Texas’s German Roots: New Braunfels
“Do you speak German?,” I ask.
Joyce is minding the register at the oldest bakery in Texas, Naegelin’s. Opened in 1868, the establishment remains a landmark in downtown New Braunfels—and a quirky reminder of the Lone Star State’s German roots.
Around Joyce are bins brimming with traditional German goodies: Lebkuchen cookies, ornately embossed Springerle biscuits, and sweet, croissant-like pretzels laced with pecans and drizzled with icing.
“Texas pecans,” she adds as a point of clarification. I buy one.
It’s hard to imagine a better place to spend a spare day in central Texas.
New Braunfels was founded partway between San Antonio and Austin in 1845 by a German prince looking to start a colony in what was at that time the Republic of Texas. Despite the fact that “New Germany” never came to fruition, New Braunfels persevered and today represents one of the most historic German-American communities in the United States.
And though German surnames top many of the town’s 19th-century buildings, use of the language seems limited to the odd word on local storefronts (usually Willkommen) and eatery menus. These days, the place might be best known for its marginally German waterpark, Schlitterbahn.
After checking in at the Prince Solms Inn, I take a late-morning stroll before the heat really ratchets up. I breeze through a train depot museum, peek into a violin shop, and pass Henne Hardware, whose windows provide a showcase for old-fashioned cast-iron stoves, oversize stuffed animals, and semi-automatic BB handguns.
Around the corner is the Phoenix Saloon, where an enterprising German—and proprietor of what was then called the Back Room Cafe—named William Gebhardt gave the world chili powder by inventing a machine to crush and dry fresh peppers. That was in 1894.
Texas has had a long love affair with chili; they even have their own variety. I’ve never had it.
Inside the Phoenix, a family sits by the bar (where 31 beers are on tap) eating burgers as a Motorhead song plays. The menu announces that they serve chili. I notice beans cost extra. “Yeah, beans,” the bartender explains kindly, “are sort of a northern thing.”
I go bean-free, and the stuff is so spicy I have to alternate between the chili and bites from an oversize slice of cornbread. Upon seeing my reaction, the bartender offers to bring me a side of sour cream. “That usually cuts the spice,” she says.
Afterward I drive a few blocks to the Sophienburg Museum. I pause at a rendering of Prince Carl, the town’s founder, who’s donning a bright tunic, a richly plumed Three-Musketeers-worthy hat, strapping thigh-high boots, and a belted sword.
“It’s an interesting look,” admits Kiwa, a museum staffer with red chopsticks holding up her black hair. “We don’t wear leggings like that, I guarantee you.”
In the course of poking around the museum, I bump into one other visitor, David Burck, a transplant from the Midwest who picked out this German-sounding town by looking at a map. (“Thank goodness for Google.”) He’s now publisher of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, which is, as one exhibit informs me, the oldest continuously operating newspaper in Texas.
“Everyone is so involved here,” he tells me, by way of explaining his community of roughly 60,000.
They also tube like demons.
All day I’ve watched buses pulling trailers filled with massive inner tubes pass me on the street.
It’s so dang hot in New Braunfels that its two clean, clear, cool rivers seem a minor miracle.
The Comal River, a tributary of the Guadalupe, weaves through downtown. I pay an outfitter $15 for a tube to use and a shuttle ride back after a two-hour ride. I scamper barefoot across hot parking lot asphalt, jump into the water, and begin my slow journey. I can see rocks on the river bottom below.
Picnickers stand waist deep in the water sipping Bud Light at riverbank parks. I notice a few fellow tubers I pass have lashed coolers to their rigs for drink-and-drift convenience. Near a sign that reads “No Jumping,” a 20-something guy with long hair make a flying leap in.
After an hour, I reach a winding concrete channel known as a tube chute. In a quick, unexpected rush, I’m dumped, backward, into a torrent of white water below.
Tubing is fun. And tiring, somehow.
After a late afternoon nap, I head out for Gruene (pronounced “green”), a neighboring town that’s slowly being absorbed into New Braunfels. Tonight’s the kick-off for Geezerfest and hundreds of cars fill a grass lot. I park near a shady grove where adults sip Texan wine as a bluegrass band plays in a gazebo then move on to admire Gruene Hall, Texas’s oldest dance hall.
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At Oma Gruene’s Secret Garten, a deeply bearded band plays zydeco songs with a 10-year-old washboard player chiming in. I sit at a communal picnic table with a $7 bratwurst and a can of local beer. And when my packet of yellow mustard spurts onto my cell phone, a tipsy middle-aged woman clutching a Dos Equis hands me a wadded napkin.
“I saw that,” she says. “That mustard does not open.”
She often comes here for beer and music, walking from her home a quarter-mile away. A stocky guy sporting a chin ponytail, a piano-key tie, and a bright orange shirt walks by and directs a nod her way.
“That guy’s a fixture here,” she says when he leaves. “He does this sort of…interpretive dance. He never touches you. It’s all kind of…platonic.”
She doesn’t know his name.
The sun is down now, and Geezerfest’s overlapping music fills the still-steamy air. I move to another spot and listen to a country singer on a scratched-up acoustic, sip from a bottle of Shiner Bock, and watch guys throw horseshoes in a back lot lit by a string of Christmas lights.
It’s easy to imagine spending another 24 hours here. Or longer.
Celebrated travel personality Robert Reid is a featured digital reporter for Nat Geo Travel. Follow his adventures on Twitter and Instagram.
Read more about New Braunfels and other international experiences around the United States and Canada in Abroad at Home from National Geographic Books.Abroad at Home from National Geographic Books.