The jewel of Texas Hill Country – Fredericksburg

For the last 25 years, I’ve been a day tripper spending afternoons browsing on Fredericksburg’s Main Street in awe of the drop dead gorgeous architecture, enticed by the upscale boutiques, and unfortunately for my waistline, seduced by the old-time German bakeries. With nearly 150 retail shops, antique emporiums, restaurants, home decor shops, you can stay pretty busy on Main Street.

Little did I know how much I’d been missing until a recent 4-day visit to this charming Hill Country town, when I discovered how much there is to see, do and eat!

Whether you’re a serious shopper, history buff, architecture addict, or a foodie, Fredericksburg is a family friendly destination that won’t break the bank. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway, serious antique hunting, or touring the numerous wineries, Fredericksburg has something to offer everyone.

Fredericksburg is only a 60-mile drive from San Antonio and 75 miles from Austin. Their well-designed Visitor Information Center offers excellent service and lots of assistance including a 9-minute video with an overview of the city.

History and heritage

This is a town where history comes to life. It was settled by Germans from northern Germany, Mechelberg, and Prussia when 120 settlers arrived in May 1846 with the hopes, promises and dreams of having a better life. The early settlers where noblemen who bought into a real estate package deal that included ship’s passage across the Atlantic to Texas, ground transportation to Fredericksburg, and 160-320 acres of land, depending upon marital status, and a half lot in town. Unfortunately–like many “deals”–these folks were promised more than they got.

When the early settlers arrived in Fredericksburg they found the land difficult to farm, but with fierce determination, and an old fashioned ethic, the hardy industrious Germans built a better lifestyle. They rolled up their sleeves and persevered and eventually the settlers flourished, acquiring more land and building thriving businesses. Early on peace was made with the neighboring Comanches allowing for a good deal of trading to take place.

Success of the settlers is often credited to old fashioned values and a commitment to education and religion. “We don’t hear German spoken much anymore, but the customs, traditions, and values are still here,” explains Daryl Whitworth, Assistant Director of the Fredericksburg CVB who grew up here. These values continue to thrive today in this close-knit community of 11,000.

Lyndon B. Johnson was born on his family’s ranch in Gillespie County just down the road a piece from Fredericksburg in Johnson City. Thirty miles away, visit the LBJ Ranch and boyhood home where you’ll see the one-room school house LBJ attended as a 4 year old. Visitors can step foot inside the Texas White House office that seems frozen in time with its dark paneled walls and LBJ’s ticky-tacky mint green Naugahyde recliners with an embossed presidential seal. LBJ’s original desk along with two dog paintings given to him by Barbra Streisand add to the historical accuracy and authenticity of his office. As our guide explained, LBJ was a bigger than life character and was a bit flamboyant at times. Be sure to see LBJ’s vintage roadster with the built in wet bar and his white Lincoln convertibles. Our guide pointed out that LBJ was a bigger than life kind of guy not only in stature but in actions too. The ranch is still a working ranch with a livestock show barn and a private landing strip.

Back in Fredericksburg, the National Museum of the Pacific War formerly known as the Nimitz Museum was named in honor of local hero and Fredericksburg native, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. This is the only museum of its kind in the world that tells the story in great detail of the Pacific World War II battle.

If you’re lucky you’ll even get to meet one of the World War II vets and hear their stories of the bloody Pacific battles. These guys were brave and looked fear straight in the eye. Some of the highlights of the museum include: a Japanese midget sub, an authentic PT boat, and a B-25. I was in awe of the captured Japanese artifacts like the zero pilot aviator goggles and the embroidered silk war belts that were worn in combat for good luck.

While the museum is currently undergoing a $14 million expansion, it continues to be open for business as usual. An additional 40,000 square feet is being added to the George H.W. Bush Gallery, which will reopen on Dec. 7, 2009. The former president will be honored in a ceremony on Pearl Harbor Day. Allow at least an entire afternoon to see the museum without rushing through its extensive exhibits like the Plaza of the Presidents honoring our presidents who had an active role during World War II, the Memorial Courtyard, and the Japanese Garden of Peace.

The Pacific Combat Zone is not to be missed. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Curley Awalt who is a World War II vet as your docent who will gladly share some first hand accounts of combat in the Pacific. Battle re-enactments take place on a recreated beach front with flame throwers and tanks on designated weekends through out the year.

The Pioneer Museum complex is a collection of 10 historic buildings including a typical period farmhouse with authentic period furnishings, a one-room school house, Sunday House, and bath house. These historic buildings are from this area and have been relocated to the museum grounds to provide an overview of what life was like for the German settlers in the 1850-1890s.

Our docent pointed out that originally there were 40-some odd one-room school houses in Gillespie County, as education was an important priority for the German settlers. Twelve of the school houses remain open to this day; Friends of the Gillespie County Country Schools have preserved and maintained these historic structures.

Those interested in the Wild West will enjoy a tour of Gish’s Old West Museum, an amazing private collection of Wild West artifacts. Joe Gish is a passionate collector who’s been collecting for many years and is delighted to show visitors around his folksy museum. His extensive collection includes: Texas Ranger badges, old Western movie posters, chaps, tooled saddles, guns, holsters, knives, and lots more.

Fort Martin Scott one of the very first early Army frontier forts in Texas was established in 1848 and only in existence or five years. The treaty negotiated in 1847 between German settlers and the Comanche chiefs brought peace to the area and the fort was not necessary.

Architectural eye candy

Fredericksburg is an architectural wonderland with an abundance of outstanding examples of many styles of period architecture. Visitors will see everything from Craftsman cottages to log cabins, ornate Victorian storefronts to traditional fachwerk, and tiny Sunday Houses. The German settlers became so adept at quarrying and working with local limestone that they developed a particular style of architecture know as “German frontier Texas.” This style is indigenous to the Hill Country, New Braunfels, and San Antonio. Fachwerk was the oldest style of building that the Germans brought from the old country using horizontal, vertical and diagonal logs for support with stucco to fill in the area between the logs. Bassee block was a later method of building using poured concrete blocks that resembled the uneven texture of pressed tin.

Shop till you drop

Take it from me, I’m a serious shopper and Main Street is a shopper’s paradise indeed. You’ll find everything from the Garden of Beaden, with Big Daddy a live rooster strutting around, home decor shops, a custom boot shop, antique shops, art galleries, and boutiques. You’ll need to dedicate a full day just to the Main Street area.

If you want a pair of custom boots head over to L.M. Easterling Custom Boot Company and let Lloyd Easterling measure your tootsies, and be sure to show him your bunions since he will adjust the boots accordingly. Lloyd carefully traces your foot and takes an impression to make a mold to build a cast of your instep and arch. Next the fun part begins: when you get to select one of exotic hides like alligator, ostrich, sting ray, shark, elephant, deer – you name it and he’s got it. Or you can go with something more simple like your initials, logo or an emblem on these fancy boots. Prices range from $600-$4,000.

Check out Shelli Vandegrift’s adorable bead shop, Garden of Beaden, and meet Big Daddy, her 2-year-old pet rooster. Big Daddy was hand raised and is the store mascot. Shelli started her shop with only $200 and a dream. She had to borrow $100 of that from her mom to get started and her store is now a success.

Serious art collectors can pick up an original, museum-quality Norman Rockwell oil painting for $750,000 at Whistle Pik Gallery. Tim and Pamela Taylor specialize in traditional high end art including sculptures, paintings, and drawings of well known artists.

Antiquing is plentiful Fredericksburg. Two exceptionally fine antique shops are located on Main Street: Johnson Newman and Showcase Antiques Shop. Johnson Newman offers an array of high-end furniture, Delft ware, and unique items including a French Boule console, massive carved furniture, and religious art. Showcase Antiques specializes in fine china, crystal, sterling, and cut glass. Be sure to take a peek in the “Goody Room” in the back of the shop. DejaVu is a fun boutique that’s packed with vintage clothing.

Homestead offers an odd eclectic assortment of interesting home dec items and quirky antiques with fabulous displays. Imagine 13,000 square feet of outstanding antiques from 16 countries showcasing antique chandeliers, architectural antiques, decorative iron work, garden antiques, and antique cabinetry.

Antique maps, prints, engravings, and books from the 15th through the 20th century can be found at Berkman Books on Main Street.

Have some fun in the country at Fredericksburg Trade Days on the third Saturday of every month. Located on Highway 290E, you’ll find 350 vendors in 6 old turkey barns packed full of antiques, arts and food.

For some night-time fun, take in a terrific show at the Rockbox Theatre. No you’re not hallucinating or having a sugar high, nor are you imagining that you spotted Sonny and Cher or Buddy Holly’s ghost. Join them and Tina Turner, Buddy Holly sound-alikes for a rocking show at the Rockbox Theatre featuring the music of the Golden Age of Rock and Roll.

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