In a (Central Texas) Stew

May 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

The weekend of April 21-22 was spent roaming around part of the territory covered in the Central Texas Stew chapter of Central Texas. Starting in Smithville, not much of note has changed, except that Charlie’s BBQ (RIP) is now the Playhouse Smithville Theater (110 Main), but the 1905 pit out back is still there and looking in reasonably good shape for its age. Huebel’s Beer Garden is still alive and shit-kicking, one of the last of the old beer bars still extant, besides Riley’s in Hunter, Cistern Country Store and Pavla’s in Moulton.

Which is not to say that booze is not live and well. The decline of my beloved beer joints has been paralleled by the rise of home-produced wines, beers and white lightning. We politely call the latter “vodka” nowadays. This phenomenon began is Austin with Tito’s, spread west to Dripping Springs and the eponymously named distillate (now orange-flavored) and has now flowed east to Smithville, where triple-filtered “Smith’s” is produced, from locally sourced grains. They point out at their website , www.smithsvodka.com, that they produce beverage-grade enthanol, as opposed to the commercial-grade ethanol used by mass producers. It is newly available in Austin, Bastrop and elsewhere at Spec’s and Twin Liquors. Several flavors of “white lightning” (their name), and other liquors All of this is not “busthead,” “bug juice” or “pop skull” stuff; at $18 or so a bottle, it could not afford to be. As happened too often during Prohibition, you will not die or get the jake leg from these clear successes. Enjoy them on the rocks, perhaps with a splash of lime and club soda. You don’t want to detract from the smooth flavor; something that many vodkas lack.

Quite a few of exterior walls of downtown Smithville’s commercial buildings are now marked by fading, faux-old, painted advertising, courtesy of the movies that have been filmed here. The south side of the Old Masonic Lodge (301 Main at Loop 230), a three-story red-brick building built in 1902, still bears fading, painted advertising that dates back to well before World War II. Downtown is increasingly given over to junque-teek shops and such. Not much has changed at the railroad museum/visitor center. You can keep up with the latest additions and developments at www.smithvillerailroadpark.org. While the LCRA’s coal-car maintenance shop means that railroading still contributes to the local economy, the lusciously gingerbreaded, two-story Victorian-era Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy) passenger depot is long gone, as are the old roundtable and maintenance shops.

Down in Cistern, the store enjoys a healthy weekend patronage and V&V is still churning out sausage, albeit of an inferior variety.

Changes are afoot in Flatonia. Train enthusiasts are still mourning the loss of the old SAAP freight depot, which had been moved to the railroad park a couple of years ago from its previous location on Hwy 95 just north of the Arnim Museum. A peek through the increasingly dusty windows of the old Arnim and Lane Store revealed pretty much all of the stock still on the shelves and in the display cases, but covered over with clear plastic sheeting and not an active element of the Arnim museum across the street. Across the tracks on S. Main, the old City Market, which had transitioned into a café by the same name several years ago, is now “The Red Velvet.” The Lyric Theater is showing movies on Friday nights and music on special occasions, and someone is in the process of restoring the old “Happy Hour Theater” painted advertising on the western exterior wall. One of the more notable newcomers to town is the Central Texas Rail History Museum (104 E. South Main, Open Saturday afternoon, or by appointment 361-865-3003), which contains a mix of model train layouts and Southern Pacific memorabilia. The Flatonia Argus still hangs on in its longtime location, but unfortunately, the Friendly Bar next door appears to have closed for good. While we’re on the subject of closed beer bars, let us toll the bells for all the deceased I can remember since the first edition of Hill Country appeared in 1983. RIP, in part: Jerry Simek Place in Engle; Lakeside Café, Schulenburg; Assman’s Café, New Ulm; Frank’s Place, La Grange, Tony Hanzelek’s, Gonzales; Two Brothers, Lockhart; Palace Café, Shiner; Dungan’s, McDade. And while I’m at it, New Ulm is pronounced “New UH-lum.”

In Schulenburg, not much has changed in the last couple of years, except for the opening of the Texas Polka Museum (625 North Main, http://www.texaspolkamuseum.com) next door to the Schulenburg Museum (in the old Wolter’s Store), which has an 1873, hand-pulled fire engine among its display highlights. Being a Sunday, City Market was closed, so we didn’t get a chance to pick up any of their sausages or smoked meats from the market, or our pick of meat from the pit. Sorry, Joe Nick, City Market is top tier; if you have gotten bad meat there, maybe you need to brush up on your meat picking skills. Harlan’s Supermarket was open, but only does barbecue on Saturdays; if you’re in Schulenburg before noon on Saturdays, be sure to stop; they sell out early.

Just after you turn left onto FM 1383 to Dubina, you will see on your right a sign that says “Lee School.” This is the location of Greater Dubina’s long vanished “colored” school. With all the emphasis on the area’s Czech culture, it’s easy to forget the area’s considerable black population.

At Dubina, we found the locked, jail-style doors still in place in the vestibule inside the Saints Cyril And Methodius Church’s front doors, which deny you entrance, but allow you to at least view the interior. Luckily for us, we found the church hall to be open, allowing me my first walk-around inside since my last visit to the annual parish picnic and Feast Day (held the first Sunday in July), a good 15 years ago. Nothing has changed in here, from the wall of advertising signs for Weimar and Schulenburg businesses, dating back to the “123” phone number days and Ford crest last seen on cars about 1953, to the exposed-rafter wooden ceiling/roof and original wiring with its ceramic insulators. Most of the businesses are no longer in business. Two walls bear interesting collections of old photos and narratives depicting the histories of the church and area schools, respectively.

The old outdoor, outhouse toilets marked “Muzke” and “Zenske” still stand, and I was able to relieve myself in the men’s one-holer (shades of Boy Scouts camp going on 50 years ago), but the women’s “room” was closed off. A quick trip over to the “piano wire” bridge showed it to be freshly painted and worthy of a Dvorak concerto.

On to Ammansville, where there is now another club/bar in a converted shotgun house on the western outskirts of town, with no sign or name, but full of people, but we did not have time to stop. The sign on the door of St. John the Baptist Church says the doors are locked at 5:30, but not on this particular day. We were able to stroll in and wander about, unlike at Dubina. A dab of Holy Water and the sign of the Cross upon the forehead and breast for good luck, which you need plenty of when driving a PT Cruiser – What an unfaithful car! Andrew wanted to light a votive candle as well for added protection (35 small; $1 King-of-Kings size), and although several King-sizers were burning, I said a most emphatic “No!” One of the first commandments of fire safety is not to leave burning candles unattended. God works in mysterious ways (The church was destroyed by a storm in 1909 and rebuilt. Not long thereafter it was destroyed by fire and again rebuilt), and I did not care to have the smoking embers of another perished church burning a hole in my conscience. The bulletin board in the vestibule here, as well as at Dubina, for that matter, bore a poster for the upcoming Hostyn Parish feast, featuring smoked pork and sausage. This show of mutual support is comforting in more than one way. There’s nothing like a bellyful of Tex-Czech holiday food and beer, and some Tex-Czech music from the Red Ravens or Djuka Brothers to dance it off, or the more traditional, Old-World sounds of Kovanda’s Czech Band (Gee-tars and drum sets need not apply here). One detail I had not previously noted was the date of the current church’s construction and dedication, “1919,” set in little white and gray tiles in one corner of the highest concrete front steps.

If you like Polka music and dancing, check out The Texas Polka News, a monthly tabloid dedicated to you-know-what (jlrivard123@sbcglobal.net); or dancing and old-time dance halls generally: Texas Dance Hall Preservation, texasdancehall.org.

I am now recommending the old Dubina-Weimar Road (a little over a mile south of the church and Piano Bridge Rd.) as an alternative, even preferred, route to reach Weimar from Dubina, both for its rural beauty, and the resurrected Gladys’ Bakery, at 3239 Dubina-Weimar Road, (800) 725-5254, (979) 263-5940 originally located just east of Cistern, and highly recommended in earlier editions of Hill Country for its gourmet fruitcake (forget your previous prejudices about fruitcake) and cookies.Once in Colorado County, Dubina-Weimar Road is also known as County Road 20, and Sedan Street in Weimar. Once in town, it dead-ends into Water Street; turn south (right) on Water and proceed 2 blocks to W. Post Office Street, or 3 blocks to US Hwy 90. Kaspar’s Meat market is 4.5 blocks east on Post Office Street.

In Weimar, the old Kaspar’s Meat Market sign was tucked under the awning, off its former perch. Weimar has no railroad museum as such, but the 1925 Southern Pacific depot survives as the Weimar City Library (with 1970s vintage caboose outside) and the Weimar Museum has railroad items in its collection.

The Borden Store and the house next door have for sale signs in their yards, which does not bode well for the store’s future. It being a Sunday, the place was closed, as has been the custom for several decades. Back in the 1980s, it was another good Shiner stop. We turned onto County Rd. 217, which parallels the SP tracks and offered better wildflower displays than Hwy 90 or IH 10, which was pretty much a parking lot from Sealy to well past Columbus. Well, people who live in Houston and go west for the weekend pretty much deserve what they get for living there, although we don’t need any more expats from Houston or anywhere else in Austin, thank you.

We got to La Grange at 11:30 on Saturday, which gave us just enough time to hit Prause’s Market for what little brisket and sausage remained. The pork ribs had long since sold out. We got mostly “moist” (a polite term for “fatty”) brisket, which is usually repulsive elsewhere, but having been properly and sufficiently cooked, most of the fat had been rendered out the connective tissue forced into submission, the result being a most flavorful, albeit messy treat, definitely a cut above the saltine-cracker dry, lean brisket you get so often now-a-day. Anthony Bourdain would have been very happy, even though it wasn’t pig fat. I had forgotten how wonderful the plump little all-beef links are; juicy, with that coarse grind that I personally prefer. Easily the equivalent of Luling City Market’s rings or the Elgin rope sausage. And you better not waste too many years in getting here, because, after four generations of faithful service to the taste buds of Texans, there is no fifth generation of Prauses to continue the tradition.

While I mourn the loss of most all of my beer bars, I welcome the surge of railroad tourism and preservation that has developed over the last decade or so. Flatonia has its railroad park, train museum and viewing platform where two Union Pacific lines cross, while La Grange has its Railroad Depot Museum (located at the intersection of North Washington and Lafayette streets, in its original location, a couple of blocks north of the Courthouse Square), which, unfortunately, is only open on Saturdays from 10-4. If you can make it on a Saturday, you can at least peak through the windows. The depot was built in the fall of 1897 by the Taylor, Bastrop and Houston Railway Co., to replace the original depot (built in 1880), which had burned down six months earlier. The TB&H was absorbed soon thereafter by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad. Passenger service ceased in the 1950s, and freight service in the 1970s. It entered service as a museum in 2006. The MKT was acquired by Union Pacific in 1988, and seven trains a day, on the average, still rumble past the depot, including a couple of coal trains from Wyoming that supply the LCRA’s massive coal-fired Fayette power plant between La Grange and Columbus (it burns about two trainloads [about 250-270 cars] of coal per day), two or three gravel trains headed for the Houston area, several general freights and trains of empty going back west. While we were there, one of the gravel trains rumbled through. Standing so close to the track, it is quite impressive. We regretted not seeing one of the coal trains; as they use pusher locomotives at the back, which is rare outside of the mountains. The Burlington Northern uses two locomotives in the front and two at the back; Union Pacific, which held the coal hauling contract until recently, used only one pusher.

The station’s most famous visitor was ex-President Teddy Roosevelt, who stopped here for a few minutes in 1911 and addressed the gathered crowd, as the photo on the office wall indicates.

With the help of donations and grants, the depot has been restored to its original condition, configuration and appearance: an office, two waiting rooms, and freight room. Original fittings include the pot-belly stove (found in a pigpen nearby and brought back to the depot), safe, and a bench in the main waiting room. The stationmaster’s desk came from the nearby Fayetteville depot. A display case in the main waiting room contains a gold cane presented to James Converse in 1880 for his efforts in bringing this “tap” line to La Grange. In the north bay window is the dispatcher’s desk, which offers a view of the track both ways, are the semaphore control levers and the telegraph operator’s set. The office, “white” and “colored” waiting rooms, and freight room look they did during the depot’s heyday, and a vintage Railway Express truck stands trackside, along with a caboose out in the parking lot. The depot also has numerous photographs, maps, display cases full of artifacts, several operating model trains, and hands-on displays for adults and kids. The time clock is not original to the station, but you can take a time card and stamp it with the time of your visit, as a souvenir. Kids can play with the wooden trains in the freight room.

The Walking Tour of Downtown La Grange” is great new booklet now available, free of charge, at the Old County Jail/Visitors Center. I will be cribbing from it in the next edition of Central Texas, for those who wish to do their “homework” prior to a visit to La Grange.

The recently restored County Courthouse is a gem and a joy to behold, inside and out. The three-story atrium that forms the center of the interior is unique among Central Texas and Hill Country courthouses, with its skylight roof, fountain, plants and benches. Truly delightful. The courtroom is a gem, easily the equal, in its own way, of the Caldwell County Courthouse courtroom, but I would not relish sitting in one of its folding seat, theatre-style, unpadded wood spectator seats or benches. All the doors to the various county officials’ and department offices have hand-painted lettering on the glass transoms. The bottom two floors are finished in alternating, polished black and white marble squares in a diamond pattern, while the third-story floor is covered in period-correct linoleum. And since I am in the fire service, I enjoyed the original standpipes that run up opposite corners of the atrium walls, complete with the original hose hook-ups.

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