The Good Life in Kerrville, TX

Kerrville strikes us as the least touristy of all the Texas Hill County towns. Its population of 22,000 just seems to want to go about its business and enjoy the good life.

In some ways Kerrville is a micro-example of the State of Texas itself. First came the pioneers, then the cattle men, then the money men. No we don’t mean the politicians, we mean the bankers. And in Kerrville the local banker was the German immigrant and former Texas Ranger, Charles Schreiner.

Money men, investors, and philanthropists have helped build many institutions in Texas from splendid golf residential areas like Kerrville’s Comanche Trace to museums like the Museum of Western Art .The recession continues in some parts of Texas but Kerrville is going upscale and many of the aircraft around its small airport are corporate jets. This is the home of 85-year-old Mooney Aviation, maker of the fastest, private single-engine piston-powered airplane in the world. Mooney had gone bankrupt but now, under Chinese ownership, it has made a sensational comeback.

Kerrville strikes us as the least touristy of all the Texas Hill County towns. Its population of 22,000 just seems to want to go about its business and enjoy the good life. Texans endure their hot and humid climate better than outsiders but the Hill Country is indeed a bit higher and gets some breeze so it sure is better tolerated than, say, Houston.

We asked a guide in our last town, Fredericksburg, what she could tell us about our next stop, Kerrville, and she got wistful and said, “It has its river…” Indeed the Guadalupe River runs through town and is a huge asset for those living here because the people you may meet in the streets are more likely to be residents than tourists.

Charlie McIlvain, president of the Kerrville Convention & Visitors Bureau shows us how close the Guadalupe River is to downtown. The new City Hall opened in 2012 in the downtown location that for many years was occupied by the Peterson Memorial Hospital, and the new building’s connection to the former hospital high-rise parking is now a great asset to the public. A hawk flies over the Comanche Trace Golf Community then surveys our lunch group from its perch above us.

If you park and walk around you’ll want to visit what was always the main downtown draw of Kerrville, the mansion of the philanthropist, Captain Charles Schreiner. He opened the first bank in Kerrville and the first upscale mercantile, now a department store. He created a university and financed the railroad that came to town in 1887 and his heirs “bankrolled the town’s first water system and wired the town for electricity.”

The entrance to the Schreiner Mansion. Schreiner’s office chair when he was in his prime. His wheel chair which he used in the last six years of his life.

But different generations of heirs had different visions of the future and the Schreiner name now has less impact on the town. The Schreiner Mansion is run in apparently dispirited fashion by the university and, devoid of most of its furniture, would require a visitor to be obsessed with history to think it worth a visit.

Is the loss of the Schreiner mystique going to hurt Kerrville? ”Mayor Jack Pratt who was re-elected mayor in 2014 with an even greater turnout than he got in 2012” put it all in focus to reporter Roy Bragg of the San Antonio Express‑News. “I don't foresee that it's going to have any effect on the future of Kerrville,” Mayor Jack Pratt said. “We have a very diversified economy. We have manufacturing, we have recreation, we have tourism and we have golf. And we're on our way to becoming a wine destination.”

He could have mentioned the shopping which has become more chic and vibrant in the last few years. “Our strongest market is Houston and San Antonio,” a merchant tells us. “Our downtown has been rebuilt with stores not unlike Rodeo Drive in LA.” That may be, at the moment, a bit of a stretch, but we saw some very expensive motor bikes parked downtown and upscale Hill Country motor bike cruising on the famous Twister Sisters is said to rival any 100-mile loop on the East or West Coast. There is a motor bike museum 50 miles to the souhwest west of Kerrville at Vanderpool, TX.

Even with a guide it’s hard to get the feel for urbane Kerrville. On the one hand it has Rivers Edge Gallery which restores damaged art, and the town also is the home for Wagon Master that rebuilds Jeep Wagoneers from all over the world—and it offers 27 classy children’s summer camps that bring in $32 million a year to the local economy. Yet it maintains its Western heritage. It has the 5th largest livestock show in Texas and is one of only 2 RV parks in Texas with a liquor license. And despite how upscale it can be, some of its stores have tongue-in-cheek antique signs that say: “We don’t dial 911,” and below the sign hangs a replica revolver.

Shopping varies from very fashionable and expensive items in the downtown area to antiques in a downtown mall.

It’s no surprise to find antique Texas mannequins but it is a pleasure to see an old photograph of America’s sweetheart, Shirley Temple.

James Avery’s original bench. Sandy and Jon Wolfmueller booksellers. Our guide, Charlie McIlvain studies a sculpture in the Old Ingram Loop

It is a short drive to the campus of the James Avery jewelry business where we are shown the original work bench of the founder of the firm. It stands in front of a painting of a B-26 bomber similar to the ones he piloted on 44 bombing runs over Germany in World War II. Such a war might explain why Avery originally started with faith-based jewelry, expanding his company all over the Bible Belt South—although religious iconography is now only 20% of his company’s output.

We meet Sandy and Jon Wolfmueller at their 2-level store downtown that specializes in rare and first-edition books. They came here at the time Interstate 10 East and West was completed in 1973, the 2 parts meeting in Kerrville. “Beaumont, TX to El Paso without traffic lights,” says Sandy. That was a cause for celebration in town as was the birth of their twins on the 4th of July. Their store has been a hardware store, a furniture store, and a ladies’ dress shop with a boarding house upstairs. Now Kerrville is the largest town in Texas between El Paso and San Antonio and their store is a meeting place for those seeking Texana or hard to find books. They specialize in first editions and have, for example, classic titles such as Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and naturally for western lovers, Jack Schaefer’s Shane.

Nancy Foster, a local writer, had told us about the area west of town called The Ingram Loop, a stage coach and Great Western Trail stop on the Guadalupe River so laid back a huge tree without much local reaction has been growing through what had once been Miss Kitty’s Bar. Rivers and creeks are great places for dogs and little boys to play. One wonders if their fathers ever climbed Miss Kitty’s tree when they were little.

Copper Cactus and the works of Darrin Potter.

Copper Cactus on the Old Ingram Loop is hard to describe. It sells objects from all over the world but specializes in the works of local owner Darrin Potter, a self-described “corporate burn-out after 15 years in Houston.” Darrin is working on an American bison skull he has stained and embellished with copper nails and a copper feather. “I love it here,” he says. “Doing what I was born to do — and people give me money to do it. It doesn’t get any better that that!”

He has the classic teasing Texan style of humor, “hoo-rahing” visitors. We ask him what it’s like around here in Texas. He replies; “In some restaurants they check to see if you’re carrying a gun or a knife -- and if you are not, they’ll issue you with one.”

Small towns breed characters and Ingram has its share, including Al Shepperd and Doug Hill, who designed Stonehenge II now on the campus of the Hill Country Arts Foundation. But nearby Hunt still has 2006 posters in place showing the one-time gubernatorial aspirations of country singer, comedian, novelist, and perennial political wild cannon, Kinky Friedman. Kinky had ideas that charmed some rural voters in South Texas. “Here’s how to protect the border,” he said. “Take five Mexican generals and give them a bank account of $1 million each. Then every time a Mexican national gets caught crossing illegally, you withdraw $5,000 from the general responsible for that sector." When he ran for governor he raised $1.5 million in 6 months with the slogan “Kinky for Governor. How Hard Could It Be?”

In Kerrville at the gorgeous 750-seat theater (named The Kathleen C. Cailloux City Center for the Performing Arts after its principal benefactor), we listen to Marty Haggard’s tribute My Dad about his father, Merle Haggard. Marty is typically open as most Country Western singers are. His father, he says, had no parental discipline in his formative ages—12 to 18 years—and was sent to San Quentin prison. Reputedly Haggard straightened up when he heard Johnny Cash perform his first-ever prison concert on January 1, 1958. (Cash’s recording of "Folsom Prison Blues" came in 1956 but his live performance at Folsom Prison came a decade after his performance in San Quentin.)

We counted 10 Mexican restaurants in town and dined at Mamacita’s at 215 Junction Highway. This chain of Mexican restaurants has now expanded to 5 but the first was in Kerrville and so successful the owners bought the shopping center behind them and converted it into their fifth and most recent restaurant. It is a cheerful place with Texans enjoying the Mexican flair for its décor -- from a two-thirds size reproduction of the Alamo to how it gets gringos to go to the right toilet. Its reproduction of city plaza might make physician diners feel they ought to get back upstairs to their work. Didn’t have that effect on us. We were too busy appreciating a terrific Mexican meal.

Tomorrow comes Bandera, the Cowboy Capital.

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.