Looking Back, Moving Forward
Fredericksburg, TX, marries history with hip
The marriage of history and hip isn’t an obvious one. One is a nod to the past, an honoring of what and who has come before and a grounding in those traditions. The other is a desire to be current, to understand what people want in the here and now, and to be able to deliver it.
The small Texas Hill Country town of Fredericksburg has managed to create a beautiful marriage where the constructs of history and hip have truly become one, turning a dichotomy into a symbiosis. Without ceremony or pretense, the town has molded and blended its roots into its future.
It is a pleasure to experience. The historic town is as charming and quaint as you would expect it to be. Chain restaurants are forbidden in the historic center of the town where the Vereins Kirche (Society Church) stands proudly, reminding you that what it represents is way more important than a Big Mac. The original structure served as the town’s first church, school, and public meeting place, as well as a lookout building for protection against invaders. Residents used it as a dance hall on Saturday, a church on Sunday, and a school on Monday. Rebuilt in 1935, the hexagonal replica now serves as a pioneer memorial.
A descendant of the original German community, Evelyn Grona Weinheimer, oversees the programs and archives at the Vereins Kirche, along with the Pioneer Museum just across the street. Her great-great-great-grandfather was the first teacher at Vereins Kirche, and other than serving in wars or, in Evelyn’s case, going to college, no one from her family has ever left.
Evelyn embodies the spirit of the immigrants, their legacy kept alive as Fredericksburg celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. She and other members of the Gillespie County Historical Society run exhibits, demonstrations, and educational programs that feature 11 historic structures, including original homes, a one-room schoolhouse, and a log cabin from 1846. Their goal is to help visitors understand the struggles of the founding generations, thousands of miles from their homes, with few supplies and equipment.
These immigrants contended with swaths of land somewhat removed from town, thus necessitating structures purely unique to Fredericksburg: Sunday Houses—small, weekend homes for farmers who traveled into town for supplies and Sunday services. They came by horse-drawn carriages, families in tow, from up to 22 miles away. Today, you can stay in those very houses (there are over 1,200 currently on the rental market) and get a taste of a type of lodging you won’t find anywhere but in Fredericksburg.
And that’s just the beginning of history becoming hip. As generations learned to live off the Texas land, they developed an eye for the future while retaining their heritage. Even their wine production is rooted in German traditions. After discovering that Mediterranean and Italian grape varietals do well in the Texas terroir, Becker Vineyards became the first viognier producer in Texas. Since then, 85 wineries have dotted the landscape with trellises and vines, and their delicious Tempranillos and Montepulcianos flow freely. Little known fact: Texas has been making wine 150 years longer than California has!
Fredericksburg also gets credit for making farm-to-table dining a thing long before it became a thing. One of its newest restaurants, Hill & Vine, serves all fresh, locally sourced fare described as “new American Texas cuisine.” Think black-eyed pea hummus and wood-fired Angus ribeye capped off with roadside fried pies filled with peaches from the orchard down the road.
Otto’s German Bistro, a long popular eatery led by Chef Henry Gutkin, a native of Düsseldorf, provides a different spin. Gutkin’s schnitzel is so legendary that one very wealthy man was known to fly his private jet to Otto’s just to eat it. When the restaurant temporarily suspended the dish and he arrived for his customary plate, he was so disappointed he flew home without eating. “Let me know when the schnitzel is back on the menu,” he said, and ever since, it’s been a staple.
Fredericksburg seems to have an innate understanding of balance, of preserving history while evolving with the times. The theme of its 175th anniversary is “Lasting Fredericksburg,” and it is committed to honoring the legacy of its founders, all of whom Evelyn describes as having “great grit.”
The German immigrants who came before them would be proud.