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March 2009 cover image of Pedernales Falls State Park

Gonzales: Come and Take It

Destination: Gonzales

Travel time from:
Austin – 1 hour
Brownsville – 4.5 hours
Dallas – 4.25 hours
Houston – 2.25 hours
San Antonio – 1.25 hours
Lubbock – 7.5 hours
El Paso – 10.25 hours

By Larry Bozka

Gonzales oozes history, but you can also find good food and uncrowded fishing holes.

I was busy acquiring a fourth-grade education when I first heard the tale of the “Come and Take It” cannon. Before covering the Alamo, Mrs. Casey thought it necessary that we first learn what happened in the frontier town of Gonzales on October 2, 1835.

In the late 1820s, Comanche and Tonkawa Indian tribes began to retaliate against immigrants who had been allocated property by land impresario Greene DeWitt. To help provide security for DeWitt’s expanding colony, slated to eventually include some 400 families, in 1831 the Mexican government provided the settlers a 6-pound cannon.

Bad idea.

For the Mexicans, anyway.

DeWitt’s outpost was the first Anglo-American settlement west of the Colorado River. It was situated on some prime real estate, the beautifully fertile bottomlands near the junction of the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers. DeWitt named it Gonzales in honor of Don Rafael Gonzales, provisional governor of Texas and Coahuila, Mexico.

For various reasons, increased taxation and Mexican government regulations certainly among them, DeWitt’s colonists grew rebellious. Whispers of revolution were discreetly circulated. Some settlers were so brash as to suggest that Texas declare independence. Word of the dissension filtered south. Recognizing the pending threat of an uprising, in 1835 Mexican officials demanded that the cannon be unconditionally returned.

Five Mexican soldiers arrived at the colony to carry out the order. DeWitt’s group refused to surrender the artillery piece, prompting Mexican authorities in San Antonio to dispatch roughly 100 mounted soldiers with orders to forcefully “take” it.

On Sept. 29, 1835, after burying the cannon in the peach orchard of Gonzales resident George W. Davis, 18 renegade colonists hid inside a river ferry and awaited the troops’ arrival. Immortalized as “The Old Eighteen,” they delayed the soldiers for several days by telling them that Gonzales mayor, or “alcalde,” Andrew Ponton was away on business. The next day, Texian soldier Joseph D. Clements presented the dragoons’ commanding officer, a lieutenant named Castaneda, a not-so-subtle message. “I cannot, nor do I desire, to deliver up the cannon. Only through force will we yield.”

The cannon was unearthed and hastily fitted atop a broad, wooden-wheeled ox wagon as a group of local women scrambled to design and sew a battle flag. Emblazoned with a single star and a black replica of the cannon on a white background, it was inscribed with a bluntly defiant challenge.

“Come and Take It!”

The Mexican soldiers attempted to do just that. Despite the fact that they faced a modest force of only 50 or so mounted Texians, they famously failed. The firing of the Gonzales cannon on October 2, 1835, ignited the fuse of the Texas Revolution with a thundering and politically volatile roar of powder-propelled chain and metal.

That’s all history, and only a scant overview of it at that. However, it’s by no means forgotten — not around these parts, anyway.

“Travel stories” don’t usually delve deep into historical details. However, in the case of Gonzales, to ignore the town’s history is to virtually deny its existence. Since my wife, Liz, and I arrived here, everything we have seen and done traces back to the chain of events that the locals proudly call “The Lexington of Texas.”

Barbara Hand, director of the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, assured me we’d have plenty to cover. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t argue the point. In this small rural town, nestled approximately halfway between Houston and San Antonio off Interstate 10, there has been surprisingly much to see and do since we arrived on Friday.

The Best Western Regency Inn off East Sarah Dewitt Drive, a major Gonzales artery, has been our undercover headquarters of sorts. Maintaining an under-the-radar profile, we’ve had everything we need to keep the remote office and photo studio running full-tilt. Altogether, that’s emblematic of this entire area. Modern amenities abound. But all the same, most everything is enveloped with an undeniable aura of history.

Coming into town, we stopped to visit my old friend Egon Barthels. Tall, personable and thin as a fresh willow limb, Barthels is a lifelong broadcasting pro with a faintly discernible Czech accent and a disarming knack for storytelling. He’s also a savvy businessman.

Barthels is program director for Gonzales radio station 1450KCTI AM. He’s been tasked with blending the old and the new, retaining the flavor of the 61-year-old station’s Bohemian ethnicity while ushering it into the future with special events and a brand-new Web site for online listening. KCTI’s studios shelter a vast and well-preserved collection of music, especially polka, etched into the vinyl of thousands of 33-1/3-, 48- and even 78-rpm records.

Between the recommendations of Barthels and Hand, both of whom obviously adore the town, Liz and I booked an almost-nonstop three-day itinerary.

We met Gonzales historian and tour guide Leon Netardus after visiting with Barthels. Netardus’ passion for his hometown — again, a near-universal trait among Gonzales residents — is potently contagious. Blue-eyed and white-haired, wearing a pink-and-black “I Love Gonzales” button pinned to a pressed denim vest, the affable Netardus is Gonzales’ unofficial Man About Town. He knows the area’s 49 square blocks amid seven public squares (still true today to the 1832 survey) as well as anyone, and has spent years unveiling and chronicling the town’s history and folklore.

Netardus is the author of Ghosts of Gonzales. Only 36 pages long, the staple-bound paperback is precisely what the title implies, replete with allusions to “Friendly Gonzales Ghosts,” “Residential Ghosts” and even “Rural Rogues and Ghosts.” As Netardus shuttled us about town, he followed a directional sequence of green-and-white “Driving Tour” signs that make it almost effortless for curious travelers to see some of Texas’ most intriguing architecture (and yes, most all of the homes look like they may well house a ghostly apparition or two).

Gonzales’ city leaders long ago recognized the value and significance of their town’s ornate 1800s-era architecture. The sum of their efforts now presents one of the most impressive architectural preservation projects in the state. Old homes are at the soul of the Gonzales zeitgeist.

Historic Homes of Gonzales, an 80-page spiral-bound volume by author Paul Frenzel, shows and profiles over five dozen 1800s-era Gonzales homes. (Like Netardus’ book, Historic Homes of Gonzales is available through the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce.) From quaint Queen Anne-style cottages to castle-like Victorian mansions, the homes that punctuate Gonzales’ “Driving Tour” are ruggedly magnificent, priceless not only for their historic and visual appeal but also because they are so remarkably well-preserved and maintained.

The pointed spires of the J.D. Houston House, completed in 1898, the sharp Gothic angles of the Judge T.H. Spooner House of 1875 and the soaring ivory columns of the Belle Oaks Inn (built in 1912, and today a popular bed-and-breakfast) all hark back to the rich and early roots of South Central Texas. These homes were built by wealthy people, mostly ranchers. Alongside, however, lived a rugged clan of hardscrabble settlers whose long-ago existence is splendidly preserved and portrayed via the Gonzales Pioneer Village Living History Center.

It’s here where the first weekend of every October the townspeople host the Come and Take It Festival. Throughout the year, Pioneer Village visitors have the opportunity to see 1800s Texas precisely as it was, unvarnished and real. Among the site’s 10 buildings are an 1860s blacksmith shop, the 1830s Greenwood Cabin, the 1870s Hamon Church, and the 1880s St. Andrew Street House, where we found gift shop operator and village docent Linda Kuenzler busily entertaining children with a wooden “Jacob’s Ladder.” It was great to see a toy made of sticks — not one with a joystick — so completely capture those kids’ attention.

 Architecture and history keep the Gonzales train on track, but quality food keeps it energized. We sampled a bit of all of it — the homemade tortillas and delicate shrimp enchiladas of the locally owned Mr. Taco Mexican restaurant, slabs of sauce-covered ribs at the more urban-oriented Doc’s Roadhouse, the sandwiches and home-style delicacies of the Gonzales Food Market and even the kolaches, artisan breads and specialty pastries of Sweet Irene Bakeshop. Every one of these places has its regulars, longtime locals, but for passers-through like us, they’re preciously unique finds.

The same can be said for Palmetto State Park. If you were to blindfold a person and drive him into the lush undergrowth of the 270-acre park, it’s likely he’d be clueless as to his whereabouts.

Studded with dense clusters of dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake plant species, shaded by a moss-draped canopy of ancient live oak trees, Palmetto State Park is Texas’ own version of a subtropical jungle. At the end of the park’s entrance road the landscape vividly plummets into the water-carved vista of the San Marcos River.

Gonzales residents are just fine with the fact that Palmetto State Park and its glittering waters are so rarely visited. Year-round, they quietly go about camping and hiking inside the park’s untamed boundaries. With very little competition for quality spots, area anglers have long enjoyed catching largemouth bass, catfish and several species of sunfish from the river and a small, 4-acre oxbow lake that it feeds.

Palmetto State Park hosts over 200 recorded species of birds, among them a wandering flock of Rio Grande turkeys that casually strutted across Park Road 11 as Liz and I turned in off U.S. 183.

For this and much more the people of Gonzales are understandably proud. Perhaps nowhere is that pride more patently manifested than at the Gonzales Memorial Museum. It’s the shrine that holds the centerpiece of my grade-school Texas history inspiration.

The cannon.

“No,” a visitor corrects me. “The ‘Come and Take It’ cannon.”

I sized up its coppery bronze barrel, the medieval-looking cart upon which it rests and its thick, solid oak wheels, and thought back to my school days. As a 10-year-old boy I visualized the Come and Take It cannon as colossal weapon, an intimidating piece of ordnance that immediately upon sight would command awe and respect in the eyes of viewers.

Looking at it today, it wasn’t nearly as large as I envisioned. But I revisited it while driving back east on I-10, especially the part about “awe and respect,” and realized with a smile that the diminutive cannon was indeed every bit as awesome as I first imagined.

Perhaps it’s not a reaction everyone will feel. Maybe it has more impact on Texans, or at least those who at some point in their education studied Texas history. Given what that cannon did with a single but immortal shot to advance the cause of freedom, there’s unquestionably something special about passing the reflection pond, monument and plaques, entering the Gonzales Memorial Museum and absorbing the solemn intensity of the battle cannon’s legacy.

The sensation is there, always.

But if you want it, you still have to come and take it.

DETAILS
•  Gonzales Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture (888-672-1095, www.gonzalestexas.com)
•  Palmetto State Park (830-672-3266, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/palmetto)
•  Gonzales Pioneer Village (830-672-2157, www.gonzalespioneervillage.com)

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