intended to join the Union Army. But there was no such amnesty in effect, and they were pursued and fought a pitched and bloody battle with a contingent of Duff’s troopers. About half the party was killed outright in the resulting fight, another twenty wounded were executed upon capture; one survivor was taken to San Antonio and executed there. The others scattered; some over the border and some to the Hill Country, where their families brought food to them as they hid in the fields near their homes. Captain Duff refused to allow the families of the dead to retrieve the bodies. Their remains lay unburied until 1866 when their families brought them to Comfort, and buried them in a mass grave, on a low hillside on what then would have been the outskirts of town. The stone obelisk is plain and stark, shaded by a massive oak tree: panels on three sides list the names of the 36 men of Tegener’s party, all of whom were True to the Union.


Old Betsy a jade green 1952 Plymouth Station Wagon

Created Wednesday, 03 March 2010 14:23

Family Car

There is a saying that the difference between the English and the Americans is that to an American, a hundred years is a long time ago, and to an Englishman, a hundred miles is a great distance. Apt – and in a fair way to be true. All across the Southwest, our very oldest existing buildings, aside from various Indian pueblos, are the missions; at best a couple of centuries and change, pale and makeshift reflections of the great cathedrals of Spain.  A drive of a hundred miles is nothing special at all.

Growing up we spent a lot of time in the family car, my brother JP and sister Pippy and I, in the commodious back seat of  “Old Betsy” – a jade-green 1952 Plymouth Station wagon, which my Dad bought slightly used and which my mother drove for thirty years. Dad eventually bought, and dismembered another ‘52 Plymouth to keep the first in parts:  door panels, windows and engine parts and all, although the split windshield was inadvertently wrecked by our horse, blundering into the garage in search of his specialty horse-food, and stepping flat onto the glass panes.

Old Betsy got a new coat of paint every couple of years, and our best-remembered road trips was when Dad took us to Mexico, to get a new headliner installed at a cut-rate body and interior-work shop. While Betsy was being worked on, we watched a glass-blower demonstration, and looked at painted pottery and coarse hairy serapes and other touristy junk. We so wanted to go to a bullfight, the arena had the most interesting posters outside! In a bakery-grocery, Dad bought us fresh rolls, fruit, and bottled soft-drinks, nothing that would tax our delicate, first-world digestive systems. Our great adventure, the first time we had ever been to a foreign country. JP and Pippy and I could look around and think, “Not American.” But not entirely foreign, not as long as we were looking at it from the back seat of Old Betsy.

How many weeks and months of my life were spent in the back seat of that car? Going to my grandparents’ houses, to church, countless trips to school when the weather was bad, out to the desert or into the mountains with Dad for camping trips, to summer-camp in the mountains, to swimming lessons; how many weeks and months would that work out to be; JP and I on either side and Pippy in the middle, being the littlest, and least inconvenienced by the hump of the transmission in the middle of the floor? Looking out the window, daydreaming as the cityscape and the countryside swept by, seeing the hills upholstered in crunchy golden grass and spotted by dark green live oaks, watching for landmarks as the grey highway unspooled in front of us, the landmarks that let us know how close we were to wherever?

I was apt to get car-sick; the preventive was to have a window open and the fresh air blowing in, and to sing. We had a wide repertoire of folk songs, of hymns, of campfire songs, all sung in tight family harmony, and we would talk. So many things we talked about- the back of the Plymouth is where we first heard that we were going to have a baby brother, where Great-Aunt Nan talked about her half-brother, so many family moments. The back of the car, on the way to so many places – that’s where family is, the place that memories are made.