March is a good time to visit the Hill Country in Texas. It’s not too hot or humid, even though on a recent day the thermometer reached 90 degrees after starting the day at 46. It’s also less crowded, so you can ride a bike on a two-lane road without too much traffic. During a recent trip, there was no waiting for wonderful beef brisket, ribs and buttermilk pie for dessert at Bill’s Bar-B-Que, which has been in the same location in Kerrville for 40 years. Its motto: “Dang good food since 1982.”
My wife, Joni, and I had not seen my older brother, Bill, and his wife, Dee for about six years. We wanted to visit two years ago, but COVID-19 stopped us. Others must think now is the time for travel, as the airports in Oakland, Dallas, Las Vegas and San Antonio were crowded and all seats on the four Southwest flights we took were filled.
Kerrville was founded in 1889 and today it includes some 24,000 people, according to the census bureau. It is the capital of Kerr County and part of the 19-county Texas Hill Country Trail Region. Its biggest city is San Antonio, with its world-famous River Walk. We didn’t visit San Antonio, preferring instead to explore smaller towns and driving on two-lane roads.
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The foundation of the area is solid stone with a very shallow soil depth. When the underlying stone is mined, pieces are like stone cliffs and can be as large as a small car. Handsome houses are built with thick stone and metal roofs.
One of the highlights of Kerrville is a man-made sight, created by artist, evangelist and Kerrville resident Max Greiner Jr., who is also the founder of The Coming King Foundation. On 24 acres at the highest point near Kerrville, he has created The Coming King Sculpture Prayer Gardens. In July 2010, the initial installation was a steel cross that is 77.7 feet tall and weighs 70 tons. It is hollow inside and visitors may stand at its base and submit prayers to God.
Other sculptures include Christ as king, riding a horse with a sword in his hand; Christ washing the feet of a disciple and Christ as the Lion of Judah. Along each of the paved walkways are scripture readings in German, English and Spanish. White prayer rocks are in piles throughout the grounds, for you to offer your own prayer.
The initial cost of the prayer gardens was $2 million; donations are sought for its continued upkeep.
Flowing through Kerrville is the Guadalupe River, which starts in Kerr County and ends up 230 miles later in San Antonio Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. Texas is in a drought, much like California, and smaller tributaries to the Guadalupe were dry. This year, the only Bluebonnet wildflowers we saw were in a yard that was watered. When it rains, flash floods are common, which is why there are blacktop alleys for the water to flow into the Guadalupe River. Besides, Kerrville, larger cities along the Guadalupe include New Braunfels, Seguin, Gonzales, Curero, Boerne (pronounced Burney) and Victoria.
To visit Bill and Dee means a road trip, or several road trips, one each day with Kerrville as the hub. One day we took Highway 16 to historic Fredericksburg, a 24-mile jaunt, ending up at the Fredericksburg Brewing Co., where we had German schnitzel, a thin cut of meat that is lightly breaded and pan-fried. We also had glasses of their Giant, a dark porter beer that is made once a year.
There are other German restaurants in town, including Der Lindenbaum, Otto’s German Bistro and The Auslander. Fredericksburg was the second German city established in Texas on May 8, 1846 . It was founded by the Adelsverein, a German group of 21 noblemen who sought to establish German colonies in Texas and brought thousands of German emigrants to Texas beginning in 1844.
Another day, we headed straight west from Kerrville on Texas 27, went through tiny Ingram, population 1,892 and continued south on 39. On either side of these highways are historical markers. One told the story of John Sherman, who built a water-powered mill in the 1870s near the confluence of Kelly Creek and the Guadalupe River. It ground corn, sawed lumber and ginned cotton. It was in use until a flood in 1932 destroyed it. The marker noted that Sherman, his wife and eight children lived in a stone house that is still standing.
On that trip, we followed the Guadalupe River and went from a four-lane highway to a two-lane road. Speed limits are generally higher than in California, with 70 and 80 mph common. Gas prices, too, are a lot less than our $6 a gallon average. At one Shell station, gas was $3.79 a gallon; at another Shell in Kerrville, it was $3.95 a gallon.
Bill and Dee enjoy living in Kerrville, which they say is one of the best cities for retirees in the state. Hospitals and doctors are nearby and Kerrville has many stores in its retail sector. Even though it is a commercial center, it only takes about 15 minutes to get into the real Texas country with many large cattle ranches. The ranch entrance is marked by a gate, either simple or elaborate and from the road, you can’t see the main ranch house, because it’s built far away from traffic.
On Texas 39, a number of bridges cross the Guadalupe River. At each crossing, there is a yellow marker, measured in feet. The top is five feet high, the roadway is zero. During a rainstorm, drivers can gauge how high the water is by looking at the measuring stick. When I ventured to Bill that you could probably drive across a one-foot flooded roadway without a problem, he corrected me, saying that vehicles have been swept away by a flowing river when the road was flooded with as little as six inches of water.
At each river crossing, huge cypress trees were growing in the river and on both banks. Each time we saw that, the scene was surreal and gorgeous, as if from a picture book from years ago.
Back in Kerrville, we went to the supermarket for essentials. Florence Butt founded C.C. Butt Grocery Store in her Kerrville home on Nov. 26, 1905. Her son, Howard E. Butt, lent his initials and expertise to the H-E-B supermarket, which has 340 stores in Texas and Mexico. It is based in San Antonio.
The Kerrville store is massive, like many things in Texas, and its wine aisles contained fine wines from all over the world, including those from the Napa Valley. On display was a jeroboam of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon in a pine box and two Premiere Napa Valley wines from the 2015 and 2017 vintages. H-E-B is apparently successful at obtaining these rare wines at the annual Napa Valley Vintners auction.
According to Jim Gordon, writing for winemag.com, H-E-B paid $80,000 for 60 bottles of Schrader Cellars 2017 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon from the To Kalon Vineyard, making each bottle worth more than $1,330.
Dave Stoneberg is a freelance journalist and former editor of the St. Helena Star.