Exploring the heart of the Hill Country
By Mark Henricks
Driving south from Fredericksburg one recent afternoon, my girl-friend and I approached I-10 at Kerrville and found ourselves in the shadow of an immense steel cross, which we learned was installed a few years ago and is still a source of controversy around town. It occurred to me later that while the cross might be the city’s most obvious visual symbol, the true spirit of Kerrville is the cypress-lined Guadalupe River, which flows through town and provides the focal point of many of the city’s attractions. We set forth to see more of Kerr-ville, a city we had often passed through but had never explored.
Continuing south on Texas 16, a bridge over the Guadalupe led to Kerrville’s Louise Hays Park, a 64-acre playground with hiking trails, tennis courts, green lawns, playscapes, swimming areas, and picnic areas. It’s one of two notable parks in this picturesque city of 22,000 residents, which is spread out along the river and up into the hills.
The other major park is Kerrville-Schreiner Park, and it should be a centerpiece of any visit, especially during mild-weather months. This 517-acre former state park, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, straddles Texas 173 along the Guadalupe a few miles east of downtown. Campsites and cabins, picnic sites, playgrounds, butterfly gardens, hiking trails, and a swimming area invite visitors to a placid stretch of river lined with limestone blocks. We rented a pair of inner tubes from one of the outfitters here (kayaks and canoes are other options), and spent a joyful few hours in the water observing a rock-skipping troop of Boy Scouts and a flock of curious mallards before emerging refreshed and ready to explore.
As we do whenever we travel, we stopped first at the city’s visitor information center, where the staff provided maps and offered a trove of dining, lodging, shopping, and museum options. We hadn’t expected such a wealth of museums.
Our first museum stop, The Hill Country Museum, occupies the former Victorian home of Captain Charles Schreiner, who immigrated to Texas from France as a child in the mid-19th Century and is arguably Kerrville’s most famous citizen. Schreiner became a Texas Ranger at age 16, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and in 1869 established himself as a businessman in Kerrville, where he eventually amassed a fortune from banking, retailing, railroading, and ranching. One of his most famous ventures, the sheep-and-cattle spread known as the Y.O. Ranch, is still run by his descendants. “By the time he died in 1927, he owned practically everything in town,” says Alice McDaniel, the museum’s manager. Here, we studied many of the family’s original furnishings and belongings, including a silk top hat and cane. The mansion itself features such architectural curiosities as a round “courting room” off the parlor, where young couples could converse in private.
Another gem is the Museum of Western Art, home to hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and objects ranging from antique saddles and weaponry to pottery and household items. We particularly enjoyed a temporary exhibit of Dripping Springs artist Debbie Little-Wilson’s cowgirl-themed prints, which resemble vintage illustrations. Visitors with kids along should explore the children’s area, where replicas of a pioneer wagon and teepee invite play.
After the museum, we traveled south on Texas 173 about 10 miles to Camp Verde General Store, established in 1857 to provide services to soldiers stationed a mile west at Camp Verde, headquarters of the Army’s camel experiment. In 1856, a herd of camels had arrived from Egypt to serve as beasts of burden, and while the camels proved well-suited to the climate and terrain, the experiment was abandoned after the Civil War. Today the general store offers a café with a full menu of salads and sandwiches; we lingered in the gift shop, which sells items ranging from camel-shaped ballpoint pens to handmade soaps and old-fashioned candy.
Back in Kerrville, we checked into our lodging for the night, the Y.O. Ranch Resort Hotel and Conference Center, named for Charles Schreiner’s famous ranch. Branding-iron chandeliers, trophy mounts, cowhide chairs, and lots of rough-hewn stonework give the hotel’s lobby a genuine ranch feel, and our simple, tile-floored room offered a cool respite from the Texas sun. While we relaxed, guests attending a family reunion thronged the complimentary happy hour at the resort’s Elm Waterhole Saloon, where they toasted their day over cocktails at the antique wood-and-stained-glass bar.
The next day, we traveled west to the agreeably scruffy shops along the “New” Old Ingram Loop, where we admired the works by local artists and artisans. But then we returned to downtown Kerrville to check out the inviting row of antiques retailers on Water Street. At Estate Antiques, we couldn’t resist an amber necklace, a sapphire ring, and a camel-shaped teapot.
We both love books, so we spent some time exploring the neatly organized shelves of downtown’s Wolfmueller’s Books, which occupies a two-story building that dates to the early 1900s, catty-corner to the Kerr County Courthouse. More than 30,000 titles here range from signed first editions by Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry to recent bestsellers. “But we really specialize in Texana,” says owner Jon Wolfmueller, “and we’re proud that our customers come from all across Texas.”
If we hadn’t expected Kerrville’s wealth of museums and sophisticated shopping, we also hadn’t anticipated such inventive cuisine. Francisco’s served us a savory fried-oyster appetizer, a spicy pasta-poblano-and-chicken entrée, and an unforgettable Mexican chocolate bread pudding, with service and ambience matching any big-city venue. What was supposed to be lunch at Hill Country Cafe became breakfast when we learned the 69-year-old institution doesn’t serve lunch on Saturdays. Huevos rancheros followed by a mountainous slice of chocolate meringue pie and a homemade cinnamon roll relieved any disappointment.
Another dinner at Pampell’s revealed a perfectly prepared
platter of fried calamari (crispy yet tender, with a bit of pepper for zing) as
well as a superb Swiss-and-mushroom burger. Pampell’s operates out of a former
opera house and, fittingly, live music was scheduled for later in the evening.
And not just any live music, according to co-owner Diane Reiner. “You haven’t
heard of the Wolf Sisters?” she exclaimed, explaining that the two Kerrville
residents were a sensation at the recent Kerrville Folk Festival, an annual
gathering that is one of the country’s most renowned musical events. But before
they came on stage, it was time for us to head home. We may have missed the
Wolfs, but we took with us indelible images of the giant cross, the meandering
river, and the friendly folks who call Kerrville home.
From the October 2011 issue.