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Sisterdale's Secrets

Don’t blink and miss this Hill Country haven
Written by Michelle Burgess. Photographs by Kevin Stillman.

Sisterdale Market, located on Sisterdale Road/FM 1376, opens daily except Sundays. The shop sells groceries, animal feed, and collectibles.

If Ottmar von Behr had gotten his way 155 years ago, Sisterdale would look a whole lot different than the tiny town it turned out to be.

Early settler von Behr, a naturalist and meteorologist, was one of the men who championed Sisterdale’s petition to be the county seat when Kendall County was organized in 1859. He and his brethren—German intellectuals who fled their mother country after being persecuted for their support for equality and human rights—imagined that the designation would bring attention and commerce to their secluded, bucolic burg.

Alas, it was not to be. Neighboring Boerne, 13 miles down the road, snagged the county seat. And whether there’s a direct correlation or not, we know what happened to Boerne—steady growth and eventual status as one of the Hill Country’s top tourist destinations.

What happened to Sisterdale? Well, on the face of it, not much. But for the few locals who make their home here, and for the visitors who seek it out, Sisterdale’s lost-in-time Hill Country solitude constitutes its appeal. 

Sisterdale’s population peaked in 1884 at 150, when it sustained a cotton gin, shingle mill, grocery store, dancehall/opera house, post office, and school. A boll weevil infestation put the gin out of business in the 1920s, and, except for the dancehall, Sisterdale’s other businesses also fell away over the years. So did its people.

Today, the population hovers around 30, and the folks who travel along this half-mile stretch of Farm Road 1376 generally fall into three categories. There are the motorcyclists who appreciate the gorgeous scenery and sparse traffic on this route connecting Boerne to Fredericksburg, the locals who prefer this route over taking the highway, and the tourists who stumble upon it when they stray too far from Boerne or get lost trying to find nearby Luckenbach.

What they encounter is, really, a wide place in the road in the truest sense of the phrase. Sisterdale’s buildings barely number over a dozen, and if you want pizza or gas or an ATM, you’re out of luck. There are no fancy restaurants, no salons, no outlet stores.

For the few locals who make their home here, and for the visitors who seek it out, Sisterdale’s lost-in-time Hill Country solitude constitutes its appeal.

But those dozen or so buildings that make up the Sisterdale Valley District have been included in the National Register of Historic Places since 1975. The old cotton gin looks like it did 100 years ago, only now it houses Sister Creek Vineyards. The Sisterdale Dance Hall is an event venue, host to weddings and parties most weekends. The quaint old homes along the road have been maintained—not razed or updated with granite and stainless steel—and are home to an artisanal candle store (Marlowe Candle Company), an antiques and gourmet food shop (Armadillo Haus), and a place to buy groceries, feed, and knick-knacks (Sisterdale Market).

The winery bookends the town on one end, the Sisterdale Saloon on the other. The atmosphere at the winery is friendly and a bit elegant, while the vibe at the saloon can be a little raucous, though equally affable. There’s pool and shuffleboard, a jukebox for when there’s no live music, and two stages. Seated at the 111-year-old, oak-topped bar, you’ll encounter a mostly local crowd of revelers, along with weekend-warrior and retiree motorcyclists who are happy to shoot the breeze with strangers.

Just outside of town, on the road west to Kendalia, visitors will find Paniolo Ranch, a spa and B&B with spacious guest quarters, privacy, and some of the best views in the entire Hill Country. Created by a transplanted Houstonian with ties to Hawaii—paniolo means cowboy in Hawaiian—the ranch hosts weddings and events, and is tailor-made for intimate getaways, such as a girls’ weekend, couples’ trips, and sanity-saving excursions for anyone who craves some rest and relaxation.

“For a little town, you’d be surprised how much activity there is on the weekend,” says Judy Kennell, owner of Paniolo Ranch. “During the day it may be a blink-of-the-eye, but on a weekend night, you’d think you’d hit the big city lights.”

The weekend activity only enhances Sisterdale’s appeal as a solo, leave-the-phone-behind, escape-from-real-life holiday. Start with wine tasting at one end, finish with a beer at the other, and pick up a rosemary-scented candle and vintage poster in a reclaimed-wood frame on the way. It’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll end your half-mile trek having met a few people—either fellow visitors or locals who are more than happy to talk about the town and their place in it.

Ask the handful of people who call Sisterdale home whether they’d like their town to be a bigger player on the tourism scene, and they’ll say they’re glad to remain the area’s best-kept secret for as long as it lasts. Even without the courthouse.

Unincorporated Sisterdale is in Kendall County at the intersection of farm roads 473 and 1376, a 45-minute drive north of San Antonio.

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