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Fredericksburg, Texas: Small city an ideal trip for history buffs


Greg Tasker  |  Special to The Detroit News

    The first thing you notice about Fredericksburg, a small but sprawling city deep in Texas Hill Country, are the broad streets, far wider than most urban American roads. And then there are the multitude of tidy limestone buildings -- houses, stores and restaurants -- that line the streets, laid out in grid-like fashion.

None of this is random. Fredericksburg, which celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, was one of the first planned communities in the country, designed in the mid-1800s by industrious German immigrants, who came to Texas to create a better life. Limestone, readily available, became the choice building material. Wider roads were created to allow oxen carts to easily turn around. 

Today, the city is one of the best-preserved Bavarian communities in the country and makes for an ideal vacation spot for history buffs.

Fredericksburg boasts German and other ethnic restaurants, wine tasting rooms operated by nearby vineyards, book stores, boutiques and impressive museums, including the National Museum of the Pacific War (there’s a good reason it’s located here). Nearby is the Texas White House, the home of President Lyndon B. Johnson. And not to be missed is Luckenbach, a hole-in-the-wall-kind-of place made famous by the 1977 Waylon Jennings song.

Spring is an especially beautiful season to visit Texas Hill Country. The rolling fields around Fredericksburg burst into carpets of blue, thanks to the famous Texas bluebonnet. Other wildflowers, including primroses and Indian paintbrush, add a variety of colors.

Pioneer history

Fredericksburg exists because of the determination of German immigrants who arrived in the mid-1840s after a harrowing journey.    

    The Pioneer Museum Complex on the city’s Main Street is a good place to get a primer on Fredericksburg’s fascinating past. The three-acre complex is home to several 19th-century structures that help tell the town’s story.

    Of particular interest is the Vereins Kirche Museum, an octagon-shaped building that houses exhibits and artifacts that show the hardships the immigrants endured as they journeyed to hill country and settled in Fredericksburg. The building is a replica of the original, which served as a town hall, school, fort, and a church for all denominations.

Also noteworthy is the Weber Sunday House, a small wood-frame structure that served a purpose other than a full-time residence. Many Germans farmed miles from town and would venture into Fredericksburg on the weekends to shop and attend church. They built small, one-room structures to serve their needs while in town. Sometimes a loft was added, with access from exterior stairs. Rooms were added as families grew and aged.

Just outside downtown, Der Stadt Friedhof, the city’s oldest cemetery, provides a more personable glimpse of Fredericksburg’s past, thanks to the story-telling abilities of guides like Glen Treibs, a fifth-generation descendant and a volunteer guide.

He’s a wealth of knowledge about local history and many of the pioneers and others who are buried in the Lutheran cemetery, including the maternal grandparents of Lyndon B. Johnson. His stories of the obstacles the Germans faced are captivating.

“Many, many of them died on their way here. This was the home for many of them,” he says, referring to the tombstones, many of them written in German. These pioneers, he adds, faced starvation, financial ruin, wild animals, Native Americans and neighbors killing neighbors during the Civil War. The Germans remained loyal to the Union during the war and a good number were hung by Confederate sympathizers. 

 “Just about everything killed you,” Treibs says. “Otherwise, the first 15 years were delightful.”

World War history

    Chester W. Nimitz is the reason the National Museum of the Pacific War is located in Fredericksburg. 

A native son, Nimitz served as commander in chief of the Allied Forces in the Pacific Ocean. His grandfather’s hotel became the foundation for what has become a contemporary, 55,000-square-foot museum.

    The museum traces its roots to the 1960s when a group of small businessmen sought to honor the hometown son. Nimitz initially declined but later agreed to a museum as long as the men and women who served during the war were honored.

    Today, the museum is a complex of buildings on six acres. Exhibits, artifacts, photographs, and oral histories chronicle the country’s World War II years in the Pacific, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the Japanese surrender four years later. Artifacts, including the only wooden PT boat to see action during the war, a Japanese float plane, and the yellow casing of a bomb never dropped on Japan, are on display.

Presidential history

    The road leading up to the Texas White House seems as long as the Lone Star State but the drive offers sweeping views of rolling pastures and hills, and it’s easy to understand why the 36th president found respite here.

    The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is home to the president’s last residence and remains a working ranch, “more active now then when it was owned by the Johnson family,” a park ranger explains during a tour. Hereford cattle, descendants of LBJ’s herd, still graze on the property.

    The modest ranch house, as you might expect, offers a glimpse into another era. Most of the rooms have been restored to their original appearances during the presidential years, including Johnson’s office, living room and bedroom suites. 

     “You can appreciate why he came here as much as he did,” says Clint Herriman, a park ranger. “His sense of identity is interwoven into this place. It offered a sense of place and that’s why the president and Mrs. Johnson came here so often.”

The ranch once encompassed a few thousands acres; today, the 1,500-acre national park includes Johnson’s reconstructed boyhood home and the family cemetery. LBJ’s ranch was more than a presidential retreat; the expansive property allowed Johnson to impress and regal political and other guests, many of whom were unfamiliar with Texas and its vastness. 

    “It was a big PR stage for him to use,” Herriman says.

Country music history 

All this Texas and presidential history is intriguing but can also be overwhelming.

Luckenbach, just a short drive from the Johnson ranch, offers a respite, a place to kick back on a bench, sip a Lone Star Beer, and listen to country music, live and free.

    Truth is, there’s not much else in Luckenbach. A few scattered buildings, including a weather-worn dance hall, a 19th-century general store (and now also a bar), and a post office, make Luckenbach not much more than a dot on a map. 

    Luckenbach became a refuge for country music outlaws, who left Nashville to create their own style of country music, decades ago. Waylon Jennings put Luckenbach on the country music radar with his hit, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).”

     “Waylon didn’t think much of the song,” says Virgil Holdman, a former manager of the Luckenbach General Store and caretaker of the locale’s reputation. “It was the second biggest hit of his career. That song made us a worldwide destination. People come from all over the world to see us.”

    These days, musicians from all over the globe show up, pull out a guitar or some other instrument, and perform, in a humble outdoor venue. Luckenbach hosts more than 300 concerts a year, with performers from a wide range of musical genres, including blues, Americana, Western swing and rockabilly.

It’s about as chill as you can get. Everyone is welcome.

“Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach,” Holdman says.

If you go

Nearest major airports:

Both San Antonio International Airport and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport are about an hour away from Fredericksburg.

Fredericksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau

302 E. Austin St., Fredericksburg

(830) 997-6523

Visitfredericksburgtx.com

Lodging

Hangar Hotel

50 guest rooms in a recreated military hangar and located at the Gillespie County Airport

155 Airport Road, Fredericksburg

(830) 997-9990

Fredericksburg Area Lodging 

Refurbished Sunday Houses are available for overnight guests

231 W. Main St., Fredericksburg

(866) 427-8374