Gruene, TX: ‘Gently Resisting Change Since 1872'

This historic Texas town was settled by German immigrants. Today it's got a decidedly western character, and plenty of local characters.

The Gruene Mansion was built in 1872 by Henry D. Gruene. Born in New Braunfels, TX in 1850, this dynamic son of German immigrants essentially created his own world in the Texas Hill Country. It became known as Gruene. He died in 1920.

How would you describe his house, now the Gruene Mansion Inn? A river retreat? A Victorian extravaganza? A photographer’s delight? An anachronism in today’s frantic pell-mell rush? A destination in itself?

All of those things and an oasis of comfort on the northern edge of a town, New Braunfels, TX, that really offers no help to tourists traveling the Texas Hill Country. It’s almost impossible to find which of numerous websites is the true official one of New Braunfels; they are all clunky, and efforts to get tourist information by email and telephone calls are not answered except for one email that came back from a woman giving her New Braunfels address and offering us a gift of millions of dollars from friends in Nigeria! True story.

So what should the bewildered tourist do? Choose a well-established inn as a base, make it the first stop and plan to sort things out once you have a place to put your head for the night. And what a place!

The bed is a comfortable but high 4-poster. The bathroom and tub/shower delightful. It’s all upscale. The patio view of the Guadalupe River is rustic and you feel like a successful pioneer.

We have just had the great breakfast that most B & Bs offer and are now sitting across from Cecil Eager who, with his wife Judi, manages the inn. He is helping us to understand the inn’s history and the story of Gruene itself. Technically the inn is in New Braunfels but, at 1275 Gruene Road, it’s right at the start of this separate little community, the Gruene Historic District.

Breakfast. Cecil Eager, GM.

Henry Gruene completed his 4-roomed ground floor home in 1872, Cecil tells us, using sun-dried bricks. He was aware that because they weren’t fired bricks they would not resist moisture but he gave them 3 layers of plaster. Each room had an outside door for access and a potbellied stove for warmth. Ten years later he added an upstairs and a 3-sided porch with outside stairs, then a cupola in which Henry often slept. When Henry died in 1920 the township went into decline. The house was boarded up for 50 years.

A kayaker, Chip Kaufman, an architectural student at the University of Texas at Austin, came down the river in 1975 and noticed the ruins of the Gristmill and the derelict Gruene Hall. He convinced real estate developers—who had bought the last of the Gruene Estate and the remnants of the town to create condominiums—that those old buildings had historical significance. Kaufman with the blessing of those developers convinced the Texas Historical Commission to place the entire district on the National Register of Historic Places. “Kaufman,” says Cecil, “was a visionary.”

Around this time Bill Gallagher, described as a “dropout stockbroker” by Texas Monthly, bought the mansion and its cottages “where he and his hippy friends could party and hang out,” says a local. In 1988 the properties was sold and enlarged to 28 rooms. And, in 2000, along came Cecil and Judi Eager as managers, Cecil, a coach and teacher at Abilene Christian University for 20 years and Judi, a marriage and family therapist.

Their biggest challenge is maintaining an old property with heavy usage that requires craftsmen, carpenters, and painters on a regular basis but it’s an enjoyable process, says Cecil. And their biggest satisfaction? “Well,” says Cecil, “we had a very intense lawyer here for the weekend a few years ago. We sat on the patio. He was venting on the hectic pace of life. We said in Gruene the rhythm of life is slower, easier, simpler. It had taught us to cultivate a more appealing lifestyle.

“A year later he called us to say he had applied the Gruene rhythm to his practice and it had completely changed his life!”

Cecil looks over his patio at the historic red-roofed root cellar submerged in his front yard like a Nebraska sod-house, and says, “That’s 6 feet deep and was used by the original owners to store meat and dry onions and other vegetables.” He smiles and says, “We offer it to guests with unruly children.”

We ask, Is this your final career? He gives a contented sigh and says, “Judi and I could do this for a long time.”

The River House Tearoom.

We set off to see where we might eat during our stay, Ah! A tea room. We talk to Betty Simmons, whose sister, Carol Irwin, became the owner in 1997. Yes, it serves everything but if you want the classic afternoon tea with dainty sandwiches of shrimp, chicken, tuna, and cucumber, and Scottish scones with clotted cream and lemon curd and blackberry preserves and chocolate covered strawberries and a choice of 15 to 20 teas, they ask you to give them 24 hours’ notice.

The Gristmill is very popular and always busy. It does not take reservations. Located just below the water tower, it is about 100 yards from our inn—and a survivor of a cotton gin built in 1878 and now a 12-room 998-seat-restaurant. Why so big?

We heard the next table ask, “Do you have anything smaller than an 8-ounce pepper steak?” and the waiter’s reply, “No ma’am. This is Texas!

We sneak over to their table to photograph the so-called “Colossal Onion Rings,” an unbelievable 24 on a plate, and compared to the size of a beer bottle we can see why the onions got that name.

Mozie’s.

Next door at Mozie’s with its 7 flat screen TVs, Ryan Weinbrandt, tonight’s manager tells us, “This is the place to grab a beer or watch a game, and it’s the only air-conditioned bar in town.” Mozie’s was storage for the mercantile building next door but that space was wasted till Mozie’s opened in February 2009. Across the street stands Gruene Hall.

Gruene Hall.

Gruene Hall to the music world is where a young George Strait got his start in 1975, where Willie Nelson sometimes performs to show he is still young, where Nolan Ryan had his 50th birthday, where John Travolta filmed 2 weeks of Michael, and where Miller Lite shoots commercials. It is the very sprit of this little town and the public loves it.

Gruene Hall and its autographed tables. Fritzy.Magnets.

Gruene Is a home for Country Western, and in one of the dress shops the home of Fritzy, the old German mannequin from the 1960s, bought from the previous owner who inherited the store in 2006. The dress costs $78.75 and most of the women who buy this are, surprisingly older. The magnets are bought from a company Ephemera in Phoenix, AZ.

Buck’s Pottery. The Lone Star.

Now at Buck’s Pottery, Richard Buch has been a potter for more than 30 years. Asked what discipline is needed to be a successful potter he says, “Stubbornness and honesty. If what you’ve just made isn’t satisfactory somehow, you can’t share the disappointment, you have only yourself to blame. Buck’s Pottery is creating the future but the past is seen next door in the Lone Star,

The general store brings back memories of soda fountains and Blue Bell Ice Cream and Uncle Otto’s Homemade Fudge, (“Buy 4 get 2 free!”). There’s humor on the walls and auto history on the floor.

New Braunfels.

Walking around Gruene is more fun than driving into New Braunfels but if you’re leaving town and heading for your last destination, San Marcos, you can take a moment to check out what travel writers have told you might be worth a quick visit: the Prince Solms Inn, Naegelin’s 1868 bakery, the oldest in Texas and the Phoenix Saloon.

The Sophienburg museum.

The Sophienburg museum is well worth a visit showing how the German immigrants came to America, and what their skills provided the community from music to firearms…

Pharmacy. Doctor’s Office and Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer mural.

…and pioneer museums always have a pharmacy and doctor’s office exhibits and here, an extra on a street wall actually opposite the bakery, stands a memorial to “the Father of Texas Botany, Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801-1878) , a political refugee from Frankfurt, Germany.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.