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Starting Out In The Hill Country

July 2024
5min read

It wasn’t a bad way to launch a trip into the Texas Hill Country. At an intersection, just east of Austin, our car stopped for an apparition: three small covered wagons bumped across the horizon, leading a line of horseback riders, among them children two to a horse. A few of the riders clutched Lone Star flags, stiff and square in the breeze. I could have been watching the first frames of a Western movie, with plenty of room for a title to materialize against the cloud-swept sky. In fact, these were members of a group called the Trail Drivers Association, out to relive a pioneer past that still holds fast here.

In a state so huge that you really have to push to drive across it in less than two days, a few hundred miles of the Hill Country, bracketed by Austin and San Antonio, lets weekend visitors cover a lot of history. Time a trip for mid-April, when the state flower, the bluebonnet, makes its appearance. For those few weeks bluebonnets become a statewide obsession. The National Wildflower Research Center, an Austin-based organization started by Lady Bird Johnson, receives calls from all over reporting on the best sightings.

Wild flowers, then, frame the picture in early spring. Not just bluebonnets, but drifts of evening primrose, Indian paintbrush, verbena, and wine-cup. The landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted described the sight in A Journey through Texas : “… three or four more species opened into bloom. After this hardly a day passed without some addition, and very soon it was impossible to welcome each new-comer; the whole prairies became radiant and delicious.”

By the time of Olmsted’s visit in 1853–54, the hills had for twenty years been home to farmers who had come from the Southern states. And the first influx of foreigners, from Germany, was shaping an existence that sometimes belonged to the Old World, sometimes to the New. The colonists had been lured to the unimaginable Texas wilderness in 1844 by a group of Hessian noblemen. These innocents were easy prey for Texas speculators, who sold them an impossibly remote and uninhabitable tract, sight unseen. Their bumbling advance man, Prince Carl von Solms-Braunfels, was eventually recalled to Germany, but not before buying in 1844 a second site, which became the town of New Braunfels. His able successor, Ottfried Hans von Meusebach, renounced his title of baron, changed his first name to John, and worked hard “to make a place for German knowledge at the side of American freedom.”

Despite the toll taken by hunger, disease, and the climate, German immigrants kept coming. In 1846 Meusebach led a wagon train of 120 settlers farther into the hills to establish the new settlement of Fredericksburg. One year later he negotiated a landmark treaty with the Comanches.

Strong reminders of the homeland still color the towns that are spread along the trail of settlement. Fredericksburg boasts a large percentage of early German architecture, and even today a number of native-born residents speak with a German accent. Stretching for a mile along Main Street, Fredericksburg’s collection of buildings may not be conventionally pretty, yet they work together in a certain raffish harmony. The spacious limestone structures that shade the street with porches and arcades now mostly contain antique shops, restaurants, and wonderful German bakeries. Some of the small cottages have walls of a thick, creamy texture as a result of their mortar-and-beam construction, an Old Country technique called Fachwerk .

Main Street’s large, steamboat-style former Nimitz Hotel now houses the nation’s only Museum of the Pacific War and is surrounded by several satellite displays, including a Japanese Garden of Peace. The complex is dedicated to all who served with Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the town’s revered native son. His grandfather built the hotel in the 1850s. Nearby, the Pioneer Museum holds a homespun collection of local artifacts. On the museum grounds stands an example of the Sunday House, which Fredericksburg claims as a unique species. This was a tiny, often one-room dwelling where farm folk would stay while in town on the weekend for market or church.

About twenty miles north of Fredericksburg rises Enchanted Rock, the four-hundred-foot-high pink granite outcropping that is the centerpiece of a staterun park. Along the way on Highway 16, look for a small sign to the right marking the “Willow City Loop.” This quiet back road climbs through the classic Hill Country of broad pastureland and distant hills. Busy streams cut granite and limestone, and the reddish dusty soil is bright with flowers.

In geologic terms the Hill Country sits on a rocky highland known as the Edwards Plateau, bordered at the east by the ninety-eighth meridian. This line represents the farthest limit of minimum rainfall, thirty inches, that is needed to grow crops successfully. When first encountered by the settlers, the virgin prairie looked rich and appeared to offer unbounded promise. But once that first lush growth had been hacked away, planted, and grazed, the realities of life on the thin soil west of the ninety-eighth meridian came clear. Those who stayed on learned to adapt to a hardscrabble existence, eased in recent times by the region’s appeal for tourists.

Fredericksburg deserves an overnight stay, even though accommodations are mainly limited to bed and breakfasts or motels. New Braunfels is a good stop for a second night. On the pleasant eighty-mile drive between the two, stop at Comfort, a nicely restored little town with a Civil War monument to twenty-eight of the region’s young men. They shared the antisecessionist sentiments of many of the German settlers and were killed in 1862 by Confederate forces while trying to reach Union lines via Mexico.

New Braunfels sprawls more than Fredericksburg. so its charm isn’t instantly apparent. Still, several stops there help round out the picture of the immigrant experience. Worth visiting are the Sophienburg Memorial Museum, the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture, and the home of Ferdinand Jakob Lindheimer, a German-born naturalist who cataloged much of Texas’s native flora. He even imported a beekeeper to help the fruit trees flourish. On the outskirts of New Braunfels, a former cotton-farming community called Gruene is home to a country-music shrine: Texas’s oldest dance hall, built around 1880.

The Hill Country comes to an end just north of San Antonio, making that lovely city a logical place to finish the journey. San Antonio’s star feature is undoubtedly the Alamo, but I was at least as impressed by the shady River Walk that winds through the heart of town, linking many attractions on the banks of the San Antonio River. From the river, steps lead up to La Villita, an early Mexican settlement. Now a National Historic District, this flowery retreat of hidden courtyards and splashing fountains is home to artisans who lease their adobe workshops from the city.

More of the colonial and Mexican past is beautifully preserved in a large, lively marketplace, in the early-eighteenth-century Spanish Governor’s Palace, and—unexpectedly—in the middle of a municipal parking lot, where a tiny adobe house functions as the Bexar County Adult Probation Department.

It’s pleasant to get around San Antonio by a bus that resembles an old streetcar and costs just ten cents a ride. I recommend taking the streetcar from Alamo Plaza to the Market and wandering back along Dolorosa Street and past the tree-shaded Main Plaza. Here, across from the San Fernando Cathedral, the Old Frost Bank, its commercial splendor intact, has been transformed into a cafeteria, and a pause for refreshment here, beneath the great classical rotunda, is time well spent.

The first German settlers in Texas shaped a life that sometimes belonged to the Old World and sometimes to the New.

The city’s many sights could occupy a week’s exploring, but for one whose thoughts stray back to the Hill Country it would be a good idea to head for the Institute of Texan Cultures, which tells the stories of some twenty-five ethnic and cultural groups that played a part in the state’s history. Naturally the German experience is given full measure; while I was there, German visitors flocked through on the trail of their adventurous countrymen.

Finish the journey at King William Street, where the second generation of Texas’s Germans flourished. Their huge houses framed by pillars, ornamented by turrets, fringed with gingerbread, and shaded by wide, curving porches speak of infinite Victorian variety. Give all this cheerful excess a tropical setting, with palm trees on the front lawns and yucca plants in tubs, and you have the improbable Technicolor finale to the immigrant’s dream. And it is good to recall here that a trip through the Hill Country isn’t only for those of German background. After all, crossing an ocean to a new land, struggling first for survival and then for success, planting a future, and watching it grow is a tradition most of us are rooted in, one way or another.

—Carla Davidson

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