By JOHN DeMERS
I just got back from spending something like a century and a half in Gruene.
Yes, I mean Gruene, Texas. Which means it’s pronounced like Green, as in Pat. Which means it’s based on that bizarre Texas statutory right to pronounce any word any way we damn well please.
But whether it’s for the near omnipresent live music swirling forth from Gruen Hall (the oldest dance hall in Texas), for the old stores from seemingly another planet to the rustic-chic new ones with puns on “Green” in their names, or for the sheer chance to decompress looking out from your balcony of the 30-room Gruene Mansion Inn at the clear-green waters of the Guadalupe River, this little town that never convinced anybody except H.D. Gruene that it was a town makes time travel look good on anybody. The town motto, “Gently Resisting Change since 1872,” says it all.
In fact, to hear what now pass for locals around Gruene tell it, the best thing that ever happened to this town was being gobbled up by New Braunfels.
At least that gave them a functioning Chamber of Commerce that could send lots of tourists their way. The city that gives the world Wurstfest every fall and that plays host to Schlitterbahn water park all summer knows a thing or three about tourists. Being a Historic District of New Braunfels, when you’ve been pretty much a ghost town after boll weevils, Depression and Prohibition, is a pretty good life for Gruene. And you can just about always get a beer.
Of course, you have to get over to the legendary Gruene Hall, but you should consider getting a room right next door first. The Gruene Mansion Inn is what it says it is, the mansion built by H.D. Gruene in 1872, he being the second and now most famous son of German immigrant Ernst Gruene, who came to New Braunfels in 1845 and settled a bit out of town. Twenty or 30 German families followed, building homes and commercial buildings right on the banks of the river. If H.D.’s birth marked the day things started looking up around this place, his death in 1920 marked the opposite.
Today, under the careful eye of owner Cecil Eager, the Gruene Mansion Inn captures a lot of the charm of this previous era, with none of its obvious and often lethal hardships. As Eager and his predecessors got busy modernizing the old Victorian house, they also expanded it to take in every other building in sight. I especially liked my “pent haus” along the river (if you don’t like things spelled in German, real of fake, you probably shouldn’t come here at all). It featured my own rustic front porch, with two red rocklng chairs.
Gruene Hall features the entire history of Texas music posted somewhere on its walls, since just about everybody who was or is anybody played here. Look at the schedule: you’ll note that unlike everything else about Gruene, this hall isn’t trapped in the past. Singers and bands you’ve heard of, including many whose CDs you own, still perform their way through here many nights of the week. The Hall, of course, is the big enchilada – featuring what has to be the youngest non-baby picture of George Strait on record – but over the past 5 to 10 years, other music venues have sprung up in and around Gruene. It’s like Austin if you could stroll from one end to the other in less than 15 minutes.
And if your stroll makes you hungry, there’s a great place to eat right beneath the town’s most visible landmark, that shining silver water tower. Though in New Braunfels’ historic downtown my favorites are Huisache Grill and Myron’s Prime Steakhouse, neither of those can quite match the feeling of sitting in a Swiss Family Robinson tree house called the Gristmill Restaurant and Bar above the waters of the Guadalupe, listening to live country music spill from the hall, watching the sun say goodbye to the mansion you’ll sleep in later on, and ordering your own class-act entrée with a cold Shiner.
If the experience could somehow come with its own pickup truck, your Texas joy would be complete. And everybody everywhere else would have to be, well, Gruene with envy.