The Old Country

Few places on earth manage to stay the same. Why should a wrinkled piece of Texas receive exemption? But I'm grateful that I came to know the Hill Country before it was overrun.

April 2003By Comments

DURING MOST OF MY LIFE I have cherished the Hill Country, as have large numbers of my fellow Texans. It is a swath of rumpled terrain whose eastern and southern edge sweeps in an arc some two hundred miles long from the Austin area down past San Antonio and west to not far from Del Rio, on the Mexican border. This curving boundary is a rise of hundreds of feet from lower, flatter lands to the east and south and is known as the Balcones Escarpment or Fault Line, the result of an upheaval in Tertiary times. Here prairies end against heights dark with juniper and oak, the valleys between them watered by cypress-shaded rivers and creeks, the escarpment itself spouting forth great springs here and there from its cavernous aquifer. Containing all or parts of more than twenty counties, the hills have a less emphatic border on their northwestern inward side, where valleys and draws grow shallow and blend into the ranching grasslands of the wide, semiarid Edwards Plateau, of which the Hill Country itself is the eroded fringe.

Since well over a century ago, the region has been a sort of reference point for natives of other parts of the state, and mention of it usually brings smiles and nods. Not much of it is spectacular in the manner of high mountains and craggy seacoasts and such places, but we care about it—the dissected, elevated landscapes unlike the areas where most of us live, the un-Texan cool spring-fed streams, the fishing and hunting if we’re inclined that way, the people and their towns and farms and ranches and their rather distinctive history.

In earlier times, farm families from flatter and more fertile lands within reach, sometimes two or three families in a group, would trek to the hills in wagons during the summer, after crops needed no more care and had been laid by till harvest. The hill breezes were dry and healthful, the peaches and plums and melons ripe on nearby friendly farms, the bass and catfish and perch active in clear streams beside which these folks would set up camp under great pecans and oaks, staying for a week or two to fish and loaf and talk and cook and eat and swim. When young, I knew old men and women who as children had regularly gone along on such expeditions, and their recollections were idyllic. As a youngster in the twenties and thirties, I saw the region on trips south from Fort Worth with my family, and later, when I was in college, groups of us, with our girls and (in those days) a faculty chaperon and his wife, would go there to sun and swim for long weekends at a “camp” with primitive cabins on a pretty river. Later still, after World War II, when I was a lowly English instructor at the university in Austin, I came to know the hills better. Driving out to see relatives in the little German town of Boerne or friends with a cottage on the Guadalupe upstream from Kerrville, I often strayed from the route to poke around. One special memory is of stopping off now and then at New Braunfels, where copious springs fed a small lake in Landa Park, at the head of the short Comal River. Fishing, I would work along the riverbank or rent a tiny wooden skiff and row out on the lake to cast to Rio Grande perch, cichlids and reputedly inedible. But they were staunch fighters on a fly rod in the swirling springwater.

In recent decades, after some years away from Texas, my main trips to the hills have involved visits to friends near Fredericksburg, more sojourns with those on the Guadalupe, and every spring a rendezvous with a few old comrades on the James River, a tributary of the Llano that wanders through rugged country in Mason County. There we emulate our predecessors in such places by camping and fishing and philosophizing for four or five good days. At that season migrant birds from warblers to avocets and hawks are swarming through, and each evening we watch as a couple of million Mexican free-tailed bats rise in columns from a nearby cave like windblown smoke, starting out on their nightly bug hunt.

IN 1718 SPANISH SOLDIERS AND priests established San Antonio on its river issuing from escarpment springs, but their efforts to set up further missions and forts north of there were thwarted by two successive warlike groups of Indians. Both of these were horseback invaders from plains to the northwest—first the Apache, then later the even fiercer Comanche and allied Kiowa.

The first Anglo-American colonists in Texas, arriving in the early 1800’s, made no attempt to settle the hills but chose better farming land elsewhere. Hence the initial pioneers of the Hill Country, or a heartland portion of it, were Germans brought here through the ineptitude of an organization of titled aristocrats in their homeland, the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, most often referred to as the Society, or Verein. It was a disastrous outfit, underfinanced and often poorly administered. For instance, the more than three million acres of Texas land on which it bought colonization rights, sight unseen, turned out to be a drouthy expanse ruled by Comanches, stretching from the northern edge of the hills westward onto the Edwards Plateau itself. There, recruited immigrants were to be set up on farms that would make the wilderness bloom, causing real estate values to skyrocket and enriching the noble investors.

But during the period from late 1844, when the first immigrants reached Matagorda Bay and found far too few wagons waiting to carry them inland, to 1847, when the Verein went broke, only a handful of the more than seven thousand Germans it had lured here reached the tract’s southern boundary on the Llano River. Some had dropped off before even reaching the hills, and hundreds had died of various diseases on the coast or in the towns of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg—way stations set up en route to the proposed settlements. Or they had spread out from those centers, taking up arable valley land and forming communities in a strip running ultimately north-northwest from the San Antonio region to beyond the Llano, a section now known as the German Hill Country. Duped or not, these hardworking people had come to stay, as their permanent stone houses and outbuildings and field fences still testify, and their orderly towns with churches, good schools, meeting halls, beer halls, and singing and shooting clubs.

After Texas became a state in 1845, a new set of Anglos, slaveless highland Southerners for the most part, trickled and then flooded into other parts of the hills. They moved up stream valleys to exploit cypresses for shingles and lumber at places that became towns like Kerrville and Bandera, established farms and ranches, and engaged in mortal combat with raiding Indians in quest of horses and scalps and prisoners, as did the Germans in their own areas. For despite roving companies of state Rangers, armed by then with Colt revolvers, and a sprinkling of U.S. Army forts, Comanches and Kiowas and some surviving Apaches would remain for nearly three more decades the scourge of the Texas frontier. Throughout the hills today, roadside historical markers near the sites of old raids and clashes commemorate those times.

The two kinds of whites mixed little in the beginning, separated as they were by different languages and ways of living and zones of settlement. But the mild and normal antipathy existing between such different breeds seems not to have turned serious until the Civil War, when many Germans were Northern in their sympathies and many Anglos aggressively Rebel. Hostility flared into bloodshed, as in the oft-cited “Battle of the Nueces,” where armed German Unionists on their way to Mexico were attacked by Confederate home-guard troops. Later, post-war resentments and other factors brought lynchings, outlawry, cattle-rustling, and feuds with an ethnic tinge, like the Mason County “Hoodoo War.”

All of that eventually simmered down, however, and gradually the cultures began to blend along their edges. Their basic differentness lasted into my own time—I can recall a number of instances, at filling stations or fishing holes or elsewhere, when a conversation in English would switch abruptly to German upon the appearance of an alien Anglo, namely me. But even then it had been smoothed by intermarriage, business friendships, shared places of pleasure like the Saturday-night dance halls still popular in the region, and the evolution of a sort of Hill Country Western way of being.

THE GERMANS TOGETHER WITH THEIR Anglo neighbors wrought changes in the hills, as have their descendants and a parcel of outsiders as well. A change that began early involved the land itself. When the first settlers came, the Ashe juniper that cloaks so many of the heights today—”cedar” to all Texans—was inconspicuous, confined to steep-walled draws and such places by occasional prairie fires, and the hills themselves were savannahs of tall grass and oaks, too stony or steep for crops but excellent pastureland. Looking at their dark cedar blanket today, you find it hard to believe that they played a notable part in the post-Civil War cattle boom, with roundups and trails to Kansas and lariat-swinging cowboys and all that. But they did, for a while at least, before merciless open-range grazing destroyed the grasses and much soil, letting hardwood brush and water-hogging cedar move in, drying up many hillside springs and the creeks they fed and making weed-eating sheep and leaf-browsing Angora goats the livestock of choice in many sections.

After the coming of barbed wire, the juniper created a new occupation based on the harvest of strong and durable cedar fence posts, in demand on ranches in the hills and farther west. The “cedar choppers” were a special breed of Anglos, taciturn and clannish, who moved from brake to brake, cutting posts to sell to dealers in towns. Those axmen are just about all gone now, and the few people you see still working the cedar are usually Hispanics with chain saws.

Most modern changes have had a familiar American flavor—big reservoirs strung out along the Colorado above Austin and one on the Guadalupe, a network of fast highways, including an interstate, a fungus that is destroying many of the region’s age-old live oaks, periodic depletion of the magnificent Edwards-Balcones aquifer through pumping of its water by cities, and so on. Another change derives from an influx of city people that started many years back but has swelled in recent times—outdoorsmen, sightseers, sojourners or immigrants, rich land-buyers, all seeking tranquillity and pleasant surroundings or, often, real estate profits. San Antonians have always appreciated the Hill Country and long ago started acquiring ranches and weekend nooks there. Houston natives also, steaming in their semitropical coastal summers before air conditioning, were drawn to the region despite the distance involved.

The venerable farmhouse I used to visit on the cypress-bordered South Fork of the Guadalupe above Kerrville, in an old Anglo zone of settlement, had been bought in the twenties by my college roommate’s parents, who lived in Houston. By the time I came to know the neighborhood, just before World War II and after it, miles of the riverbank were sprinkled with the vacation homes of Houstonians, who all seemed to know one another and visited back and forth. The social doings favored by my roommate and me and our friends, though, were Saturday-night wingdings at Crider’s, a barbecue place with an open-air concrete dance floor beside the river. Here local cowboy and cowgirl types and ranchers and cedar choppers and businessmen mingled with tourists, artists, members of the Houston oil elite, young counselors from the area’s summer camps, and all manner of other folks. There was high-elbow dancing to a country band’s beat, much consumption of beer, and always good humor, at least in my rose-tinted recollection. Crider’s still exists, and though with the years my taste for loud and bibulous evenings has dwindled, I have driven by the place on Saturday night and noted with pleasure that despite bigger crowds and thicker and fancier development up and down the river, it still looks and sounds much the same as I remember it from fifty and sixty years ago.

In many other parts of the hill region, this amiable invasion has been going on for just as long. Amiable up to a point, that is. Its less-aesthetic results are perhaps most visible in German towns that not long ago were havens of serenity with an Old World flavor but are now within commuting range of San Antonio or Austin and touring range of everywhere else. At New Braunfels, where long ago I used to stop and fish, the lovely little Comal below the springs is now overwhelmed by a huge water park with rides given coyly faux-German names like Blastenhoff and Surfenburg, and in season the river’s daily hordes of inner-tubers drifting downstream make happy noise and adorn the shores with emptied beer and soft-drink cans and various forms of paper and plastic. Boerne, Comfort, even Fredericksburg the jewel—all are now ringed by normal American clutter, and though local efforts have led to the preservation of most old town centers, summer visitors fill streets whose buildings of local limestone hold a profusion of competing antiques and crafts and bric-a-brac shops, along with busy real estate offices. The peaceful era in these places has faded away, and many natives, not having known much prosperity before, relish the change. Others don’t, nor does an aging outsider like me, who preferred the towns as they used to be.

AT THIS POINT I NEED to confess, however, that towns have always attracted me less than the land that spreads out from them. Being a rustic type by anachronistic taste and choice, I have a special interest in the hills’ countryside and its people, and in the changes there, which have been considerable. Nowadays it takes a little searching, for example, to find one of the small valley farmsteads, usually German and anciently solid in aspect, that is still in use by its founding family. The farms sustained such families for lifetime after lifetime of hard and satisfying labor, but in these days hard work for short pay has ceased to charm many heirs drawn toward urban bustle and cash. So the farmsteads get sold, often to developers who slice them into “ranchettes” or to eager city buyers who refurbish them as weekend or retirement homes. I know and like some outlanders who have loved and cared for such places for many years and have fitted well into their neighborhoods. But I can’t help missing those leathery German oldsters who used to come out on the porch and give me road directions in a lilting accent and tell me about their peach crop.

The supervision of ruminants as an occupation has always had special cachet in Texas, and quite a few well-heeled city dwellers feel a need to classify themselves as ranchers, regardless of their aptitudes. While driving around in the Hill Country, you can make a sort of game out of spotting the flamboyantly varied entrance gateways of less-tradition-conscious newcomers, which tend to be looming, humorless fantasies of wrought iron and native stone. What they are meant to say, I guess, is “Look, I’m a rancher!” but it often comes across as a more pecuniary statement, maybe “Look at my tax shelter!” Frequently the fences stretching out from these ornate gates are built of eight-foot-high net wire and enclose herds of exotic game animals of various fashionable species.

In fairness, many new ranch owners have been good for the land itself, if only because they don’t have to make a living from it. Most have the cedar bulldozed and the grass replanted, and some actually care about ranching and use their places lightly and well. At least one of these, J. David Bamberger—an Ohio farm boy who later, as he reticently puts it, “did well in business”—has spent decades and a slew of money on the thoughtful and effective restoration of an initially overgrazed, cedar-choked, thirsty 5,500-acre piece of Blanco County. The transformed result is a startling approximation of what this land used to be like—springs flowing again from under the hills’ caprock and feeding the streams below, cedar confined to steep ravines where it belongs, good native grasses restored on the valley floors and the slopes of the heights, and abundant wildlife, with a judicious mix of goats and cattle and sheep to help keep the changes permanent.

CHANGE APPEARS TO BE THE main theme of this look at a region I have held dear. I am tempted to blame this on my own codgerly impatience with new ways, though in fact over the years I’ve become a sort of pessimistic accepter of change, unpalatable though many of its aspects may be in my view. The Hill Country escaped emphatic social change for a long time, because its rough topography and its paucity of agricultural and mineral wealth preserved its landscapes and towns and cultural flavors and the connection of its people to the land. But the preservation itself in turn made the region all the more enchanting to outsiders in our prosperous, discontented, questing time, finally bringing big change in a rush.

So be it, I suppose, for in an era like this, few places on earth manage to stay as they have been, and why should a wrinkled piece of Texas receive exemption? I remain grateful, though, for having experienced the hills earlier, when change was slight. Grateful too for corners and stretches social change has barely yet touched, like a crooked, narrow back route I sometimes take when heading north toward home, part asphalt and part graveled caliche and part plain dirt. It crosses purling creeks and stony ridges and passes grassed hillsides, crumbling German rock fences, granite heights and boulder-strewn fields, thick cedar brakes, mesquite-infested pastures, and small oak-shaded ranch houses with windmills and battered corrals where work-stained men in khakis tend their cattle. Along that road there are no flamboyant gateways, and near its end you come in sight of low, swaybacked Packsaddle Mountain, where in 1873 the region’s last recorded Indian battle was fought.

The Indians lost.

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