If you want to get out of San Antonio and away from the crowds, and you want to see a less touristy part of Texas, then consider this day trip to a few of the old towns to the east of San Antonio. The trip includes a smattering of things: a little history, an old county jail, a little antiques shopping, a tour of Texas's last independent brewery, and some award-winning barbecue, plus a good amount of local color. It's best to go on a weekday, when the brewery is open for tours. This is a relaxing trip -- the roads are good, the traffic is light, and the driving is easy. There won't be any crowds, which is especially important during wildflower season in the spring. Visitors show a strong preference for the Hill Country, but the wildflowers do not.
Start by heading out of San Antonio east on I-10 to Hwy. 183 (60 miles), then south to the town of Gonzales (12 miles). One of the original Anglo settlements made under agreement with the Mexican government, Gonzales was a hotbed for Texas independence and saw the first hostilities of the war. While driving around the town, you're sure to see signs and banners with the words "Come and take it" below an image of a canon. This was the battle cry of the local settlers when, in October 1835, a regiment of Mexican cavalry came to collect a small cannon that had been lent to the settlement to fend off the Comanche. What followed was more of a skirmish than a battle, but it set Texas on the road to independence. A few months later, the town was burned to the ground by orders of General Sam Houston when the Texan army retreated eastward, during the so-called Runaway Scrape.
In the oldest part of Gonzales (pop. 7,000), the streets are still named after saints, following the original layout proposed by the Mexican government. There's a relatively large business sector with old brick storefronts, which tells of past prosperity. Occupying a few of these (and a couple of warehouses, too) is Discovery Architectural Antiques (tel. 830/672-2428; www.discoverys.com) at 409 St. Francis St. It sells all manner of old building materials and details, including original lumber, doors, windows, and hardware, stained glass, and small details, such as doorknobs, for instance.
The town courthouse is one of the prettiest in Texas. It was built in 1898 in Richardsonian Romanesque (a style named after the architect who built Trinity Church in Boston). It was designed by J. Riely Gordon, who also designed Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio and the Comal County Courthouse in New Braunfels. This is the best of the three and is one of the best-preserved courthouses in the state, having retained its clock tower and original roof. The interior is well preserved, too. It contains a few paintings, one of which depicts the town circa 1925. The old jailhouse, which sits at the opposite corner of the square (facing St. Lawrence St.), is home of the chamber of commerce and visitor center. It dates from 1887 and is open to visitors. It must have been a grim sight for prisoners, to judge by the way the cells were built and by the gallows room, which was used for executions until the 1920s, when capital punishment was brought under state control. Gonzalez did have a criminal element, and its most famous member was John Wesley Harden (son of a Methodist preacher). He killed several men in the Sutton-Taylor feud, which raged throughout several counties in this part of Texas during the 1870s. For a while he was jailed in Gonzales (in an earlier jailhouse) but managed to escape.
Gonzales has several large houses in the old part of town, as well as a Pioneer Village (tel. 830/672-2157; www.gonzalespioneervillage.com), which is at the north end of town, on 2122 N. St. Joseph St. It holds a collection of 19th-century buildings brought here from different parts of the county and restored, including a ranch house, a cabin, and a saloon. It's open from 10am to 2pm Tuesday to Saturday. Admission is $5 per adult, $3 for children 4 to 13, free for children 3 and under. It's probably a good idea to call ahead to make sure someone is there. You also need to be mindful of the time because you'll want to get to the next town, Shiner, before either 11:30am or 1pm, when the brewery tours start. It's 20 minutes away.
Shiner (pop. 2,000) is home to the Spoetzl brewery, the makers of Shiner beer. This is the last independent brewery in Texas, and in 2009 celebrated its 100th anniversary. Take Hwy. 90 E. for 18 miles. When you drive into Shiner, the brewery will be on your left. It's the highest structure in town.
Shiner Bock beer, sold in brown longnecks, is now available in various parts of the country, but, as late as the 1970s it was available only seasonally and only in central and southeast Texas. But it soon shot up in popularity until it's now the default beer in Austin, San Antonio, and most other parts of central Texas.
Free tours are offered Monday to Friday, at 11:30am and 1pm, and take about 30 minutes, with beer tastings before and after in the hospitality room. It's an impressive tour -- especially the bottling plant. You can see the bottles move along a conveyor that looks like a long amusement ride. It loops around the entire brewery, guiding bottles in and out of several machines, until capped, labeled, and filled with beer; then they are deposited in boxes ready for shipping.
All the Shiner beer sold is made at this small brewery; no production is contracted out to other plants.
After your immersion in German/Czech beer culture, it's time to move on. From the brewery, take a left on Hwy. 95 N. and drive 18 miles to Flatonia (pop. 1,000). This is a small agricultural town and railroad depot. Really, the main reason to come here is that firstly, it's on the way to the next destination, and secondly, so that you can tell your friends back home that you were in Flatonia, Texas. (The name doesn't actually refer to its lack of topography, but you don't have to mention that.) If you want to know more about the town, you will pass right by the town archives and museum (on your right). It's occasionally open, and you can stretch your legs while examining a few antiques.
Luling (pop. 5,000) has some of the best barbecue in the state. The town is divided down the middle by the railroad tracks. Where the highway crosses the tracks, look for City Market (tel. 830/875-9019) on the left, a few doors down at 633 E. Davis St. It's open Monday through Saturday until 6pm. Luling is also known for watermelon, and they have a festival the last week of June called the Watermelon Thump. If you arrive during the festival, you will have a hard time scoring some barbecue, as the town gets crowded.
In the 1920s and '30s, Luling was at the center of a central Texas oil boom. After you finish your barbecue, you can stroll down Davis Street to no. 421, where you'll find the Central Texas Oil Patch Museum (tel. 830/875-1922; www.oilmuseum.org). This very large space is filled with artifacts of the early days of oil extraction and of the city of Luling. It's an interesting exhibit, and the building itself, with its old-time tin ceiling, is a pleasure to see. While you are there, you can pick up a brochure and map for the Pumpjack Tour. Within the city are several pumpjacks (those rocking-horse-like machines that bob up and down in oil fields). Denizens of Luling started dressing up the pumpjacks for fun, and then the local chamber of commerce commissioned Texas sign artist George Kalesik to decorate some. The pumpjacks are located close enough together that you can see the majority on foot.
After your visit to Luling, you can return to San Antonio or head to San Marcos or New Braunfels.
A Taste of Alsace in Texas
Just 20 miles west of San Antonio (via U.S. 90 W.), Castroville has become something of a bedroom community for San Antonio, but the center of town retains its heritage as an old Alsatian community. Henri Castro, a Portuguese-born Jewish Frenchman, received a 1.25-million-acre land grant from the Republic of Texas in exchange for his commitment to colonize the land. He founded it on a scenic bend of the Medina River in 1842. Second only to Stephen F. Austin in the number of settlers he brought over, Castro recruited most of his 2,134 immigrants from the Rhine Valley, especially from the French province of Alsace. A few of the oldest citizens still can speak Alsatian, a dialect of German, though the language is likely to die out in the area when they do.
Get some insight into the town's history at the Landmark Inn State Historic Site, 402 E. Florence St., Castroville, TX 78009 (tel. 830/931-2133; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/landmark), which also counts a nature trail, an old gristmill, and a stone dam among its attractions. The park's centerpiece, the Landmark Inn, offers eight simple rooms decorated with early Texas pieces dating up until the 1940s.
For a delicious taste of the past, visit Haby's Alsatian Bakery, 207 U.S. 90 E. (tel. 830/931-2118), owned by the Tschirhart family since 1974 and featuring apple fritters, strudels, stollens, breads, and coffeecakes. Open Monday to Saturday 5am to 7pm.
For additional information, contact the Castroville Chamber of Commerce, 802 London St., P.O. Box 572, Castroville, TX 78009 (tel. 800/778-6775 or 830/538-3142; www.castroville.com), where you can pick up a walking-tour booklet of the town's historic buildings, as well as a map that details the local boutiques and antiques shops (they're not concentrated in a single area). It's open 9am to noon and 1 to 3pm Monday through Friday.
Note: Downtown Castroville tends to close down on Monday and Tuesday, and some places are shuttered on Wednesday and Sunday as well. If you want to find everything open, come on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.