For another change of pace we continued through New Braunfels to neighboring Gruene (locals call it “Green”), a delightfully dilapidated 1870s German farming community that once boasted the area’s largest cotton gin. Today the town is a National Historic District.
Situated on the banks of the Guadalupe River, the Gruene cotton gin processed crops raised by area farmers until the wooden structure burned to the ground in 1922. All that remains of the water-powered mill today is the three story brick boiler room—now the Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar. Located in the historic district just beneath the famous Gruene water tower, the restaurant opened in 1977, serving steaks and hamburgers from a tiny kitchen in the corner of the building.
The menu still features thick steaks and large hamburgers, but the restaurant also serves up popular South Texas fare like chicken fried steak, fried catfish, grilled chicken, enormous sandwiches, fresh fish, and special dishes like tomatillo chicken and bronzed catfish. Fudge pie, an enormous strawberry shortcake, and their signature Jack Daniel’s Pecan Pie are famous desserts. A full bar with a good wine list and fresh squeezed lime margaritas are also big hits.
The town’s most famous attraction is Gruene Hall.
Built in 1878, Gruene Hall is Texas’ oldest continually operating and most famous dance hall. By design, not much has physically changed since the Hall was first built. The 6,000 square foot dance hall with a high pitched tin roof still has the original layout with side flaps for open air dancing, a bar in the front, a small lighted stage in the back, and a huge outdoor garden. Advertisement signs from the 1930s and ’40s still hang in the old hall and around the stage.
Gruene Hall has become internationally recognized as a destination tourist attraction and major music venue for up-and-coming as well as established artists. Since 1975, the Hall has played host to hundreds of celebrities whose pictures adorn the walls.
The Hall has served as a stage for many great blues and country singers, including Willie Nelson, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Bo Diddley, Aaron Neville, and BB King.
The owner’s focus on booking singer-songwriters and artists who play original material has provided a fertile proving ground for many former “new talents” such as George Strait, Hal Ketchum, and Lyle Lovett.
A 35-minute drive to the northwest, Blanco, an unassuming small town in the Texas Hill Country, takes its name from the local river, which begins its journey in higher elevations west of town. From there, the Blanco meanders in an easterly direction past thriving lavender farms before pooling in town at Blanco State Park.
At the park, swimmers, canoeists, and anglers enjoy the river’s spring-fed waters. Pecan, common bald cypress, sycamore, cottonwood, box-elder maple, and other trees growing along the river’s edge and in the campground provide shade and a comforting presence for families who rest, play, barbecue, hike, and camp within the park’s compact 105 acres.
The Town Creek Nature Trail, a landscaped, quarter-mile walking path lined with native plants and large live-oak trees, connects the state park to Blanco’s downtown square. The Old Blanco County Courthouse, a striking Second Empire-style structure built in 1885, is the square’s most prominent building and anchors a historic district (listed in the National Register of Historic Places) that includes 46 properties. Many of the old buildings house restaurants, cafés, antique shops, outlets for locally-produced arts and crafts, and other enterprises.
Throughout the town, century-old limestone buildings are a testament to the German colony that settled in the river valley.
Among my favorite downtown indulgences, the Deutsch Apple is about a mile southeast of Blanco’s courthouse square at the intersection of Loop 163 and RR 165. Items baked fresh daily include apple pie, pecan pie, apple-pecan cake, and apple-pecan muffins.
On to Austin and San Antonio! One thing that makes the Texas Hill Country so appealing is the two great cities bordering the region: San Antonio to the south and Austin to the north. But that’s for another day.
Texas Spoken Friendly
The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.