Editor’s Note: When you think of visiting Texas, the town of Fredericksburg probably doesn’t instantly come to mind. But Lonely Planet recently named this village in the state’s rolling Hill Country #7 on its Top Ten U.S. destinations. It’s a place with unique and colorful history, terrific shopping options, and interesting food and beverage venues and our travel and food expert Carla Waldemar brings you her take on this off-beat must-see destination. – BH, RFT Editor
I’m deep in the heart of Texas—reliving the refrain of the 1940s hit song by cowboy warbler Gene Autry. The stars at night are big and bright, just as he promised. And as we drive along, I mentally supply the clap-clap-clap that interrupts each verse (thus banned on the British airwaves because of potential injury to listening factory workers, who couldn’t resist adding their applause. True story).
Anyway. We’re driving through Texas’ Hill Country, rather than the famous flat-as-a-pancake plains, where here the terrain is too rolling for cattle ranchers. The only longhorn I spot belongs to a deer.
This is the spot of America where upstanding farmers from Germany were invited to settle in the mid-1800s—120 of them, encouraged to grow peaches, grapes and such on the vast terrain surrounding the town they founded—Fredericksburg—where today “Wilkommen” signs still flourish and local businesses incorporate “Haus” in their titles. And they’re still coming. I purchased an Art Nouveau antique from a recent arrival, who’d brought it along from Dusseldorf and danke-schoen’ed me as I left her shop.
History Comes Alive
Those original immigrants lived too far away for their ox teams to make the trip to town and back in an afternoon, so families were awarded a tiny lot in town as well, where they erected Sunday Houses: one-room cottages of lumber or limestone (no water, no heat) with maybe a loft for the kids to sleep, reached by an outdoor ladder. Thus the pious Germans could conduct their Saturday business, enjoy a beer on a Saturday night, then attend Sunday church and Bible classes before heading home to the farm.
The best part is, many of these iconic dwellings still remain, renovated inside to serve as shops, cafes, B&Bs. They’re easy to spot as you amble down Main Street and its environs, armed with a self-guide walking tour map, or, even easier, a trolley tour departing from the Tourist Office. Its narrator will stop for a peek into St. Mary’s Church of 1908, called a “painted church” in honor of its shimmering stained-glass windows, each with a German inscription. We ogle the White Elephant Saloon, a saloon-cum-butcher shop from 1827, which now serves as an inn and wine-tasting room, along with many humble dwellings and their fancier neighbors built in Fachwerk style (X-beamed exterior timbers filled in with stone rubble). And then there’s the original jail, big enough for a single miscreant.
For a more in-depth investigation, head to Main Street’s Pioneer Museum, a landscape of dwellings original to the site plus several moved here to preserve them. Step into a one-room schoolhouse; a furnished Sunday House near the windmill that drew its water; the communal bathhouse-cum-barbershop; and more. Audio descriptions of the lifestyle spring forth as you enter each building, enhanced by guide Evelyn Weinheimer, who points to the steamer trunks, kids’ toys and musical instruments as familiar household objects when she grew up here.
Also on Main Street stands the Vereinhaus—a unique eight-sided building and sometime-church. It was constructed to be able to spot possibly-hostile Indians’ approach–from any direction. Today it houses objects brought from Germany with those original arrivals: from rifles and branding irons to cookie cutters, and an intriguing Luther Bible from 1665.
Then there’s this surprise museum—the National Museum of the Pacific War, launched in 2009 right here in the land-bound Texas hills. Why, one has to ask. Well, because Fredericksburg is the hometown of World War II’s Admiral Nimitz, who commanded the Pacific’s operations. (In fact, the Nimitz Hotel of 1860—a stagecoach stop back then—still dominates Main Street, just where its proprietor, Admiral Nimitz’s grandfather, erected it.
I’d planned to spend a couple of hours in the museum, but be advised: It wasn’t half-enough time to absorb the story, retold by newsreels of the time, participants’ oral accounts, models of warships and the opposing fleets in action. See the submarine that attacked Pearl Harbor while gunfire and flames erupt above it on a wide screen. Continue to the impossible battles on the Philippines, Wake, Guam, Bataan, Iwo Jima and other islands nobody had ever heard of before. The museum also honors the story of Japanese-American citizens ruthlessly forced into internment camps here in the USA.
People (Okay: ladies) also descend on Fredericksburg for its near-endless shopping ops. Main Street is pack-pack-packed with 150 indies (no chains allowed in the Historic District), each eager to sell you faux-cowhand everything. I succumbed (bad girl!) at one of its cadre of galleries supporting local artists, such as Insight, housed in a 1907 dry-goods store. Its high tin ceiling and limestone walls house 60 regional talents. River Rustic celebrates another 50 artists whose works center on quirky contempo pieces such as the Flag of Texas constructed out of bullets and cigar-box purses.
Or venture a bit off the beaten track to Magnolia Pearl, built by its visionary owners out of salvaged barn wood, with its filmy, romantic clothing displayed on, say, a piano keyboard or antique bedsteads. If you, too, wish to look like a Merchant Ivory starlet, they’ll ship you ‘pick boxes’; simply return what you don’t fancy.
Carol Hicks Bolton runs three side-by-side warehouses crammed with rustic French antiques—anti-fancy crucifixes to bicycles and wooden puppets. And Larry Johnson specializes in Texas art and antiques, focusing on a menagerie of stuffed animals and silver jewelry. The choices seem endless.
Bring on the Beer and Food
Thirsty by now? This is no longer Dr. Pepper country. However, Texas not only sports more than 400 wineries but, Fredericksburg boasts the first-ever Texas brewery, Fredericksburg Brewing Company, launched in 1994 in an auto parts store. Today its Not So Dumb Blonde leads the list, followed by Peace Pipe Pale Ale, Pioneer Porter and the seasonal Hoppy Holidays. You can also munch on beer-infused meatloaf and Cheddar soup, too, at the brewery. Or stay in the upstairs B&B—where the second B signifies not ‘breakfast’, but ‘beer.’ Pedernales Brewing Company was launched by Peter McFarland five years ago, where today Texas lager is its flagship pour and dark Lobo Negro its medal-winner.
Food, you ask? It’s DIY at Fischer & Wieser’s Culinary Adventures Cooking School, owned by Mark Wieser, who grew it from a log cabin ca. 1870 (“You paid $150 for that?” declared his shortsighted ma as she smacked him upside the head when he made this dubious real estate deal.)
As a kid, Mark used the cabin to sell peaches from the family property to passers-by. Then, while teaching school as an adult here, he hired a student named Fischer (“like a son to me”), who had one of those Eureka moments that led to marketing jalapeno jelly. They were the first to introduce that addictive pepper to the American palate, resulting in the outfit’s now-legendary national bestseller, Roasted Raspberry Chipotle sauce.
You’ll find the fiery sauce, and many offshoots, in the company’s retail shop. Next door stands a cooking school where guests learn the how to’s of Texas cooking and then enjoy a three-course meal. Ours was a brunch leading off with Frito pie. (Texans need no explanation. For the rest of us, it’s chili, as cooked by the original Mexican chili queens at San Antonio’s Mercado, mixed with Frito corn chips.) Next came shrimp and grits, and finally, Peaches Foster (no surprise).
Where else to eat in Fredericksburg? Try the upscale /minimalist site called Ottos’ for a foie gras BLT or frikadellen—bison patties with blackberry reduction, mustard pickles, Dijon caper gravy—as starters, followed by duck schnitzel with spatzle, red cabbage, paprikash sauce and pickled peppers; or wild boar goulash aside savory bread pudding and sautéed greens. Try the Old German Bakery for Teutonic treats from the oven. And a sweet haven called Vaudeville, below-stairs in an accessories shop of the same name. Here, against a wall of wine, order fancy baked goods or the likes of a Brussels sprout/pork belly flatbread ( a wholehearted yum) or an elaborate and sublime BLT. Don’t forget the coconut/blond raisin rice pudding.
Other spots recommended by vintners in the know: Cabernet, The Nest, Navajo Grill, The Hilltop (Cajun/Greek) and burgers at Alamo Springs. — by Carla Waldemar, RFT Contributor
For further info: www.VisitFredericksburgTX.comj.