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Fredericksburg: Roadtripping in Texas Hill Country

Texas White House (credit Steve Rawls) small
Texas White House (credit Steve Rawls)

By Bobbie Leigh

Lady Bird Johnson once described  the Texas Hill Country as land of “chalky  hills, clear streams, and crooked live oaks.”  That is as true today as when Mrs.  Johnson wrote her  landmark “Wildflowers Across America,” an urgent plea for using native plants and wildflowers to make roadsides beautiful.  On a recent  trip to  Texas Hill Country, the  roadsides and pastures were just  as she would have wished:  a stunning  landscape  of bluebonnets, red  Indian paintbrush,  and yellow lupines.  It is so dazzling when the wild flowers bloom  that people travel from miles around just to enjoy the vivid tapestry of bright colors.

But as a recent visit to Fredericksburg, Texas, revealed,  it is not only the scenery that makes this  region well worth an hour’s  detour from Austin or San Antonio, it also offers a chance to  explore  a rich and colorful history as well as  enjoy  some great wines that rarely travel beyond  state lines.

Sunday House in Fredericksburg, Texas. (Credit Marc Bennett)
Sunday House in Fredericksburg, Texas. (Credit Marc Bennett)

History

In 1846,  120 members of the  “Adelsverein,” the Society for the Protection of  German Immigrants in Texas, crossed the ocean and trekked from the port that is now Galveston  to  settle  eventually in  a Hill Country town they named after Prince Frederick of Prussia.   The immigrants   traveled  in  two-wheeled oxcarts and on foot, an arduous journey where many died on the way.   The colony’s leaders  in those early years  accomplished what few could manage: an  1847 historic treaty with the Comanche Indians that was never broken. It was  the basis for  peaceful relations  and a prosperous town.

Today, Fredericksburg has German bakeries, breweries and  rathskellers,  historic sites, and a  Main Street  wide enough for  a team of eight  oxen to turn full circle.   The town is also dotted with Sunday Houses (some authentic, others reproductions).  These are  one-room  rock  or wood houses,  originally  without plumbing,  and   exterior  staircases leading  to  sleeping lofts. Built during the 1890s-1920,  think of them as weekend  retreats used  by  ranchers  whose land was far from town as a place to stay when they went to community meetings  and dances before  heading back  home after church on Sunday.

Other early architectural styles  in and around Fredericksburg  are log cabins with  “fachwerk” (timber framed)  construction, 1900s  rock homes,  grand country houses with  front porches,  and  traditional  limestone commercial structures along Main Street dating from the town’s post-Civil War boom.  The Nimitz Hotel (1860), now part of the National Museum of the Pacific War, was built in  the 1860s  with a widow’s walk, probably as an architectural fancy as it is far from the sea.  It  was the boyhood home of  Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

National Museum of the Pacific War (credit Marc Bennett)
National Museum of the Pacific War (credit Marc Bennett)

National Museum of the Pacific War

This is the only museum in the country that  tells the story of  the Pacific theater in World War  II.  The story begins well before the war, presenting  the  troubled relationship between   American and Japanese  diplomats.   Each step of the  Asian-Pacific war’s progression is documented.  One of the most riveting exhibits describes the Battle for Guadalcanal (August, 1942- February, 1943).   Another is  the  description of the events leading to the battle for Midway and the feuding between Washington on one side   and Nimitz and his cryptoanalyst and trusted advisor Rear Admiral Edwin Layton  on the other.  Layton was a true hero who had cracked a Japanese code and predicted the time, date, and place for the battle of Midway. (Washington said the target would be the West Coast of the US or Johnston Island.)  Nimitz persevered.  The successful US battle at Midway crippled the Japanese fleet and turned the tide of war only  six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The  film of the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri Sept 2, 1945  is equally  compelling.  Plan at least two hours for your visit as this is one of the best ways to learn about the seeds of the conflict and the tragic human story  that followed. (www.pacificwarmuseum.org).

LBJ Ranch and Texas White House Tour (on Highway b290)

The National Park Service does a great job leading tours of the  36th president’s  country  home, a   white clapboard   house where LBJ    stayed for 490 days during his presidency “to get some perspective.”  The house is simply furnished with a bright yellow kitchen and the leather loungers the President liked in almost every room.  Be sure to reserve as  visits are limited to small groups. (www.nps.gov/lyjo)   Tours of the Sauer Beckmann Living History Farm, a relic of area’s Texas-German past,  are great fun if you are traveling with children. The Farm is  part of the  700-acre Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site. (www.texasstateparks.org)

Hill Country Vineyards

It’s not exactly Tuscany, but the 15 wineries along  Wine Road 290  in the Hill Country, produce yearly award  winners, even in international competitions. Typical are wines  made from the viognier grapes and montepulciano.  Grape Creek Vineyards (www.grapecreek.com)  also has an excellent merlot and chenin blanc.  To pump  up your wine savvy to  PhD level,   try wine tasting at chemist   Ken Maxwell’s Torre di Pietra Vinyards. (www.torredipietra.com)  Hills of Texas runs small wine tours and tastings  that include transportation to and from your lodging. (www.hillsoftexaswinetour.com ) Cabernet Grill, a noteworthy restaurant in town, offers some 70 Texas wines, many award winners. (www.cabertnetgrill.com)

Urban Herbal's garden. (Credit Bobbie Leigh).
Urban Herbal’s garden. (Credit Bobbie Leigh).

Cooking School

Take a little time off from  wine tasting to attend one of  Terry Thompson-Anderson’s cooking classes at the Urban Herbal Cooking School. (www.ubanherbal.com)  Your visit  might begin with a tour of  Urban Herbal’s  gardens and greenhouse while sipping  owner Bill Varney’s lavender lemonade.  Varney is a specialist  in edible flowers and organic fresh herbs.  Thompson-Anderson,  a prize-winning cookbook author and teacher, probably knows more about Texas food  and wine than most American chefs. In  one class, a demonstration followed by feasting,  she   prepared tempura-fried squash blossom filled with seasoned goat cheese along side guacamole stuffed nasturtium blossoms.  All the courses  were a match for any four-star Michelin anywhere.   Her new book, “Texas on the Table: People, Places and Recipes Celebrating the Flavors of the Lone Start State,” is crammed with winning recipes.

Main Street (credit FCVB)
Main Street (credit FCVB)

Shopping

The  shops that line Fredericksburg’s Main Street border on kitsch, but they are  still fun to browse if you are looking for  Western furniture and decorative items. However, one excellent, trendy and handsome shop for women is Root, a fashion-conscious boutique at 306  Main Street. (www.rootfashion.com).  Headquarters Hats (www.headquartershats.com) is the place for  Western-style hats and boots.   Leathers with Style  is a best bet  for  colorful  wallets and accessories, 123 Main Street. (www.leatherswithstyle.com).  Linens-N-More, 302 E. Main Street has a large supply of quilts in all sizes. (www.linensnmore.com). Carol Hicks Bolton  Antiquities is  a warehouse-sized boutique, crammed  with a  highly curated and fascinating assortment of  European antiquities and vintage fabrics.(www.CarolHicksBolton.com) Fischer & Wieser (www.jelly.com)  is the Fredericksburg equivalent of Zabars, but  with a Spanish and Mexican accent. Don’t even think of leaving without a bottle of their  raspberry and chipotle sauce.  You can also order online from amazon.com. (1406 South Highway 87 South)

The Quirkiest Place to Stay

Fredericksburg is a haven for  visitors  with many  bed and breakfasts as well as hotels.  But just a few minutes from Main Street is the rural Barons CreekSide, a rustic-romantic getaway with small yet impeccable Swiss log cabins dotting  26 acres of rolling hills.  The main building is a 250 year-old Swiss farmhouse shipped to Texas. Definitely a place to  chill out,  follow a nature trail,  and watch birds and butterflies from a rocking chair on your front porch.  It is bucolic, welcoming, and like LBJ’s white house,  a place to  get some perspective.

Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

 

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