Texas Hill Country: Gruene & Blanco

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.

The town's most famous attraction is Gruene Hall. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The town’s most famous attraction is Gruene Hall. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Gruene (locals call it "Green"), a delightfully dilapidated 1870s German farming community that once boasted the area's largest cotton gin. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Gruene (locals call it “Green”), a delightfully dilapidated 1870s German farming community that once boasted the area’s largest cotton gin. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

The Blanco River meanders past thriving lavender farms before pooling in town at Blanco State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Blanco River meanders past thriving lavender farms before pooling in town at Blanco State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
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. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Wyman Meinzer

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Timeless Texas: Roma Bluffs World Birding Center

The epicenter of Starr County’s birding activity is the Roma Bluffs World Birding Center, on the scenic bluffs high above the Rio Grande in the small town of Roma, a once-thriving steamboat port.

This Buff-bellied hummingbird makes its home in the courtyard of Roma Bluffs World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of nine sites that make up the World Birding Center (WBC) network, the Roma Bluffs location holds another distinction: It occupies two restored buildings on the old plaza in Roma’s National Historic Landmark District that includes a three-acre riverside nature area.

Roma Bluffs Interpretive Overlook offers a magnificent view of the river, island, and woodlands below, as well as views across the border to the Mexican town of Miguel Aleman. Down a brick stairway, a riverside trail leads upstream. In all, nearly 4,500 acres of nearby state and federal preserves offer excellent birding opportunities.

Roma Bluffs is a great starting point for diverse activities such as walking tours through the National Historic District and birding float trips down the Rio Grande operated by Friends of the Valley Wildlife Corridor.

The district features a central plaza surrounded by vintage structures that illustrate building techniques used along the Rio Grande during the 19th Century. Several of the structures were designed by Heinrich Portscheller, a German architect who arrived in 1879 and combined European styles with local stone and ornate brickwork.

The Roma Bluffs Overlook offers a magnificent view of the Rio Grande and the woodlands beyond in Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Roma’s intriguing setting promises to draw an increasing number of history-minded tourists, most visitors today come for the birding. You can see birds here that you can’t see anywhere else in the United States. For example, Starr County is one of the few spots where you may find five oriole species—Altamira, Bullock’s, Audubon’s, orchard, and hooded.

At Roma Bluffs World Birding Center, visitors find exhibits about the region’s wildlife, as well as staff and volunteers eager to share information about recent sightings and nearby birding hotspots, such as Falcon State Park, Salineño, and Chapeño, all less than 30 minutes away.

The Roma Bluffs Birding Center is housed in the 1878 Ramirez Store and Residence in the Roma Historic District and is owned by the City of Roma and operated by the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Roma is in Starr County, about 50 miles west of McAllen on U.S. Highway 83. The Roma Bluffs World Birding Center is at 610 N. Portscheller Street.

Details

Roma Bluffs World Birding Center

Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Nature trails open seven days a week

Admission: Free

Location: Downtown Roma Historic District at 610 North Portschellar Street (across from City Hall)

The Roma Bluffs World Birding Center is located the old plaza in Roma’s National Historic District. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Directions: From U.S. 83, turn south on St. Eugene de Mazenod Avenue, and go 1 block south to the plaza. Roma Bluffs WBC is on the northeast corner of Portscheller and Convent streets

Mailing Address: 610 N. Portscheller Street, P.O. Box 3405, Roma, Texas 78584

Phone: (956) 849-4930

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com

Please Note: This is the tenth in a series of stories on Rio Grande Valley nature hot spots

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
In the 1970s, Canadian singer Anne Murray popularized a song about “Snowbirds” flying from the north to a land of “gentle breezes.” Since then, the term “snowbird” has described retirees from northern climes who spend a large portion of the year in the U.S. Sun Belt.

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Jerome: America’s Vertical City

High up on the side of a mountain is Jerome, Arizona. When I say on the side of a mountain, I literally mean that. At an elevation of 5,248 feet, Jerome hangs precariously on the 30-degree slope of Cleopatra Hill on the edge of Prescott National Forest. In fact, through the years some of the houses have lost their grip and have slipped down the slope.

Jerome, Arizona, is located high up on the side of a mountain. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This hidden gem was once a roaring mining town of 15,000 people, with multistoried buildings and fine homes. For a time, Jerome was the state’s fourth-largest town. But like all towns in the West, founded on digging up a limited resource, it is now a mini-version of its former self.

Early Jerome

Jerome started off as a copper mining town and became known as the wickedest town in the West, with more than its share of saloons, opium dens, and brothels.

Historians think Native Americans first mined this area followed by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1580s. Three hundred years later, a few American industrialists found the huge veins of some of the richest-ever veins of copper ore.

The United Verde Copper Company, an investment syndicate, was formed in 1883. Canvas and board hovels began popping up on the steep hillsides, and the community was named Jerome, in honor of one of the principal investors, Eugene Jerome of New York. Jerome, a cousin of Winston Churchill, never visited the town named for him.

By the late 1890s and early 1900s, the United Verde had become the largest copper mine in the U. S. It is said this mine produced 3 million pounds of copper a month.

At an elevation of 5,248 feet, Jerome hangs precariously on the 30-degree slope of Cleopatra Hill on the edge of Prescott National Forest. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome was incorporated in 1889, and as it flourished, became a real town with brick and mortar and wood buildings.

In 1912, James “Rawhide Jimmy” Douglas came to Jerome and bought the claim to the Little Daisy Mine. He struck it rich when his crews found huge copper ore deposits just as copper prices soared in the threatening shadow of World War I.

By 1929 Jerome had two major copper mines—the United Verde and the Little Daisy, each pumping out tons of copper ore.

But by 1930, as elsewhere, Jerome found itself in the throes of the Great Depression. Copper prices plunged, and in 1935 United Verde sold its mining interests to Phelps Dodge. By 1938, the Little Daisy closed down. In 1953, all copper mining there ended, when Phelps Dodge closed its Jerome operation. Businesses and residents soon departed. Jerome’s population dwindled to a mere 50 to 100 by 1953, and the town looked more and more like a ghost town.

Jerome today

Some remaining folks stayed, protecting many of Jerome’s historic buildings from vandals and squatters, and somehow preserved the town, which earned a National Historic District designation in 1967. Funds then became available to preserve Jerome.

The town began to attract tourists, history buffs, and the counterculture folks.

Today’s permanent population of approximately 600 consists of an eclectic group of artists, musicians, writers, craftspeople, merchants, hermits, bed-and-breakfast owners, and shopkeepers. It’s definitely not your typical Small Town America.

Jerome State Historic Park

Douglas Mansion, now Jerome State Historic Park, is a museum featuring exhibits of photographs, artifacts, and minerals in addition to a video presentation and a 3-D model of the town with its underground mines. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Douglas Mansion, on Douglas Road off Arizona 89A, has been an eye-catching landmark in Jerome since 1916, when “Rawhide Jimmy” Douglas built it on the hill above his Little Daisy Mine.

Douglas designed the house as a hotel for mining officials and investors as well as for his own family. It featured a wine cellar, billiard room, marble shower, steam heat, and, ahead of its time, a central vacuum system. Douglas was proud of the fact that the house was constructed of adobe bricks that were made on the site.

He also built the Little Daisy Hotel near the mine as a dormitory for the miners. The concrete structure still stands.

The mansion, now Jerome State Historic Park, is a museum featuring exhibits of photographs, artifacts, and minerals in addition to a video presentation and a 3-D model of the town with its underground mines. One room, the Douglas library, is restored as a period room. There are more displays outside along with a picnic area offering a magnificent panoramic view of Verde Valley.

Photo Tips

Jerome has been described by some as a photographer’s paradise. Situated on beautiful switchbacks, Jerome offers photographers an amazing view of the valley and mountains below. Everything about Jerome is an artistic photo waiting to happen, from the old doors to quirky light fixtures.

Jerome might be small, but its beauty is big, making it a favorite spot for photographers of skill levels.

Grab your camera and let’s get clicking!

Worth Pondering…
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.

—St. Augustine of Hippo

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