My memories of seventh-grade Texas history are, I’m sorry to say, negligible. I can’t even recall my teacher’s name, but I’m certain she’d approve of my recent field trip to Gonzales The town of around seven thousand is at the confluence of two rivers—the Guadalupe and the San Marcos—and is the site of the first skirmish of the Texas Revolution. That much I remembered even before Gonzales’s water tower came into view, emblazoned with a cannon and “Come and Take It,” the taunt that’s become the state’s unofficial mantra.
As I made my way to Gonzales’s historic nucleus—seven public squares laid out in the shape of a cross—I must have passed a dozen “Come and Take It” flags. Another hung at the 1887 jailhouse (414 S. Lawrence, 830-672-6532), now home to a museum and the Gonzales Visitors Center, where you can buy “Come and Take It” temporary tattoos. If you’re lucky, as I was, Sandra Wolff, who lived in the jail when her father was sheriff, back in the fifties, will escort you through the original holding cells and beneath a replica of the wooden gallows. It was also here that I met Paul Frenzel, an affable retiree so enthusiastic to show off the town that he offers free driving tours to see some of the eighty or so homes built more than a hundred years ago.
From behind the wheel of his minivan, Paul pointed out architectural flourishes and dished on memorable family feuds as we cruised by the 1848 Eggleston House (414 Smith, 830-672-6350), one of the oldest buildings in Gonzales, and the 1912 Dilworth House, a Greek Revival that’s been transformed into the six-room Belle Oaks Inn (222 St. Peter, 830-857-8613), where I would be checking in later.
After Paul deposited me back downtown, I headed for the swinging doors of the smoky Long Branch Saloon (315 St. Lawrence, 830-672-9050), where oil-field workers and a group of women in scrubs sipped on longnecks as league pool night commenced. I could smell the homemade sausage from the Gonzales Food Market (311 St. Lawrence, 830-672-3156) next door but decided to take a chance on the comfort food at Running M Bar and Grill (520 St Paul, 830-672-3647) nearby. Their country band—and open-air dance floor out back—proved more enjoyable than the fare. Back at Belle Oaks, I found a fresh banana-nut oatmeal cookie on my nightstand, which I ate in grateful haste.
I still had much to learn—or relearn—about Gonzales’s defining events of 1835. Paul had told me about the area’s first Anglo colony, which received land grants from Mexico in 1825, and I gleaned a few more details about the settlement from the signs on the banks of the Guadalupe River, just below the dam in Independence Park (Highway 183 South, 830-672-3192). It was near here that a Mexican lieutenant, backed by a hundred dragoons, demanded the return of a bronze cannon that had been given to the colony for protection against Indian raids. In defiance, eighteen of Gonzales’s men stalled for a few days to fatten their ranks.
The first shot of the Battle of Gonzales was fired on October 2, 1835, seven miles away in what is now the town of Cost (5905 Texas 97, 830-437-2066), and the black-and-white flag bearing the Texians’ bold motto was unfurled. With semitrucks whooshing behind me on Texas Highway 97, I walked up to the thirteen-and-a-half-foot-tall granite monument commemorating that shot, disturbing countless grasshoppers along the dry path. Carved on a bronze plaque are six Texians standing behind their cannon. It’s impressive, but the actual site is a mile and a half farther north. The marker there, beside the leafy banks of the Guadalupe and beneath an American flag, is far humbler but feels more sacred. Half a mile west, I found another site worth visiting: the Cost Store and Cafe (5905 Texas 97, 830-437-2066), which serves a chorizo-and-ground-beef South Texian burger deserving of its own monument.
While the cannon was enough to sever ties between the colonists and the Mexican government, it’s only two feet long. Apparently when visitors first lay eyes on it at the Gonzales Memorial Museum (414 Smith, 830-672-6350), most exclaim, “Is that it?” It’s a query with a double meaning, as there are also those who dispute that this is the “Come and Take It” cannon, believing it seized at the Alamo and melted down by Santa Anna’s troops. Though it’s the museum’s main attraction, it’s just one piece in a stirring collection that includes the colony’s handwritten 1831 constitution and an original drawing of the “Come and Take It” flag by the daughter of the blacksmith thought to have forged the weapon.
In March 1836, a week after the Alamo fell, Gonzales was burned to the ground on the order of General Sam Houston, who had set up camp near Peach Creek on the outskirts of town. Standing under the “Sam Houston Oak(Highway 90A, 830-203-5030, where the general is thought to have orchestrated the Runaway Scrape retreat, I imagined the horror of seeing a horizon of smoke as the homes were incinerated. By the early 1840’s, after Texas had secured its independence, Gonzales was being rebuilt around its seven squares. About a dozen of that era’s homes and structures (a school, a church, a granary) are on view at the Pioneer Village Living History Center (2122 N. St. Joseph, 830-672-2157, where people in period costume reenact the infamous skirmish during the citywide Come and Take It Festival (888–672-1095 each October. It’s also a sanctuary for feral cats, which lazed on porches and slunk between my ankles. I was surprised to learn of the free feline adoption program: if you’d like one (they’ve all been fixed), you can just come and take it. But if history has taught me anything, it’s that just because you can doesn’t mean you should.