Tucked in the Texas hill country, there’s a place where Harley Davidsons line the streets alongside golf carts. Where bikers, babies, and recreational tubers sit together, enjoying music, wine, the atmosphere… If you’re driving along I-35, you’ll miss it, because the highway system bypassed it decades ago. It’s a welcoming haven for anyone who visits.
Gruene (pronounced “green”), Texas is a historic town situated just north of New Braunfels. The main street endures as a lasting testament to German immigrant founders Ernst and Henry D. Gruene, and the town they built around their cotton business beginning in 1845.
After decades of growth and a thriving cotton business, the town began experiencing a string of bad luck, beginning with Henry Gruene’s death in 1920. Two years after his death, the cotton gin burned down, and a few years later, the area experienced disastrous results from the Great Depression, a boll weevil infestation which obliterated the cotton crop, and being bypassed by the new highway system. The town became a virtual ghost town.
Fast forward to 1974. Chip Kaufman, an architecture student at UT, stumbled across the water tower while kayaking on the Guadalupe. Intrigued, he explored, and realizing what a gem he had happened on, partnered with the Texas Historical Commission to save and revitalize the town (this is an over-simplification, but you get the gist).
Today, many of the old buildings still stand, and have been repurposed. Henry Gruene’s Victorian home that he built is now the Gruene Mansion Inn. The original mercantile is still labeled and carries the vibe of a general store. The brick mercantile is now an antique store, full of treasures. The cotton gin that burned was refurbished, and now houses a one-of-a-kind, multi-terraced, indoor-outdoor restaurant named the Gristmill. And the original dance hall/saloon- the only business to stay continuously open- is now the famed Gruene Hall, a hub for live music and other entertainment.
Gruene has become a staple for people tubing the river, shopping for antiques, and those looking to escape the grind of the cities. More often than not, a band’s trailer is parked outside of Gruene Hall, ready to set up for a show. Groups of men and women roll through on their Harleys, parking outside the general store. Locals parallel park in their golf carts.
Families, college students, tourists, and retirees all flock to Gruene for the same reason- it’s vibe. Even as streets might be backed up with traffic rolling through, and the sidewalks might be overflowing with pedestrians, somehow the town retains its “no worries” vibe. The sounds of live music invite you into each venue, and when you walk into a shop, you’re greeted with that small town hospitality that you don’t realize you’ve missed until you experience it again.
Gruene is often described as being in the heart of the Texas hill country. I would argue that Gruene IS the heart of the hill country.
It’s a living example of struggle and perseverance- the history of an immigrant family whose legacy lives on in ways they could never have predicted. The noise of the city is replaced by the distant shouts and laughter of the tubers on the river. The honk of a horn is more often to signal for someone to cross the street, than a symbolic obscenity.
The outside world effectively falls away, and you become enmeshed in a world that epitomizes the very heart of what Texas stands for. It’s small town living with an artsy flare. It’s neighbors sitting outside with a beer (or margarita…or wine…) taking in the music before dinner. And everyone is welcome at the table.