Fredericksburg: Roadtripping in Texas Hill Country
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.
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
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)
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.
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.