“I suppose so,” I answered. I was starting across Main Street in Fredericksburg, a traditional German town in the Hill Country.
The man, one of several tourists, had fallen in at my side. “Mind if I ask a question?” he said.
“No, of course not.” I was looking at the two-story stone building where my mother gave birth to my older sister and me. The Keidel Memorial Hospital, once a venerable Fredericksburg institution, is now Der Küchen Laden, a high-end kitchen shop. Sauté pans, mixing bowls, and food processors fill the rooms where doctors once saw patients.
“Is it right that this town was settled by escapees from concentration camps in Germany?” I heard him ask.
His question was so confused, I almost stopped in my tracks. Fredericksburg was founded in 1846—not by Jewish people, but by Germans—and nearly 100 years before Nazi Germany started incarcerating Jews. What he was suggesting would require time travel and a rewrite of history. Not knowing where to start, I told him to have a nice time and went on my way.
Today, Fredericksburg is less a German enclave and more a tourist destination for Hill Country exploration. Out-of-towners visit for many reasons: to shop, to drink wine at vineyards, to play golf. They come for celebrations like Fourth of July, Night in Old Fredericksburg, and Oktoberfest. They arrive for the attractions, but can’t avoid the history. The town of Fredericksburg offers a lesson in the past writ large.
Start on the east end of Main Street, with the National Museum of the Pacific War, a 6-acre complex that tells the story of World War II and Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a hometown hero. Finish less than a mile away, on the west end of the street, at the Pioneer Museum. This historical site promotes the region’s German roots through 19th-century artifacts and paints a picture of historical Fredericksburg through buildings including an original 1849 residence and store, a smokehouse, and a one-room schoolhouse. Between the two museums, there are several blocks lined with old limestone buildings; the Vereins Kirche, which was built as the first community church; and the original courthouse handsomely restored to become the public library. With all of the old buildings, the past feels tangible.
When I tell people I’m from Fredericksburg, they invariably ask me the same two questions. What was it like growing up there? And do I hate that it has become a tourist destination?
The first question is easier to answer. I had such a happy childhood, I’m not sure I ever recovered. It was a safe place, people were kind, everything made sense. I never felt alone or lonely, yet I had an immense amount of freedom. We heard roosters crow in the morning and church bells chime during the day. The night sky was darker, the stars brighter.
My parents moved to Fredericksburg during World War II. In the 1950s, when I was a kid, the town was almost entirely German. They referred to us as outsiders, or auslanders, not in any unkind way but just stating the obvious. The German families that settled the town put down roots and prospered.
The same surnames—Behren, Langerhans, Schmidt, Crenwelge, Keller, Stehling, Stein, and Keidel—recur generation after generation. After a hundred years, everyone was related in one way or another. The town didn’t begin the transition to English until after World War II. Until then, most of the local business was conducted in German—the banks, the schools, the newspapers.
I had such a happy childhood, I’m not sure I ever recovered. Fredericksburg was a safe place, people were kind, everything made sense.
In 1950, the population in Fredericksburg was approximately 3,800, compared with more than 10,000 today. The town had one African American family and a small Mexican American community. I must be forgetting some, but I can only think of five or six families like mine where both parents were “English” or non-German. The Catholic Church had its own school system, and if you went to public schools there was a strong possibility, if not a probability, that you might never meet a student your age who attended St. Mary’s.
During my childhood, Fredericksburg seemed both remote and obscure. Few people outside of the Hill Country had heard of the town. In Dallas or Houston, when I said I was from Fredericksburg, they thought I meant Fredericksburg, Virginia. Fredericksburg didn’t seem as if it was in Texas. There were no big cattle ranches or oil wells, no cotton farms. But it always felt like the frontier, and I was always aware of the past.
We lived six blocks from Main Street on what was then the edge of town. Three other families—the Browns, the Coxes, and the Lawrences—lived on our block, and that was the neighborhood. All of the parents and the children were friends. There were five boys about my age. We played football on the Coxes’ lawn, raced our bikes on the Browns’ circular drive, shot baskets in the Lawrences’ driveway, and dug foxholes and built shacks on the back of our lot. All of the dads came home for lunch; indeed, the entire town stopped at noon, and walking down a street you could hear people eating.
Our house was the smallest in the neighborhood, but we believed we were the happiest family. Mother was a good cook, and we always laughed a lot during meals. If we bickered, Daddy would say, “Kids! Kids! Let’s have good memories.” He and Mother wanted us to have the happy childhood they had missed because of the Depression and the war.
Delia, my older sister, was pretty and precocious. She played the oboe and always had a boyfriend and the lead in school plays. Kathy, the middle child, was less assertive, but was Daddy’s favorite and told the funniest stories. I had a stammer that became a stutter when I got excited about telling a joke. Delia and Kathy would turn their eyes on me, hissing like geese: Say it! Say it! Say it!
In the neighborhood, we called parents by their first names and knew the most trivial and intimate details about each other. The Lawrences ate catsup on everything, including black-eyed peas, which seemed particularly shocking. Lorene Lawrence was a big, pretty woman with black hair, olive skin, and a temper. When we were outside, we could hear her yelling at her husband and sons.
Lorene thought Mother and Virginia Brown acted too ladylike. Virginia was a beauty who told off-color jokes and put garlic salt on almost everything. The Browns had the fanciest house, the newest everything: a color TV and twin brushed-copper refrigerators in their kitchen, which always smelled like cantaloupe and the drug samples Dr. Brown brought home from his office.
The Coxes lived across the street from us in the ranch-style house they had built. May Cox could be bossy and brusque, but Mother always said she had a good heart. May was German—a Stein—one of the two most important families in town. She raced around town in her Buick doing good deeds, working for the PTA, the First Methodist Church, and the historical society. At one point, the Coxes had a pet skunk and kept a burro—Pedro, I believe—in their backyard.
We lived between the Browns and a fifth family, the Treibs, with a sandy alley separating our families from the Treibs. The Browns had a big circular drive in front of their modernist house, drove station wagons, played badminton, and took The New Yorker. The Treibs, meanwhile, kept chickens, goats, and sheep. They spoke with a heavy German accent, and Mrs. Treibs wore aprons and sunbonnets, made soap from lard in a black iron kettle over an open fire, and dried venison on her clothesline. I had been away from Fredericksburg for decades before this juxtaposition struck me as odd.
Across the street, the Coxes had the same situation with the Houys, who had a ranch in the country but kept a barnyard behind their house in town, opposite the sandy alley. I was never sure if Mrs. Houy spoke English because she never responded when I said hello to her. It never occurred to me that she might resent us. This was 19th-century rural German life bumping up against 20th-century suburbia.
As outsiders, Mother and Virginia spent years trying to untangle the old family trees in town, going at it like a massive research project. But families, like languages, are complex, and I suspect there were subtleties that didn’t translate. Mother belonged to the same bridge club for decades, and “the girls” would apologize to her before telling a joke in German, saying that it just wouldn’t be funny in English.
With Kennedy’s death, the balance of power shifted in the country, and this was more pronounced in Fredericksburg because the LBJ Ranch was only 15 miles away.
In retrospect, I didn’t realize how tiny the neighborhood was—one block, four families. The Germans referred to it as Little America, and I suppose like most immigrants, we coped by living together.
Remembering that time, I’m amazed by how much freedom we had, roaming up and down Main Street on our bikes. What are now souvenir shops, wine tasting rooms, and art galleries were businesses owned by local people that served the townspeople. There were five or six grocery stores, two bakeries, two weekly newspapers, three pharmacies, three dime stores, a Western Auto, three car dealerships, two banks and a savings and loan, several gas stations, the Palace Theatre, dry cleaners, a pool hall, one antiques shop, and clothing stores.
Fredericksburg didn’t really start to change until President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, when I was a high school sophomore. A stunned Walter Cronkite was reporting the shooting in Dallas, on TV, as I left home for school. The atmosphere was weird and oddly giddy until our principal, Mr. Westerfeldt, told us that it was a tragic day in the history of our country, a day we would never forget. The world was about to change in ways we couldn’t imagine.
With Kennedy’s death, the balance of power shifted in the country, and this was more pronounced in Fredericksburg because the LBJ Ranch was only 15 miles away. The national press corps followed Lyndon Johnson to his home, the Texas White House, and began to discover the Hill Country as if it were a quaint New England hiding in Texas.
The world kind of collapsed, becoming at once bigger and smaller. Two years after JFK’s assassination, I was in the school library looking at pictures of Sofia Loren’s villa in Italy in one of the big photo magazines—Life or Look—when a classmate glanced over my shoulder. “Is that my house?” Juan asked.
I scowled. “Why would your house be in a national magazine?”
I didn’t understand until the following week when I saw Juan’s father on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Looking like a saddle tramp, Hondo Crouch was sitting on the porch of the general store at Hye, a couple of miles from the LBJ Ranch. That struck me as ironic, given that the story was about LBJ’s Texas, and everyone knew the Crouches were Republicans. Hondo’s father-in-law, Adolf Stieler, was a big rancher (his nickname was the “Goat King of the World”) and an early supporter of the GOP in Texas.
But the picture of Hondo was good, and according to the text, he was pranking tourists asking for directions to the ranch by saying that he’d never heard of Lyndon Johnson. I had another moment of recognition as I looked at the pictures and saw that the Crouches’ ranch house, with its weathered stone walls, did look a bit like an Italian villa. The Crouches were landed gentry, the most glamorous family in Fredericksburg.
Hondo wasn’t the only Republican to recognize the value of LBJ’s fame. Fredericksburg had always voted GOP and people there didn’t think much of Johnson, but the Chamber of Commerce wanted to attract LBJ traffic and avoid the fates of other small towns in that area, which were beginning to die. Tourists would spend money in Fredericksburg and leave, so the town had to give them something to do and see.
This was around the time the Nimitz Hotel was closing, so the town went with what it had. Fredericksburg was the birthplace of Chester W. Nimitz, so the Nimitz Hotel was repurposed into the National Museum of the Pacific War, which became a calling card for visitors.
In 1970, as Fredericksburg was transforming into something bigger, Hondo was 10 miles away purchasing Luckenbach, a virtual ghost town (pop. 3). With anti-war protests, student demonstrations, and race riots, people were growing nostalgic for simpler times. Hoping to capitalize, Hondo declared that “everybody’s somebody in Luckenbach.” The town looked both authentic and like a movie set.
Hondo, a folklorist and raconteur, and his business partner, Guich Koock, an actor who had won a singing-cowboy competition in Hollywood, put on an all-women chili cook-off and a Valentine’s Day hug-in. In 1972, 20,000 people showed up for the Luckenbach World’s Fair. The following year, Jerry Jeff Walker recorded the album Viva Terlingua in the dance hall and put a photograph of Hondo and Luckenbach on the cover. “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys,” Waylon Jennings sang on the 1977 song “Luckenbach, Texas.”
The same people in Austin who derided Fredericksburg for pandering to tourists would drive to Luckenbach hoping to see celebrities. Together, Fredericksburg and Luckenbach created a synergy, a gravitational pull for tourists. One was cool, the other square. Nothing was really what it seemed, but it worked.
I didn’t exactly hate what was happening to Fredericksburg, but I began to feel that something was getting lost. Making everything a fest or haus seemed a bit predictable and walking down Main Street, I missed seeing familiar faces. But I left Fredericksburg for good when I went to college so it’s no longer my hometown. My friends who stayed have prospered. They might complain about the tourist traffic, but for the most part, the change has been good for them.
Fredericksburg is now two different places, two different times, but I can sense a current of the past running beneath the surface. Those founding families stayed, a virtue they passed on to their descendants. But as for me, sometimes you can’t go home again.