There are people who say change is a good thing. And there are the people of Gruene, a historic hamlet near the Guadalupe River that has been “gently resisting change since 1872” (or so proclaims a billboard on the edge of this oh-so-small Central Texas town). On most days, you’d find me in camp with those forward-thinking progressives. But after my inaugural visit to Gruene, I was inclined to switch parties and begin advocating for gentle resistance.
Gruene’s roots were planted in the mid-1800’s when German farmers, undoubtedly in the throes of “change” themselves, settled the fertile land of Comal County. Some three miles north of New Braunfels emerged a community named Goodwin, where in 1872 the Ernst and Antoinette Gruene family bought up six thousand acres. Six years later, son Henry D., who’d come to be recognized as the town’s founding father, constructed a mercantile outpost for sharecroppers and those en route between Austin and San Antonio. In subsequent years he’d also add a cotton gin and a dance hall.
Come the turn of the century, Gruene (formerly known as Goodwin) was thriving as the epicenter of the area’s cotton industry and social scene. But, like in much of the nation, the twenties brought hardship. Not only did the decade mark the passing of Henry D., but it also saw the arrival of the boll weevil and the Great Depression. Need perspective? It is reported that in the late twenties, the Gruene family’s acres went dry, producing not even one bale of cotton. The post-World War II world brought highway construction, but not to Gruene. Hit upon hit upon hit left the area a virtual ghost town by 1950.
The ghost town saw revival in the seventies, as efforts were made to highlight Gruene’s tourist-friendly attributes, which include the state’s oldest dance hall, my biggest lure on a recent December evening. The famed Gruene Hall, where folks can see live shows seven nights a week during the summer and three or four nights a week during the rest of the year, has always seemed like one of those quintessential Texas must-sees (every good Texan has visited Gruene Hall, right?). And I was beginning to feel out of the loop because I hadn’t, well, seen it.
Unfortunately, I rolled into town after sundown, so opportunities for exploration were a tad limited. Some friends and I met up at the über-popular Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar. The cavernous hotspot was once the brick boiler of the town’s second cotton gin (Henry D.’s original burned in 1922). Now it serves up Texas staples like chicken-fried steak and Jack Daniels Pecan Pie.
After dinner, it was on with the show. Maybe certain changes just can’t be resisted, because I purchased my tickets to the Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis Holiday Show in modern-day fashion—online. Contemporary conveniences aside, the dance hall is old-school: a big wooden dance floor, a tiny stage. The darling country-crooning couple drew quite the crowd, and we packed ourselves in like sardines. The lucky ones (read: the smart individuals who showed up early) found seats for their bottoms; the rest of us filled in where we could, propping ourselves to a higher perch thanks to a bench or a pool table. Even in the close quarters, some lovebirds cut out a couple square inches in which to dance.
I two-stepped my way to Gruene a few weeks later to check out the town and its cutesy collection of antiques and specialty shops in the daylight. I also moseyed down to the quiet banks of the Guadalupe, which are sure to be packed come warmer weather, and I picked up literature on Gruene Market Days, which take place the third weekend of the month from February through November. Basically, I started a mental list of all I still have to do in Gruene once the season turns. Thankfully, I know, even with the passage of time, little will have changed.