Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Gonzales, TX: Come and Take It In


When you’re known as “the birthplace of Texas freedom” you have a lot to live up to and Gonzales doesn’t disappoint, celebrating its past like Austin does its live music scene. This township of 7,237 has the only state-designated Texas History Museum District, plus there’s a Pioneer Village of cabins, barns, churches and blacksmith shops that takes visitors back to the 1800s at $5 a head. Drive six miles out of town to the site of the battlefield, near the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Marcos Rivers, where the first shots of the Texas Revolution were fired in 1835. The actual cannon is on display at the Gonzales Memorial Museum; flags depicting it with the defiant “Come And Take It!” slogan, which taunted Santa Anna troops, are omnipresent reminders that Gonzales is the Live Texas History Capital of the World.

Gonzales is Paris in the ‘20s for Texas history buffs.

But with its beautiful old buildings, neighborhoods of Victorian houses, and Palmetto State Park, the most tropical-looking spot in Texas, Gonzales County is also charming to those who “didn’t drive two hours for a dang history lesson.” Pull into King’s Service Station on St. Joseph’s Street downtown and it looks so beautifully restored that you think for a second it could be a hip artists’ studio posing as a gas station. But when attendants come out to pump your gas, check your tires and clean the bugs off your windshield, it’s clear that King’s is as it’s been since 1940. No time for renovation.

History is not the finish line; it can be the starting point, which is why the town’s most well-known antique store is called Discovery, not Nostalgia.

The best way to begin this experience with G-Town (no one calls it that, lesson #1), is to go straight to jail. Seriously. The Visitors Center is at the old Gonzales County Jail, built in 1885 in the “Italianate” brick style by noted architect Eugene T. Heiner. There, you can pick up two essential guides- one details three walking tours of the town, with info on each building, while the other is a driving tour that takes in residential wonders. Although founded in 1825, Gonzales was ordered burned down by Sam Houston in 1936, lest it be used as a base for the oncoming Mexican troops, and had to be rebuilt. And what spectacular work was done in the late 1800s by architect J. Riely Gordon (who designed the Gonzales County Courthouse, in addition to three private homes) and in the early 1900s by noted San Antonio architect Atlee B. Ayres. The buildings of Gonzales will take your breath away.

Even if you’re guided by apps and don’t need no stinking brochures, the hauntingly restored, 18-cell jail, which closed in 1975, is an absolute must-stop. Every aspect of vintage imprisonment is on display, from the early fingerprinting and facial ID stations to some of the confiscated “shanks” and other weapons of long ago. Farmer-turned-folk-hero Gregorio Cortez is the jail’s most famous former resident (1901), but it’s the unknown names and initials of former inmates carved into every inch of the cellblock walls that are especially intriguing.

Self-guided or volunteer-led tours are available from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Mind yourself or they’ll lock you in the dungeon! Just kidding, that’s part of the tour.

That the past is the present in this county seat is evident in the 1942-built Lynn Theater, which reopened in 2013, sparking a downtown revitalization . The 330-seat theater shows first-run films using the same digital Barco projectors as the multiplexes in the cities. But after watching the latest superhero blockbuster here, you step out into a town square dedicated over 100 years ago, not a mall parking lot.

Nearby restaurants, the Running M Bar & Grill, Two Rivers Café and La Bella Tavola give downtown a “dinner and a movie” date night component you won’t find in many towns this size. Featuring overachieving pub grub and live boot-scootin’ music out back, Running M is rivaled only by the more raucous Come and Take It Bar & Grill as Gonzo’s hottest nightspot.

Although Gonzales is the Texas headquarters of Tyson Foods, which employees about 200 at its chicken feed mill and hatchery, there’s not a great fried chicken place in town. But you will find top rate barbecue at Gonzales Meat Market and Baker Boys BBQ, and great, cheap Tex-Mex at Rodeo and Matamoros Taco Hut. The best cheeseburgers in town are at Guerra’s Grill, which also makes its own fabulous hot sauce for Mexican dishes.

There are no fine dining options, so don’t expect to see Gonzales native Jerry Hall bringing hubby Rupert Murdoch out to eat here. But Gonzales does have two wonderful downtown hotels: the 1926-built Alcalde Hotel (where Bonnie & Clyde once hid out from the authorities and Elvis Presley from teenyboppers) and the 14-room Dilworth Inn, which opened in 2015 in a former bank. With a desk in every room, the Dilworth feels like a writer’s hotel, especially since three interior rooms are windowless. It’s a place to hunker down or see all around, as the Dilworth’s exterior room overlook one of Gonzales’ two town squares. Manager Jenny Messer said they call the best room- #2- “the Wow Room,” “because that’s what everyone says when they see it for the first time.” The wraparound view includes the sign below for Angels & Outlaws, a  “highway gypsy chic” boutique that sells lace ponchos, Native American-inspired jewelry and anything else you can imagine in Stevie Nicks’ closet in the ‘80s.

The Dilworth occupies the top floor.

As “the most historical community in Texas,” Gonzales is a natural for antique stores, which range from the well-curated “architectural antiques” of Discovery, to the delightful, dusty clutter of Emporium, where you have to dig for your treasures. Occupying four adjacent buildings, Suzanne Kittel’s Discovery salvages longleaf pine lumber, stained glass windows, ornate doorknobs and hinges, clawfoot bathtubs and especially doors from the late 1800s. It’s like a museum where you can buy what’s on display, but it’s not cheap. Some of these doors cost about what you might expect to pay for Jim Morrison’s leather pants. “Most of our materials go into new construction,” said manager Roger Reyes, listing Bass Pro Shops, Buc-ee’s and Rudy’s BBQ as clients using Discovery finds to give their new stores an old-time feel.

Gonzales is not without its delightful modern quirks, as evidenced by the Conoco convenience store/wig shop/gimcrack emporium on St. Louis Street across from the 1950’s Eggleston Log House. At the Cow Palace diner, meanwhile, you can have a good cheeseburger while listening to the mooing of next month’s menu. On Saturdays, starting at 10 a.m., the adjoining Gonzales Livestock Market, separated by a swinging door, auctions off cows and other farm animals.

Gonzales is a town for wranglers and riders, with the state’s junior high school rodeo championship held at J.B. Wells Park in late May each year. That’s the town’s second most-attended annual event, next to October’s “Come and Take It Festival,” a three-day extravaganza of carnival rides, live music, canoe races, car shows and a re-enactment of the battle that gave Gonzales its banner of Texas pride.

Steeped in the past, Gonzales is also a place to make some history of your own.

One thought on “Gonzales, TX: Come and Take It In

  1. Dallas isn’t the fecal-hell-hole on the prairie that Austinites like to make it. I lived there for 34 years and loved it. It has some of the greatest hole-in-the-wall eateries you’ll ever find, plus the best-looking women in Texas.
    And it had a bigger music scene than Austin up until the late early 80s. And I’m glad to see you mention Robert Wilonsky.

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