Gruene, Texas is one of the Lone Star State’s most celebrated tiny towns. The quiet little hamlet nestled in the Texas Hill Country is replete with history. Most know about Gruene Hall, the oldest continuously operating dance hall in Texas. You can see the history while taking a stroll under the giant oaks and cypress trees that line its streets, in the well-worn yet well-preserved historic buildings that are still lively with business. But chances are you don’t know too much beyond that, and if you weren’t around to witness it happening, you might not know that, at one time, the bustling tourist town now beloved by Texans was once a ghost town whose historic buildings were slated for demolition.
A Cotton Farming Community
In 1872 Ernst Gruene and his family settled three miles north of New Braunfels on the Guadalupe River in what was, at that time, known as Goodwin Community. Gruene purchased 6,000 acres and enticed other families to move to the area to begin a cotton sharecropping operation. In 1878 Gruene opened a dance hall for town gatherings and entertainment, which still stands today as the famous Gruene Hall. The industrious child of German immigrants also built a mercantile to serve the needs of the farming families, a cotton gin, a lumberyard and a bank.
Falling on Hard Times
The town flourished because of its cotton industry as well as its location on various stage coach roads and rail lines, as well as an advantageous ford on the Guadalupe River. However, the community was devastated in the 1920’s after the arrival of the Mexican boll weevil decimated the cotton crops. The cotton gin burned in 1922 and The Great Depression that began with the stock market crash in 1929 further put the nail in the coffin of the community as the plummeting price of cotton in those days made it cost prohibitive to grow. After World War II, travelers bypassed the town due to the construction of the interstate. In a few years, its population virtually dropped to zero and it became a ghost town by 1950.
Gruene the Ghost Town
Gruene remained a ghost town for the subsequent quarter century, subsisting with a few residents, the dance hall and a saddle tree company. Gruene Hall was mostly boarded up, but had been leased by a married couple and remained open as an after-work drinking spot for some locals. By 1974, the last 300 acres of what is now the historic district had been purchased by a real estate developer who had plans to turn the whole place into a housing complex. That is, until Chip Kaufman found it.
Kaufman was an architecture student at the University of Texas who had been working with the Texas Historical Commission when he took a kayaking trip down the Guadalupe River and decided to get out a little further than normal, at the Gruene Crossing. On the banks of the river, Kaufman spotted an old water tower a little ways off and decided to walk over and check it out. Upon discovering the town and viewing the many historical buildings that had been left to decay, Kaufman decided to find out more. This led him to the discovery that the buildings were slated for demolition. Instead of allowing the town to meet its fate, he got the blessing from the developers to inventory the buildings for the Texas Historical Commission.
The Crusade to Save Gruene
Kaufman wasn’t alone in his fervor to preserve Gruene, however. He was joined by a few other staunch crusaders, Cheryle Fuller, Bill Gallagher, Pat Molak and Mary Jane Nalley among them.Kaufman bought what was left of the burned down cotton gin and worked to turn it into a restaurant (now known as The Gristmill). In doing so, he sold the town water tower to pay for a roof for the restaurant. As it turned out, that was a bad idea, and the residents had to go to court to save the water tower.
Gallagher and Molak bought the dance hall, and ran it with the help of Nalley. Fuller bought the oldest house in town and worked to get the whole town placed on the National Register of Historic Places. She also organized the first music festival at Gruene Hall to pay for legal fees associated with saving the water tower. Once the hot music acts of the day caught a glimpse of the charming Gruene Hall, word got out and reinvigorated business at the historic dance hall.
Most Texans now know Gruene for its tourism. Gruene is a haven of restaurants and shops that offer beautiful vistas of the Guadalupe River, and is known for its celebrated Gruene Hall, the oldest dance hall in Texas. But if it hadn’t been for the tireless efforts of a few hard-headed Texans, what we know as a treasured slice of our state’s history might just be a block of 1970’s river condos today.