TUCKED INTO Texas Hill Country- with Austin to the north, San Antonio to the south and Houston to the east-lies a charming burg with a water tower rising high above streets lined with historic buildings. This tower, a balancing act of steel, water and wire, serves as a beacon of sorts, welcoming visitors long before their feet touch down.
Gruene (pronounced "green") was founded on land purchased in 1872 by Ernst Gruene, a German farmer who sought out the area when acreage was no longer available in the nearby town of New Braunfels. His son, Henry D. Gruene, built one of the town’s first homes, planted the surrounding land to cotton and became known as Gruene’s founding father.
Cotton became a profitable crop that drew others to work the rich soil that bordered the Guadalupe River. The Gruene Mercantile, along with a cotton gin and a dance hall, was constructed to serve the booming population of local cotton farmers.
The town and its inhabitants flourished until the 1920s, a decade that shifted Gruene’s economic fortunes. In 1920, Henry D. Gruene died. In 1922, the cotton gin burned. And in the years that followed, a boll weevil epidemic and the Great Depression ushered in a one-two punch that closed every business in town-except the dance hall.
This could have been the end of Gruene’s story, if not for a kayaker who-50 years later- meandered too far downstream and sparked a preservationist vision that captured the imagination of dozens more.
Today, Gruene is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and many of its buildings have been earmarked as historic structures. But in 1974, when a University of Texas at Austin architecture student kayaked down the Guadalupe River that runs through Gruene, the city was a veritable ghost town.
After discovering Gruene’s streets lined with largely abandoned buildings, all built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Chip Kaufman began lobbying owners of the Gruene estate to preserve its character.
The developers agreed, and instead of razing the town in favor of new construction, they parceled out ownership to a new generation ready to run commercial enterprises out of its historic buildings.
A pair of these developers, Pat Molak and Mary Jane Nalley, were instrumental in the preservation efforts. They purchased Gruene Hall in 1975 and began a pivotal restoration that helped turn the ghost town into the community it is today. They also bought the old cotton gin and converted it to The Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar.
The move likely saved the town’s landmarks, including the 6,000-square-foot Gruene Hall, Texas’ oldest continually operating dance hall. Gruene Hall, with its high-pitched tin roof and mesh-covered flaps for an open-air feel, has been home to weekly dances, high school graduations and the occasional badger fight, says Katie Molak, who markets the Gruene Historic District.
"Visitors vary from locals who hold court at the hall on a daily basis to international visitors," says Molak.
Gruene Hall is available for private events Mondays through Thursdays. Dallas-based Republic Group has booked Gruene Hall annually for a decade, hosting its Gruene Hall Ball for the company’s insurance agents who travel across Texas, and from Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, to attend the event.
"Republic is a 110-year-old company, so they appreciate the history of Gruene Hall, and found it to be the perfect location to host their annual celebration, as it is a casual, music venue," says Ingrid Glaser, Republic Group’s marketing communications and promotions specialist. "Everyone absolutely loves this event and looks forward to it year after year. Agents start to email and call us in the early fall asking for the date so they can mark their calendars and plan their family vacations around it."
The event includes an on-site meal catered by Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar, which is housed in the three-story brick boiler room of Gruene’s historic cotton gin (the wood portion of the cotton gin structure burned to the ground in 1922).
Situated on a bluff overlooking the Guadalupe River, Gristmill serves chicken fried steak, fresh fish, grilled chicken, and signature dishes like tomatillo chicken and Jack Daniel’s pecan pie. The restaurant can seat up to 100 people for lunch or dinner.
Plus, the entire historic district pitches in to make guests feel welcome. "This year, and in the past, several of the local stores in Gruene are offering a discount to Republic attendees during our visit. This is a nice bonus, and everyone benefits from it-stores and shoppers alike," Glaser says.
Gruene is home to several accommodation options, including the Gruene Mansion Inn. It was the first home built by Gruene’s founder, Henry D. Gruene, in the late 1800s. Today, it operates as a 31-room bed-and-breakfast; each room comes with a private bath and entrance. The property features a meeting room that can comfortably accommodate five to 20 people.
For groups whose attendance has outgrown Gruene’s offerings, there are a number of nearby options. "Many of our groups transport people from either New Braunfels, San Antonio or Austin," Molak says, adding that New Braunfels is a five- to 10-minute commute.
"Most of our attendees stay in New Braunfels," agrees Glaser, "but we also utilize rooms at the Gruene Apple Bed and Breakfast and Gruene Mansion Inn. All of these hotels are great to work with. After 12 years of planning events, I can honestly say that everyone associated with Republic is so grateful for all the hospitality provided to them."
Gruene’s hospitality extends to its restaurants and attractions, too, says Debbi Jackson, global travel manager for San Marcos-based Thermon Manufacturing. She regularly plans a visit to Gruene for the company’s international employees, who stock up on souvenirs while shopping in Gruene and look forward to stops at The Grapevine-a wine-tasting room featuring live music and Texas wines-and Mozie’s Bar and Grill, known for its sliders and sandwiches. "Gruene has become a tradition," Jackson says, "one they request year after year."