Illustration © Bryan Spear
KEEN ON KERRVILLE
Hill Country town goes with the flow, like the Guadalupe River that runs through it.
By John H. Ostdick • Photos by Sonja Sommerfeld
The first blush of morning elbows its way through a twisted juniper and live oak shroud off the porch of the Writer’s Cabin at Trail’s End Guest House above Kerrville. Off to the right, three small deer skitter from human contact.
This morning, like the cool green Guadalupe River that emerges from Kerr County springs and flows gently through town on its way to the Gulf more than 200 miles away, is in no rush.
The region has enticed visitors since the Lipan Apache, Comanche and Kiowa used it as hunting grounds. But like many other Texans, we knew the town for years mainly from summer pilgrimages, as my daughter Madeline joined thousands of campers (and later counselors) scattered across these hills about an hour northwest of San Antonio. Now a transplanted New York adult, Madeline remains deeply connected to the place.
This trip, however, is purely for the flow of it. Our eccentric small cabin — oversized jet tub plopped a few feet from our bed — is one of six guest options perched on 23 acres of some of Kerr County’s highest elevations. This relaxed working goat ranch is but one of a wide range of lodging options, from ranch, camp-style spreads to deluxe in-town hotels.
My wife, Michelle, joins me on the porch to finalize how to best drink in as much of Kerrville’s seductive charm as possible.
The Guadalupe River becomes Nimitz Lake in one section of Kerrville.
Children play in interactive water fountains in riverside Louise Hays Park.
First stop is a popular Saturday morning respite downtown. All 15 tables at the bustling Hill Country Cafe are packed with mostly locals. As in many Kerrville establishments, messages abound. “Happy Good Morning” introduces daily specials on a whiteboard near the kitchen. “Don’t judge someone because they sin differently than you. Thank you,” enjoins another.
After a satisfying breakfast, we window-shop and check out some historic downtown sites.
German masons and stone carvers built the Schreiner Mansion for former Texas Ranger turned town leader Captain Charles Schreiner (1838–1927) on Earl Garrett Street. The immigrant was Kerrville’s first banker and operated its first mercantile. The mansion is now owned by the Cailloux Foundation.
Right next door, the art deco building that served as post office from 1935 to 1999 today houses the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center, which displays the works of hundreds of local artists and artisans.
We loll amid the magic of Wolfmueller’s Books on Earl Garrett Street, where owners Jon and Sandy Wolfmueller curate 3,000 square feet of rare books sprinkled among more common titles. About 20 years ago, the book section of their antique store overtook other collectibles, and they’ve been bookish ever since.
Dawdling among the 30,000-plus titles, with a special interest in all genres of Texana, is a treat.
The bespectacled Wolfmueller extends his arm toward the sea of books at his right, swipes at his full head of gray hair and shrugs, saying, “I like it — it gives you something to get up in the morning for.”
A glass-encased, signed-by-author copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that bears an unfamiliar cover catches my fancy. Wolfmueller explains that it is a British version of the first printing.
My fancy doesn’t extend to its $10,000 price tag, but I’m thrilled to discover it just the same. The shop is full of such discoveries, large and small.
Before an afternoon drive, I visit the Museum of Western Art on Bandera Highway. The Cowboy Artists of America founded the museum, designed by noted Texas architect O’Neil Ford, in 1983 to honor the Charlie Russell-Will James tradition of Western art.
His vision resulted in an eloquent venue for western art — its clean lines and ambiance illustrate why the National Council on the Arts in 1974 named Ford a National Historic Landmark, the only individual to receive the honor. His open, bricked-arch main presentation hall is an illuminating backdrop for some of the museum’s 250 permanent paintings, 150 sculptures and artifacts.
We then go west to Hunt, where the north and south forks of the Guadalupe River meet. On the way, we pass on the often-crowded Schumacher’s Crossing, consistently rated as one of the state’s 10 best swimming holes.
Since the 1920s, when the area’s first summer camps opened, Hunt has served as epicenter of one of the most popular Hill Country resort spots. And the 67-year-old Hunt Store — “The Store” as locals know it — has been in the thick of the action. Unfortunately, there is no sampling a meal this day, as a whiteboard on an easel in the Hunt Rock Cafe declares, “Sorry. Cafe will be ‘closed’ today. Cooks are out.”
Just the same, the cashier provides sound counsel about scenic route alternatives on today’s drive.
"Mother’s Love" by jeweler James Avery stands outside the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center.
Stonehenge II was moved from a farm to the Hill Country Arts Foundation campus.
The 5-mile River Trail follows the Guadalupe.
Friends relax on the Ingram Dam.
Our sojourn continues west on Texas Highway 39, past a fanciful stretch of weathered cowboy boots turned upside-down on fence posts. The array, started by a ranch family in the early 1970s, now flanks both sides of the highway.
We drop south on RM 187 to Lost Maples State Natural Area, where in the fall bigtooth maple trees fill a Hill Country canyon with jarringly brilliant blazes of red. During early summer, however, the natural trails beneath the maples (as well as large stands of Texas red oak, black willow, American sycamore, chinquapin oak and bald cypress) in the 2,900-acre park provide excellent exercise and windows of opportunity to view two endangered species — the golden-cheeked warbler and tiny black-capped vireo — before they leave in July for the winter in Mexico and Central America.
Back on the road, we pass the Lone Star Motorcycle Museum near Vanderpool. If rows of motorcycles line the parking lot, the museum is open (March through November, Friday through Sunday). Inside, Vincents, Harleys, Enfields, Nortons and Indians are scattered about on black-and-white checkered floors.
We cross the Sabinal River, and follow Texas Highway 16 north back to Kerrville. Before long, a colorful “Welcome Home” billboard looms over the trees on our left. It is a touchstone for regulars at the famous Kerrville Folk Festival. After its first two years, the festival moved to the 60-acre Quiet Valley Ranch in 1974 and grew into America’s largest and longest-running celebration of original songwriters. The festival, this year scheduled from May 23 through June 9, attracts performers and fans worldwide.
By Memorial Day weekend, the town is fully transformed, as it hosts multiple events, including the Kerrville Festival of the Arts, in its fifth year. Accommodations get snapped up, and local eateries are hopping.
All this wandering kicks up a mighty hunger — and Billy Gene’s Restaurant on Junction Highway has a running boast as the Kerrville Daily Times “Reader’s Choice Best Chicken-Fried Steak since 2007.”
Billy and Janie Gene have operated a Billy Gene’s, first in Bandera and then here, for 20-plus years. The brightly adorned restaurant with an awesome river view is sprinkled with men in their Stetsons, iced teas at the ready. A display case of cobbler, cream pies and banana pudding entices customers passing the cashier desk.
Not far out Billy Gene’s front door, the tiny township of Ingram is nestled between Kerrville and Hunt. J.C.W. Ingram built a store on the north bank of the Guadalupe and started conducting church services after relocating from California in 1882. As his namesake town grew up, he served at various times as merchant, constable, sheriff, postmaster and pharmacist.
MUSEUM OF WESTERN ART
HILL COUNTRY ARTS FOUNDATION
LOST MAPLES STATE NATURAL AREA
Today, the gregarious Darrin Potter rules the site of Ingram’s first house, now home to his Copper Cactus Trading Company. Potter shed his Houston corporate petrochemical burnout and relocated here 20 years ago to pursue his artistic vision.
Next to Potter’s main building rests a drydocked boat he has christened the SS Minnow (think Gilligan’s Island). The artist/landlord bought the boat (which in better times ran day tours on Lake Pontchartrain in southeastern Louisiana) for $1 at auction. He sold its motor for $5,000 and its nautical toilet for $1,000, and plopped the boat on his property, using the funds to spend about eight months stripping it all the way down to the hull, repurposing it as a funk-deluxe rental.
A retrofitted GM bus cruiser in the yard is going through a similar fixed-site transformation into a black-and-red themed “Johnny Cash tour bus rental.”
“I’m not right in the head — you might have figured that out by now,” he says, laughing heartily.
The quarter-mile Ingram Loop provides little pockets of fanciful stops. Next door, a sign in the front of Junk in the Trunk proclaims that “Junk is the New Black.”
As the day begins its long yawn to night, Stonehenge II basks in waning light along Texas Highway 27 in Ingram. What started on a nearby farm as a whimsical project by neighbors later found new life beside the Guadalupe River on the Hill Country Arts Foundation campus.
In 1989, Al Shepperd supplied the funds and Doug Hill brought the construction know-how to build plaster- and graphite-covered metal mesh and steel frameworks, replicating the mysterious stones of England, in the middle of Shepperd’s pasture in Hunt. The nine-month process produced replica stones standing about 8 feet tall (making the installation about half to two-thirds the size of the original). After a visit to Easter Island, Shepperd added two 13-foot Island head replicas to the mix, just for the heck of it.
After Shepperd’s death, the farm sold in 2010 and the replica faced destruction. Instead, all 75 pieces were relocated, stone by stone, eight miles east. What sounds a tad hokey in description is actually quite delightful in the magic-time light, especially with a day moon high in the sky.
Before heading back up the hill to our little cabin, we drop into the town’s first craft brewery, Pint & Plow Brewing, on Clay Street. At an outdoor table, a dog rests underfoot of a couple, alert for falling morsels, but the couple seems to be savoring every bite.
A small stage at the back of the patio is empty at the moment, but a neon sign behind it has yet another local message: “Kerrville is the New Kerrville.”
Sign us up.
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