In the January issue of Texas Highways, Senior Editor Lori Moffatt explores New Braunfels’ historic district of Gruene, a community founded in the 1800s as a cotton-ginning town. The town founder, Henry Gruene, built a dance hall here in 1878, but the whole community had fallen into decline by end of World War I, in part because of a boll weevil infestation that destroyed the cotton crops here (and elsewhere in Texas).
In 1975, the dance hall’s restoration kicked off a rebirth of Gruene itself. Lori spoke with the mastermind behind the hall’s restoration, Pat Molak, to learn more about Gruene’s history.
“Well,” says Pat Molak, “In the early 1970s I was finishing an unsuccessful career as a stockbroker in San Antonio. I knew I didn’t want to be in the business anymore, and I was literally looking for a dance hall. A friend of mine told me that there was this old dance hall near New Braunfels, and the next thing you know, we went up there to take a look.
“The front of the hall was being run as a beer joint. And when I went to use the restrooms, lo and behold there was this great dance hall there. It was being used as storage. We made a deal under the cedar trees in the beer garden, and the next thing I knew, I owned a dance hall.
“We honestly didn’t do too much to it. We knocked out a few walls, but all the signage and the stage backdrop were already there. We cleaned up all the trash, rewired the building, brought in potable water, bought a few new beer boxes, and hired some bands.
“We were feeling our way. It was 1975, and back then, Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker had just gotten to Austin, and we knew we liked their music. That was the sound we were interested in. So by the fall of ’75, we had been having dances for about four months, and there was a band in San Marcos called the Ace in the Hole Band, led by a fellow named George Strait. We hired them for $150 bucks. They played until the early 1980s when George got his contract in Nashville.
“He shot the image for his first album, ‘Strait Country,’ at Gruene Hall, and then returned in 2009 to shoot the images for his record ‘Twang.’ He and his wife, Norma, spent the whole day in Gruene, just like the old days. That dance hall is magical. A whole lot of artists, from Chris Isaak to Jerry Jeff Walker to Pat Green, tell me it’s one of their favorite places to play.”