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 Pat Molak, a gregarious ex-stockbroker in his thirties, and his friend and business partner, Mary Jane Nalley. Molak bought the dance hall but laughed at the notion of a long-range plan: “At this point,” he told me then, “it’s a matter of trying to have enough cash to buy beer when the beer man comes.”
All at once Gruene was crawling with Molak’s high school chums from Alamo Heights: One did some preliminary restoration work on the mansion and tried to turn the building that housed the town’s electric cotton gin (built in 1923) into a winery. A man named Chip Kaufman arrived from Austin with a kayak on the roof of his car, bought the gristmill, turned part of it into a one-room apartment, and pondered the challenge of how to cover enough sky to turn the rest into a restaurant. He got Gruene certified on the National Register of Historic Places but soon ran out of money. Trying to hang on, he sold the water tower to a local developer. “I looked up and saw the crane,” Molak recalls, “and thought, ‘My God, if you’ve got no water tower, you’ve got no town.’” A New Braunfels judge ordered the two men to settle things fast. Molak and Nalley eventually bought the property and made the ruin into the decked and semi-open-air Gristmill Restaurant, which is still going strong.
The rebirth of Gruene coincided with the Guadalupe’s emergence as the state’s favorite spot for canoeing and other white-water sports—a development that still rankles some landowners along the river. In the late seventies all sorts of Gruene enterprises came and went. Joe Sears and Jaston Williams staged one of the first performances of their Greater Tuna there. But from the start Gruene Hall was the cash and bell cow: Musicians took one look at it and fell in love. Jerry Jeff Walker, Asleep at the Wheel, Delbert McClinton, George Strait, Joe Ely, Kelly Willis, the Fabulous Thunderbirds—whoever was hot in Texas wanted to play in Gruene on a weekend night. In addition, Nalley started booking promising young performers like Robert Earl Keen and Jimmy LaFave to play Sunday afternoons without a cover charge. “Hal Ketchum was working in Gruene as a carpenter when we met him,” she says, “and Lyle Lovett’s first shows were almost painful. He was just so shy.”
The look of the place attracted several shoots of music videos and TV commercials, and inevitably Hollywood got in on the act. Here was where Meg Ryan jumped out of a cake at Dennis Quaid in 1993’s Flesh and Bone. And for a few days this spring, John Travolta could be found hanging out at the bar during the shooting of the forthcoming Michael. Nora Ephron, Michael’s director and screenwriter, sent scouts through several states searching for a saloon that matched her exact description in one particular scene. Gruene Hall, they reported, was the only place.
I lived in New Braunfels and the nearby countryside for most of the seventies. Gruene was a centerpiece of my social life as a youth, and a recent trip there with