I’d like to write more about my travels a while ago in the United States of America. Mind you, that’s felt difficult to do since the events of last week. It’s hard to summon the necessary enthusiasm and positivity when you’re aware that the USA, the place you’re writing about, has just elected to its helm someone with the grace, intellect and attractiveness of a shaved baboon that’s been dipped in a vat of orange paint.
Anyway, here goes. Here are a few words about the little town of Gruene in Texas.
Founded beside the Guadalupe River by German settlers in the 1840s, its economy originally based on cotton, Gruene was lucky not to disappear from the map a century later. By the 1950s, a series of misfortunes, including the loss of the town’s cotton gin in a fire, a cotton-destroying infestation by boll weevils and the construction nearby of a highway, had stripped Gruene of its trade, driven away its population and turned it into a ghost town. Then, in the 1970s, its derelict but architecturally-precious, turn-of-the-century buildings came close to being flattened and replaced by condominiums. Before that happened, however, an architecture student called Chip Kaufman stumbled across the former town during a kayaking trip. Kaufman was so impressed by what he found there that he persuaded the developers to back off and the authorities to preserve Gruene as a site of historical importance.
Now restored and repopulated, and with a new economy powered by tourism, Gruene exists in the 21st century as a district within the city limits of New Braunfels.
What caused Chip Kaufman to stop his kayak, get out, go exploring and discover the abandoned Gruene was the sight of an old water tower jutting above some treetops at the riverside. That water tower still dominates the townscape, its tank sporting a conical roof and with name GRUENE emblazoned across it for all to see. It’s supported by four long slender legs and, like a skinny fifth leg, a vertical pipe descends to the ground from the middle of its rounded base. Despite having two legs too many, the structure still resembles one of the Martian war machines in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Most of the buildings that the tower looks down on have painted or varnished wooded walls – the varnish baked dry in the sun, the paintwork gently scabbed or peeling – and corrugated-iron roofs. I also saw a few buildings that were entirely made of iron, their walls as well as roofs a patchwork of corrugated metal sheets. The iron usually showed a drizzle of dark red rust, which wasn’t displeasing to look at.
The most famous building in town is Gruene Hall, built in 1878 and one of the oldest dance halls in Texas. According to its Wikipedia entry, it’s hosted gigs by “Willie Nelson, George Strait, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, Hal Ketchum, Gregg Allman and many more”.
The hall was smaller than I’d expected, consisting of a white-painted timber façade with a modest entrance and several narrow windows and, behind that, a long, low building under the inverted V of another rusting corrugated-iron roof. The entrance takes you into a bar area that’s appropriately saloon-like, thanks to some wide-brimmed hats hanging on pegs, a counter fashioned out of wooden panels and scuffed planks and a sign announcing WELCOME COWBOYS.
Past this area is the dance-hall proper. The acts perform on a stage at its far end, in front of a painted backdrop depicting some rustic Texan valley. There are long, high gaps in its sidewalls, covered with chicken-wire, which allow you to view what’s happening outside while you sit at one of the tables and sup your beer. And opposite the stage-end, a couple of big hatchways give audiences access to the serving area of the front bar. Decorating the wall above the hatchways are a row of coloured electrical beer signs, glowing gorgeously in the hall’s shadowy interior: Budweiser, Coors, Shiner, Lone Star, Dos Equis and Heineken, their names etched in lines, curls and squiggles of fluorescent white, red, orange and green.
The rest of Gruene is a hodgepodge of souvenir shops, antiques stores, arts-and-crafts places and wine-tasting centres. One shop I wandered into housed a glorious clutter of Americana – old automobile lamps, number plates and exhaust pipes, illuminated bar signs, beer signs and signs from gas-stands and gas pumps, framed pictures of Marilyn, Elvis and John Wayne. I was less impressed, though, by the Texan God-bothering T-shirt hanging out on the porch.
Despite the crowds of visitors, I found Gruene a peaceful and beguiling place. Particularly tranquil was the scene down by the Guadalupe River, where you can spend time in the shade of the trees, listening to the rustle of water and doing that hippie ‘communing with nature’ thing. While I was there, I even spied three cyclists go past on the road. I think during the whole of my time in car-crazy Texas, that was the only moment when I saw anyone attempting to ride a bicycle.
So all praise to Chip Kaufman for managing to convince the developers in the 1970s to leave Gruene alone and save it for the edification of future generations. Though I suspect the outcome might’ve been less happy for the town if those forces of real estate had borne the name ‘Trump’.