By Elaine Robbins
Travel time from:
- Austin - 1.75 hours /
- Brownsville - 5.5 hours /
- Dallas - 5 hours /
- El Paso - 8.5 hours /
- Houston - 4 hours /
- San Antonio - .75 hours/
- Lubbock - 5.75 hours
German heritage and historic architecture attract travelers to this laid-back town.
With its glittery boutiques, biergartens and bakeries smelling of apfelstrudel, it's no wonder that Fredericksburg is one of the Hill Country's most popular destinations. But if you, like me, sometimes prefer solitude to shopping, the tiny Hill Country town of Comfort may be for you. Just 23 miles south of Fredericksburg and 52 miles northwest of San Antonio, Comfort is quiet indeed - you'll find only a few restaurants, antique shops and thrift stores. With its tranquil B&Bs, historic main street, and interesting German heritage, it makes a great base for exploring the scenic western Hill Country.
On our way to Comfort on FM 473, we decide to stop briefly in Sisterdale, population 25, to see the few remaining vestiges of what was once a thriving German intellectual enclave. At Sister Creek Vineyards, a winery housed in a century-old cotton gin, we take a quick stroll through the winery's storage rooms. In the tasting room, we try several vintages and then buy a bottle of Sister Creek's popular sweet, fruity Muscat. We stop to take pictures of the rusty old farm machinery in the yard across the street and find Sisterdale's old abandoned schoolhouse before crossing Sister Creek and heading for Comfort.
We follow the two-lane farm-to-market road 13 miles over steep hills and down to low-water crossings, through scrubby ranchland dotted with grazing goats, with barely another car in sight. Just as we are starting to wonder why Comfort's founders picked a spot so far from the then-civilized world of Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, we're there.
We park and set out to explore High Street, the heart of the charming National Register Historic District. Although the district includes more than 100 buildings dating from the 1850s to 1910, most of the commercial buildings are in a two-block stretch of downtown. On quiet streets that surround the commercial district, many eighth-generation descendants of the original families still live in the rough-hewn cabins, Victorians, and solid limestone houses built by their ancestors.
The Germans who settled this area - Sisterdale, Bettina and Comfort - were different from their brethren elsewhere in the Texas Hill Country. "The Llano valley had stern, teetotaling German Methodists, who renounced dancing and fraternal organizations," explains historian Terry Jordan in The Handbook of Texas. "[T]he Pedernales valley had fun-loving, hardworking Lutherans and Catholics who enjoyed drinking and dancing; and the Guadalupe valley had atheist Germans descended from intellectual political refugees."
Comfort's settlers fell solidly in the latter camp. Fleeing poor economic conditions and political oppression in Germany, they were known as "freethinkers" - from the German word freidenker. They were liberals, intellectuals and atheists who founded the prototypical blue community in a red state. They experimented with collective living and supported the Union side in the Civil War. (The Treue der Union Monument honors the men who were killed at the Battle of Nueces for their sympathies.) I was surprised to learn that Comfort's freethinker movement was alive and well in Comfort until the 1970s, according to Glen Lich, author of German Texans.
Historic walking tour
With the afternoon ahead of us, we set out to see some of the historic district. Following a self-guided walking tour map, we start at the 1907 State Bank Building, a handsome structure made out of hand-cut stone, with polished red granite columns framing the corner entrance. Across the street, we pop into the public library, which is housed in a two-story solid limestone block building.
Although most of Comfort's historic commercial buildings are on High Street, don't miss the block of 7th Street between High and Main. Halfway down the block on the right we admire the 1854 Goldbeck cabin, built by the poet Fritz Goldbeck. It looks like a typical Texas dogtrot log cabin, but it's actually a prime example of fachwerk, the technique that Germans brought to the local vernacular style. Look at the side of the house to see the exposed fachwerk, where diagonal half-timbers are interspersed with mortar mixed with limestone.
"In Germany, stone didn't bear its own weight," says Anne Stewart, the town's unofficial historian, who writes about Comfort's history for two local newspapers. "Here it bears it own weight. It wasn't until they built five or six houses that they realized that limestone bears its own weight." We should all be thankful for that discovery - it would allow German immigrants to craft the beautiful limestone block buildings that give Hill Country towns from Fredericksburg to Boerne their signature style.
At the end of the block, the old Faltin General Store is a beautiful two-story Italianate mercantile building designed by the renowned English architect Alfred Giles. Giles built several Texas county courthouses and commercial buildings and mansions in San Antonio before he settled in midlife on a ranch in Comfort. There he raised cattle, horses, mules and goats - and became a founding member of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers' Association. Fortunately for Comfort, though, he retained his interest in architecture. The town is graced with eight buildings designed by Giles - more than any place outside of San Antonio.
Back on High Street, we check out another Giles-designed building: the 1880 Ingenhuett-Faust Hotel, now refurbished as Comfort Commons. Although the owners have converted the rooms of the main inn into private residences, a few rustic cabins surrounding the gracious shaded courtyard are available for guests. We check into our cabin and stroll down the veranda scattered with rusty antiques, emerging back onto the street.
We stop next door for lunch at 814 Bistro, housed in the old brick Giles-designed 1908 Post Office building, then continue our walking tour. A few doors down High Street, we gaze at the burned-out ruin of the Ingenhuett General Store. Before it burned down in 2006, it was the oldest continuously operating general store in Texas. "We lost our best place," said Stewart. It was a community meeting place where English, German and Spanish were spoken.
I asked Stewart what German traditions are still alive in Comfort today. She sends us to the Alamo Meat Market, a family-run business since 1947. There the Pankratz brothers still make sausages and smoke meats on the premises. Robert Pankratz shows us a loaf of panas, a traditional German dish made from venison scraps, cornmeal and broth that is sliced, fried and eaten for breakfast with molasses.
Comfort's early settlers formed shooting clubs and reading clubs. They also opened a Turnverein, a traditional fitness club that emphasized gymnastics. "Germans were conscientious about maintaining a healthy body," says Stewart. "When the town's only health club closed last year, in typical German fashion, a committee formed. They bought the fitness equipment and started a members-only fitness club in an old barbecue place by the highway."
Goats and cowboys
The next day we set off for Bandera for a taste of cowboy country. Goats graze tranquilly in verdant pastures along the route. In the 1940s and '50s, the Hill Country was one of the world's leading producers of wool and mohair. A Comfort resident named Adolf Stieler was known as the Angora Goat King of the World.
Although it seems like the most local of animals, the Angora goat, like Comfort itself, actually has surprisingly worldly roots. Native to the Himalayas, it was domesticated in Turkey. (The breed was named after Turkey's capital, Ankara, which was called Angora until 1930.) Brought to the United States in the 1840s, it was cross-bred in Texas with the Mexican short-haired goat, which was being raised for milk and meat. The docile breed turned out to be ideal for the Hill Country: It enjoys the protected canyons and abundant water, and in return, it helps control cedar and produces lots of long, silky hair.
We arrive in Bandera, the self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World. It's no Laramie, but a few blocks of Main Street do indeed look like a Wild West town, with boardwalks and clapboard storefronts. Guests from the area's dude ranches descend on the town for shopping and dining after a day of trail riding.
We stroll into a western wear store and buy a new leather belt with a silver buckle. Then we duck into Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar, a basement honky-tonk. There's nothing fake about Arkey's, a country-western bar where Johnny Bush, Ernest Tubb and other Texas legends have played. A dozen musicians in town for Old Fiddlers Week sit in a circle playing guitar and singing old cowboy tunes. We order beers and then two-step around the small sawdust-covered dance floor. I play a game of eight ball with a nine-year-old boy in cowboy boots named Dakota, while his border collie mooches popcorn from the fiddlers' wives.
For dinner, we walk across the street to the famed OST Restaurant (Old Spanish Trail), best known for its hearty breakfasts and Tex-Mex food. Although we've heard that Bandera has a rodeo on summer weekends, we decide to head back to the quiet of Comfort for the evening.
A swim in the Medina River
The next day we set out for a scenic drive through the Hill Country before heading home. One of the western Hill Country's most breathtaking routes is the 85-mile loop that begins in Bandera, goes west to Vanderpool, then east on RR 337 to Medina and south on Highway 16, back to Bandera. The drive takes in views of Sabinal Canyon and the Medina and Sabinal Rivers. We decide on a shorter scenic drive along Highway 16 from Kerrville to Bandera. The route takes us around hairpin curves and over several crossings of the beautiful spring-fed Medina River, passing through the quiet crossroads town of Medina.
Although we had hoped to kayak or canoe the 20-mile stretch of the Medina River that runs from Medina to Bandera, this year the river is so low that all the outfitters are shuttered. We try to take a swim off Highway 16 at Ranger Crossing, but the river is too shallow. In one last attempt to get in a swim before our trip home, we try an unlikely spot: Bandera's city park. Thanks to a small dam, the Medina River here is more than 10 feet deep in places. We park the car and slip into the emerald-green water. Except for some noisy ducks downstream, we have the river completely to ourselves. A small turtle stretches his neck to watch us, then plops off his log into the water. We swim half a mile upstream under a cathedral canopy of cypress and savor the solitude for just a little while longer.
- Comfort Chamber of Commerce (830-995-3131, www.comfortchamberofcommerce.com)
- Bandera County Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-364-3833 or 830-796-3045, www.banderacowboycapital.com)
- Sister Creek Vineyards (830-324-6704, www.sistercreekvineyards.com)
- 814 Bistro (830-995-4990, www.814atexasbistro.com)
- Alamo Meat Market (830-995-3817)
- Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar (830-796-8826)
- OST Restaurant (830-796-3836)