IF YOU’RE IN NEED OF A BARGAIN GETAWAY, come along some weekend to the Texas ghost town that was saved by a beer joint. Gruene—pronounced “Green”—occupies a bluff overlooking the Guadalupe River near the midpoint of the reborn Austin—San Antonio corridor, just two miles from frenetic Interstate 35. It was annexed by New Braunfels in 1979, and without a trace of architectural concession, a suburban-anywhere neighborhood of brick homes has pressed close around the old village. But for tourists, Gruene’s charm is still distinct from the area’s Wurstfest and Schlitterbahn bent. There are decent restaurants, two rustic inns, recreation on one of the state’s loveliest streams, a live-music venue that is a Texas institution, a wealth of idle strolling, and a reassuring sense that in a time of excessive cul-de-sacs and phony frontier kitsch, this is one of the good things that happened to the Hill Country.
A pretty stretch of the Guadalupe breaks toward a low bridge under the bluff, then broadens out, green and translucent, in the shade of cypress trees. When Henry D. Gruene got rich, he chose not to situate his Victorian mansion with that fine view; he put his barn and corrals back there instead. His parents had arrived in New Braunfels with other German immigrants in 1846. In 1870, at age twenty, he made a cattle drive to Kansas, Utah, and Wyoming. Within a few years he married and started his life’s work: buying land and building a town for sharecroppers who planted his acreage in cotton. Gruene’s first business was a cotton gin, followed by a sawmill and a gristmill, and—in 1878—the dance hall and saloon. A sign in German read, “The Best Whiskey, the Best Beer, You Get at Henry’s Here.” According to one of Henry’s descendants, the town’s social life may have peaked on the day in 1911 when a large crowd assembled for their first sighting of an airplane. The aviator acknowledged them with a dip of his wings, fireworks went off, and the whiskey and beer poured on. Later that afternoon two cowboys got into a Bowie knife fight; Henry himself broke up the fracas with a warning shot from his .44.
After the patriarch died in 1920, his small empire went the way of the Depression. The last person of official capacity in Gruene is said to have hanged himself from the water tower in the twenties. The dance hall, called Gruene Hall, had known the polka, the Charleston, and the black bottom, but by 1975 it was boarded up and cloaked with dust and cobwebs. A couple continued to lease the joint, and after work a few locals drank beer around the bar and a potbellied stove. The gristmill was a picturesque ruin of buff brick walls; the mansion looked too far gone to save. Gruene was ripe for bulldozers. But just in time, the San Antonians came to town—among them