The penultimate stop on our Texas Hill Country tour last year was the historic little town of Gruene, Texas.
Settled in 1840, the town grew up around and in conjunction with the very successful cotton farm of Henry D. Gruene. By the time Henry died in 1920, his farmstead had become a full-fledged town with a variety of homes, a cotton gin, a substantial mercantile store, two freight rail stations, and a saloon and dance hall.
Gruene’s fate changed with the coming of the boll weevil (which destroyed the cotton crop) and the Great Depression (which destroyed the economy as a whole). Over time the only business to continue operating was the saloon and dance hall. Everything else was abandoned.
And so Gruene remained a ghost town until 1974, when an architectural student kayaking on the river came across the town. Although the property was already in the hands of a developer with plans to raze the existing buildings and replace them with condominiums, the student – a man named Chip Kaufman – convinced the developer to get the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places instead . . . and then helped find new owners interested in opening businesses in the historic buildings.
Due to its location amid the sprawling residential development of New Braunfels, Gruene can be a bit tricky to find. However, after only a few wrong turns, we quite unexpectedly found ourselves in what could almost be mistaken for a movie set depicting a small Texas town circa 1920.
Welcome to Gruene!
Gruene’s business district largely lies along a couple of blocks of Hunter Road. It features a number of shops and restaurants housed in buildings of various vintages, with the oldest and most substantial of them located at the end of the street in the heart of the historic town.
Gruene Hall, the city’s saloon and dance hall (and its most famous building), faces Hunter Road and the downtown business district.
Claiming to be the oldest continually operating dance hall in Texas, it is one place in Gruene where almost nothing really has changed over time. The hall still serves as a venue for concerts, dances, theater, meetings, rallies, and other gatherings while the bar in front still serves a variety of beverages to those gathered. There are probably more types of beer available today than there were 100 years ago, but that might be the biggest change.
The Gristmill Restaurant sits right above the river a little beyond the dance hall. The artfully landscaped yard (with a view of the river and huge patios for warmer months) and tasteful faux historic features make it unclear what (if anything) is actually original here, but the brick building that houses the restaurant is the real thing – it’s all that remains of the farmstead’s original cotton gin. It’s where the boilers for the cotton gin were once located, but it makes a spectacular setting for a fine dinner or a beer out on the patio.
People once lived in Gruene, so there are houses of all sizes and styles scattered around the town. A few may still be used as private homes, but most seem to have been converted to small shops or tourist lodging.
There are all sorts of other interesting buildings here too. For example, we had a pleasant visit with Terry Buck at his pottery studio and gallery located in an 1870’s era barn that once stored items for the mercantile.
After a too-brief visit we needed to be on our way again, but I suspect we’ll be back some day to spend a bit more time in the odd little amalgam of past and present that is Gruene, Texas.
2015 Texas Hill Country itinerary
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