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Czech It Out

Destination: La Grange

Travel time from:
Austin – 1 hour
Dallas – 3.25 hours
El Paso – 8.75 hours
Houston – 1.5 hours
San Antonio – 1.5 hours
Lubbock – 6.5 hours

Stone architecture houses history and comfort in La Grange.

By Erin Kedzie

Just a quarter-tank of gas from my home in Austin, I discovered a fanciful cache of history and culture in the historic sites and sprawling properties of La Grange, a town steeped in German and Czech culture.

I went with a blank slate, no preconceptions to color my experience, to develop a loose history of La Grange through its museums, restaurants and state parks. First stop: city and church graveyards.

Etched in the eroded headstones in the city cemetery are the names of 1830s settlers who came to live on the frontier. The cemeteries at the nearby “painted churches” — quaint little chapels with exquisite, spangled interiors — are filled with the surnames of German and Czech immigrants who flocked to the town starting in the 1840s. I visited St. John the Baptist Catholic Church south of town and discovered entire familial histories: Mazurek, Schram, Adamcik and others.

The town began in 1826 as Moore’s Fort; it became the county seat of Fayette County in the Republic of Texas in 1837. The Czech influence came soon after. Czech names can be found in parishioners’ graveyards and in the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center on Fairgrounds Road. The building serves both as a meeting place for organizations as well as a museum showcasing traditional wedding dresses, passenger lists, genealogies and immigrants’ belongings. Georgia Kovar, a southern belle with Eastern European flair, treated me to a private tour; her grandparents, along with numerous others, immigrated to Texas in the 1800s to flee an impending revolution.

But while wars were brewing in Europe, men were waging war in Texas — drawing me next to Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Sites.

La Grange

Fayette County Courthouse.

Monument Hill is a towering memorial on a bluff, saluting the men who died in battles against Mexico in the 1840s. The expansive view from the bluff overlooks the town, dense forests and the winding waters of the Colorado River.

The first of the battles commemorated here took place in 1842, when Capt. Nicholas Dawson led 53 volunteers from La Grange against 500 Mexican troops in the fight for San Antonio; 36 Texans were killed. Their remains are entombed in a granite crypt with their names etched in stone. In the second incident, a year later, 176 Texans made a valiant escape during a prisoners’ march to Mexico City but were recaptured by Col. Domingo Huerta. As punishment, each drew a bean from an earthen jar; one out of every 10 was a black bean. Those unlucky enough to draw the condemning black frijoles were executed at dusk. Their remains are entombed in today’s monument.

I delved into the circular trail outlining the historic site and perused the abundant flora — a rich overhang above and soft ground below, the soles of my shoes echoless in the green shadows.

I had the trails to myself as I viewed Heinrich Kreische’s late-1800s brewery (which looks more like a medieval castle than a brewery) and the white porches of his family’s preserved homestead. Kreische made the Germany-to-La Grange trip in 1846, purchased 172 acres on the bluff and became a prominent stonemason and brewer. I could imagine the Saxony family’s ghosts drifting through the shaded doorways and elaborate stonework.

Speaking of dignified old architecture, much of the town history is encased in rich foundations laid in the late 1800s. I spent my evenings (and even a secret late afternoon) in the refuge that is Brendan Manor Bed and Breakfast.

The manor was built in the mid-1800s and looks like something out of The Portrait of a Lady or Little Women. Everything was vast, from the lavish staircase and thick carpets to my spacious bedroom and its wooden wall paneling and antique furniture. The highlights of my visit were my morning chats with owners Brenda and Dan Gilmore over oven-baked eggs and fresh berries. Their knowledge and advice fueled me as I ventured out each morning to visit other old buildings and landscapes.

La Grange

Kreische Brewery State Historic Site.

One of buildings at the center of the city is the old jail, built in 1883. The stone building is now the town’s visitor center, but it’s still vaulted enough that I could envision two floors with eight cells on each. The jail keeper lived at the front and watched over such “guests” as bank robbers from the Bonnie and Clyde gang. Fayette County commissioners renovated the jail in 1985 for its current use, but old artifacts (including the hanging rope) are still on display for an eerie flashback.

Post-jail tarriance, I walked a few blocks to the stately rust- and cream-colored county courthouse. Like many of the town’s establishments, the foundations were laid in the 1890s and have a personal touch; a local coterie of workers cut and shaped the sandstone blocks, and the neighborhood Masonic Lodge laid the cornerstone. I probed its lofty insides, and discovered a fountain on the first floor and offices with expansive bookshelves and sliding ladders on the second and third.

Though many of the original buildings in La Grange are more than a century old, a number of them have been renovated and serve as creative outlets, blending history and modern-day function.

The building housing the Texas Quilt Museum was constructed in the 1890s, but some of its walls are from an even earlier establishment. Inside are rotating exhibits, including Judith Content’s “Stitched to a T” project, with kimono-inspired, four-poster swathes. Outside I discovered a period garden, a replica of Texas gardens between 1890 and 1930, with a sundial, gravel paths and a spectrum of southern flowers.

La Grange

Weikel's Bakery specializes in kolaches, a traditional food that Czech settlers brought with them.

Though the buildings stayed put, the population and the number of businesses in La Grange fell in the early 1900s and then rose again after the Great Depression in the ’30s. Among the businesses that sprang up midcentury were a number of family-run operations, including the Jersey Barnyard, owned and operated by the Frerich family. Off Texas Highway 159, the farm has passed through the hands of four generations of Frerichs, and is home of Belle, the star of Blue Bell ice cream commercials. I stopped by to have a chat with Faith Frerich, roam among the goats and bunnies and bottle-feed a bandy-legged calf. The wild-eyed black one I chose stamped his feet impatiently and guzzled down his milk like a kid with a root beer.

After Jersey Barnyard, much of what I explored in the town was in line with a trend I’d seen thus far — a longstanding history with a modern approach. I spent a Sunday afternoon reading a novel at Latte on the Square, an Internet café with strong coffee and young customers in the Otto Hunger building, standing on the courthouse square since 1932.

With my college-esque level of coffee intake, I then managed to track down Big State Coffee Company on Colorado Street. John Hill is the proud owner of the only coffee roaster in La Grange, starting small back in 2006 and roasting beans out of a popcorn popper. His “Roastarant” is a cozy property, filled with tables and chairs and silver silos full of rich brew.

Tipped off by John, and with my nostrils full of El Salvador and Sumatra, I made one final trip for a quintessential La Grange experience — a visit to the Bugle Boy, another blend of old and new. The venue is as ’40s as it sounds, with a red-lipped Army nurse vixen on the marquee out front and a name derived from the 1940s hit Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. The building is a set of World War II barracks that are now used as one of the state’s premier listening rooms with performances mostly on weekends.

But what came next encapsulated my three-day experience: Further tipped off by John, I walked to a nearby residence, a little house set back from the highway. The man’s front yard has received more traffic as of late, since an early settler’s grave was discovered near the driveway. If you move the leaves away from the low-lying headstone, you can make out a small dedication to James Jones.

James W. Jones was a young man who made the trek from North Carolina and reached La Grange in 1836 as his final resting place. He was my age when he set foot in the quaint (and now even quainter) old town. Though I’ve traveled less extensively than he, I felt a surge of connection to his history and the rich heritage of the land. No surprise, since La Grange is a perfect blend of history, culture and natural beauty.

 

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