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Daddy, let’s go to the river,” urges my 10-year-old son, Ryan, as he pulls me across the parking lot. We’ve been parked for only a few minutes, but he’s already eager to explore Gruene, a historic destination just north of New Braunfels.
Henry Gruene founded the town in 1878 when he established a mercantile store and stagecoach stop on a high bank above the Guadalupe River.
The town flourished, a center of banking, ginning and shipping for the area’s cotton industry. Gruene’s prosperity halted after the Great Depression. Most folks blamed the failing economy, but Gruene also suffered the effects of the boll weevil scourge that devastated the area’s cotton. By the end of the 1950s, Gruene was virtually deserted.
In the 1970s, historic Gruene slowly came back to life, and today it is a destination for many who enjoy its dining options, music venues and river culture.
Because my family has visited a half-dozen times, we know there’s too much to see and do. In spite of my son’s entreaties, we decide to shop before hitting the river. I stop in at Gruene Outfitters because, as a fly fishing enthusiast, I enjoy the colors and designs of tied flies.
Meanwhile, my wife and kids walk down to the Gruene General Store. By the time I catch up, the kids have scored an ice cream cone from the soda parlor inside. So much about the architecture of this place is genuinely historic, and it feels good to walk in and enjoy the wooden-floored ambience. Meanwhile, I have my eye on an antiques store across the street in the original H.D. Gruene Mercantile Store.
We’re on a never-ending search for the right pieces to embellish our farmhouse. At the Gruene Antique Company, selections are wall-to-wall. While the kids sit outside to finish their ice cream, my wife, Kristy, and I browse. Nothing catches my eye save for a big bench near the front door. We are traveling in an SUV and space is limited, so I leave the bench behind.
Outside, the kids sit patiently. Pedestrian traffic is vigorous, and people-watching is rewarding today.
“Let’s go to the river,” reminds my boy. I tell him to wait as we head down the street past Gruene Hall and look around in some home décor shops. At Hunter Junction, I find a cookbook of Texas recipes. As I purchase the book, I imagine myself preparing various concoctions for an adoring audience back at home.
After 5 p.m., Gruene is starting to transition from daytime to nighttime culture. In front of Gruene Hall, the oldest continually operating dancehall in Texas, performers are unloading musical instruments and carrying them inside. It’s singer-songwriter night, and we plan to listen to music in the historic building.
Gruene Hall, with its wooden floors and the patina on the walls, is a true Texas treasure. The adage “if these walls could talk” seems understated for a place where the legends in Texas music have played. Just visiting this hallowed place is a treat, no matter who’s playing.
Gruene offers several restaurant choices, but we decide on Cantina del Rio. It’s about 6 p.m., and the sun is getting low. Even though we’ve been here for about five hours, our day is barely halfway over. We still have a meal ahead of us, as well as music to hear and the river to visit.
Just when he thought I’d forgotten, I nudge my boy and say, “Before we eat, let’s go to the river.” His smile is big as we walk down the hill toward the Guadalupe. The river flow is strong as it riffles over rocks and past stately cypress. By the time we get to the bank, the kids have their shoes off and step gingerly into the cool water.
The look on their faces reassures me that we’ve made the right decision coming here. Gruene is always a magical place.
Writer and photographer Russell Graves is a member of South Plains EC.