Texas Highways magazine calls Smithville “Austin’s Marfa.” This is my swan song to the Smitty City, where I’ve lived from 2007-2017.
A GUIDE FOR BRAD AND ANGELINA AND SEAN (From 2008)
A motto of Smithville, 45 miles east of Austin just off Texas 71, was “the best kept secret in Texas.” And then my big mouth and I moved there in 2007 and that slogan became as fitting as calling Lockhart “Vegan’s Paradise.” All I lack is a button that says “Ask me about Smithville.” I traded Austin, that trendy, starbuzzing “Riviera on the Range,” for the simple life of small-town Texas. And then cinematic giant Terrence Malick (“Thin Red Line,” “Days of Heaven”) came to my street to make “Tree of Life” with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. With Brad, you get Angelina, and with a new baby on the way, you get international media attention. With all these Hollywoodians walking around, I’m wondering when Pangaea is going to open a Smithville location.
Because it’s near Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Bryan/College Station, Smithville (pop. 3,901) is tagged “Heart of the Megalopolis,” but never has it been so “mega” as it will be for the next three months of filming. “Hope Floats,” which filmed here in 1998, is looking like a warmup act.
But this is not a story about star wattage, celeb canoodling or whether or not the newly single Sean Penn is dating Czech model Petra Nemcova. We’ll leave that nonsense to the supermarket tabloid parasites. Most folks in Smithville think “canoodle” is something you find in aisle three at the Brookshire Brothers grocery store.
In acknowledgement of today’s start of filming on the 1950s period piece, I’ve taken it upon myself to fill in all these newcomers on what there is to do in and around the Smitty City. Read on, Brad and Angelina, and you just might become Mr. and Mrs. Smithville.
Where can we eat?
There are four things you can get in Smithville that are better than any place in Austin: barbecue, cheeseburgers, kolaches and hospital food. Zimmerhanzel’s Bar-B-Que is not quite up there with the Big Three (Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, Kreuz in Lockhart and Cooper’s in Llano), but it’s better than the Iron Works BBQ, Austin’s best.
Sherry’s Kitchen, meanwhile, buries the burgers at Hill’s Café, considered by some to be Austin’s Numero Uno. Because of the influx of vegetarian filmmakers, Sherry has just put in a salad bar.
A hidden gem is Super Donuts, which also serves, for my $1.69, the best jalapeño sausage and cheese kolaches in Texas.
For finer dining, you’ve got the relaxed and reliable Back Door Café on Main Street and, here’s a surprise, the cafeteria of the Smithville Regional Hospital. Chef John Chabot took over the kitchen five years ago, named it Bistro 71 and serves such dishes as Cajun grilled catfish served over a homemade cornbread waffle and topped with a crawfish tasso cream sauce. How’s that for scrubs grub? Bistro 71 is also the best place in S’ville for breakfast. One downside: Patients in the hospital think they died and went to heaven.
For sandwiches, there’s Mary Catherine’s, and for variety and funky “Hope Floats” décor, Pockets Grille is a local fave.
Where can we recreate?
Buescher State Park is only three miles from the center of town. It’s great for hiking, fishing, camping and just getting away, as you can have the park almost all to yourself on weekdays. Before I moved here, I used to rent one of the three mini-cabins ($50-$60 a night) whenever I had a big story due the next day and I’d been goofing off all week.
For biking, there’s no better place than Rocky Hill Ranch, which offers 25 miles of challenging mountain bike trails.
Just across from the entrance to Bastrop State Park, 13 miles west of Smithville, you can rent a kayak or canoe from Rising Phoenix Adventures. They’ll put you in the lazy Colorado River and pick you up six miles later.
Smithville also has a skateboard park and a rec center with a racquetball court, and it offers the best exercise of all: a walking tour of the historic downtown area, which is lousy with antique stores. Main Street is also where you’ll find world-famous paper doll maker Tom Tierney, who’s renovating a building at 216 Main St. with his nephew.
What about live music?
That’s a good one.
OK, then, where can we wet our whistles?
This is an area where Smithville is lacking. The two clubbing options in town are Charley’s, which is sort of a biker karaoke bar, and Huebel’s, the dive in “Hope Floats” where Sandy B. drunkenly tells off small-town hypocrites a la “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
For a little character to go with your suds, I’d recommend driving about 15 miles south on Texas 95 and dropping in at the Cistern Country Store, an old-fashioned watering hole that serves good barbecue sandwiches and charges $1.50 for most beers. This is a place where everyone’s name is their initials. Larry the Cable Guy got his act by leaving a tape recorder running here one night.
Unfortunately, West End Park, one of the last of the “chitlin circuit” clubs, which once hosted the likes of T-Bone Walker, B.B. King and Little Milton, is currently closed at 718 Gazley St. But it’s worth a peek inside if the caretaker is around.
Hey, isn’t DJ Screw from Smithville?
Right you are, sir. Robert Earl Davis Jr., who invented “screwed and chopped” hip-hop, grew up in Smithville. He died in 2000 and is buried in the Cunningham Cemetery, where Houston rap fans often make pilgrimages to pay their respects.
Why are you being so helpful, you gossip hound?
Hey, that’s the old me. We’re all just excited to have you come to our town to make a movie (and we’ll probably be just as happy, three months later, to see you go). We’ll leave you alone and if any paparazzi jump out of the bushes, well, they oughta know that Smitty don’t play dat. And the nearest camera repair shop is all the way in Austin.
Are there any day trips you recommend?
Penn could score points by taking Nemcova on a drive through Czech country, neighboring Fayette County, with its spectacular, gothic “painted churches” and century-old dancehalls. This is where the surnames all end in “k” and there are more sausage makers than lawyers and bankers. My favorite route from Smithville: Get on Texas 71 to the Czech stronghold of La Grange, then take U.S. 77 south. Look for the sign to turn left for Ammansville, which has a wonderfully ornate painted church, unlocked during the day, as most are. It’s on Mensik Road, which you’ll take south to Piano Bridge Road. After crossing the bridge (named so because it used to sound like a piano when you drove across) you’ll soon come to Dubina, and the beautiful St. Cyr’s Catholic Church, next to a classic KJT hall. Then I go back over Piano Bridge (reinforced support now makes it Silent Bridge) and turn left at Company Field Road. There’s where you’ll find the 2S Ranch, with the second-largest collection of Clydesdales in the country. Take a right at Holub Road, which will get you back on U.S. 77 to Schulenburg, which is a cool, old German town with the famous Kountry Bakery and the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum.
From downtown Schulenburg, take U.S. 90, the polka corridor, west to Flatonia, which has an old-fashioned nine-hole golf course ($10 green fees on weekdays) that makes you feel like you’re playing with wooden shafts.
You’ll take Texas 95 from Flatonia back to Smithville, 26 miles northwest, but there are a couple of stops along the way; the Cistern Country Store and, eight miles from S’ville, another painted church/Czech dancehall combo in eerily serene Kovar. The whole day trip, with stops aplenty, takes about four hours. Beats sitting ’round the trailer all day.
A slight alteration, continuing on U.S. 77 past Ammansville, will take you to the Swiss Alp Dancehall (and Czech restaurant, open only on weekends) and to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in High Hill, perhaps the most impressive painted church, en route to Schulenburg.
* Zimmerhanzel’s Bar-B-Que: 307 Royston St., (512) 237-4244
* Sherry’s Kitchen: (512) 237-2399
* Super Donuts: 1403 NE Loop 230, (512) 237-3588
* Back Door Cafe: 117 Main St., (512) 237-3128
* Smithville Regional Hospital: 800 E. Texas 71, (512) 237-3214
* Pockets Grille: 301 Main St., (512) 237-5572
* Buescher State Park: (512) 389-8900
* Rocky Hill Ranch: 578 FM 153, (512) 633-8778
* Rising Phoenix Adventures: 304 Industrial Blvd., Bastrop, (512) 677-2305
* Charlie’s: 1200 NE Loop 230, (512) 237-3382
* Huebel’s: Northwest Second and Cleveland, (512) 237-2221
* Cistern Country Store: Texas 95, (361) 865-3655
* Stanzel’s Model Aircraft Museum: 311 Baumgarten St., Schulenburg, (979) 743-6559
* Flatonia Golf Course: 1245 U.S. 90 E., (361) 865-2922
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: FAYETTE COUNTY
The most satisfying getaways often mix the exotic with the familiar, a stimulating dance with a foreign culture, while also feeling at home. Such a destination is only an hour from Austin – by car. No hotel reservations necessary. Fayette County is called “the cradle of Czech immigration,” and the well-preserved artifacts of hundred-year-old dance halls, gothic churches and quaint country stores and barns are reminders that thousands of people from the Czech Republic provinces of Bohemia and Moravia moved to these rich farmlands to flee persecution in their native country, then under Austrian rule.
The original 16 families from Bohemia, who landed in Galveston in 1852 and eventually settled in Fayette County, grew to more than 15,000 Czechs in Central Texas by 1900. Predominantly Catholic, they settled in towns such as La Grange, Fayetteville, Schulenburg, Dubina, Moulton, Hostyn and Praha, the Czech name for Prague.
They brought polka and kolaches, music and food that would remind them of home. But at the same time, these Czechs, and the Germans and Poles who arrived around the same time, became Texas pioneers, working the fertile fields, raising livestock and dancing to country music, as well as polka, on Saturday nights.
Almost all country bands in Fayette County mix polkas into their sets, and vice versa, just as Adolph Hofner and the Pearl Wranglers did back in the 1940s at Swiss Alp Dance Hall on U.S. 77 between La Grange and Schulenburg. After a 20-year hibernation, Swiss Alp reopened in 2006 and hosts a younger breed of country and polka bands on weekends.
Fayette County historian Ben Sustr (pronounced “Shoe-ster”) of Schulenburg can trace his grandfather’s arrival to Fayette (named after French freedom fighter LaFayette) to 1887. “He didn’t want to be drafted into the Austrian army,” said Sustr, one of four volunteers who give tours of “The Painted Churches” of Fayette County for the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce. (Tours are $10 per person and can be arranged at 979-743-4514.) Designed after European cathedrals, with elaborately painted walls and opulent altars, the four churches on the tour are in Praha, Dubina, Ammansville and High Hill. Located within a 20-mile radius, the Painted Churches are unlocked during the day, so anyone can visit.
But with Sustr, a retired superintendent of Schulenburg schools, you get a lot of history and stories, told with a heavy Czech accent. It was Sustr’s photos of the churches’ interiors that put the Painted Churches on the tourist trail in the 1970s. Urged by Schulenburg Chamber secretary Sandra Michna, Sustr sent the photos to Texas Highways magazine. After they were published, the Painted Churches (as Michna dubbed them) became popular destinations. “The spingtime is always the busiest,” Sustr said, “because people like to see the bluebonnets, too.”
Each church has an annual picnic, where folks come from miles away. The Ammansville picnic is always on Father’s Day. At Dubina’s St. Cyril and St. Methodius Church, the festival is the first Sunday in July. St. Mary’s Catholic Church in High Hill hosts a polka mass and picnic the Sunday before Labor Day. And at Praha’s St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption, the annual picnic is always on Aug. 15, no matter what day of the week it is.
Kick up your heels at Swiss Alp and more
Steve Dean, who used to manage Swiss Alp, is an expert on classic Czech and German dance halls. Although most of the dozen or so halls still standing in the county were originally built as community meeting places or gun clubs or for other functions, then converted to dance halls because of their wooden floors, Swiss Alp was built in 1900 by German settlers for music and dancing. Although there are occasional events at Freyburg Hall, in a wonderfully rustic setting, and at Schulenburg’s Sengelmann Hall, which has focused on weddings the past year, Swiss Alp was the only regularly operated dance hall in the county.
Dean has plans to organize dance hall tours of Fayette County through the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce. The historic SPJST Hall in Fayetteville, the first in the state, is certain to be a highlight of the tour. Although it’s joked that SPJST stands for “Some People Just Sit There,” the letters come from the Czech words for “Slovanic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas.”
Sink your teeth into a kolache, Czech history
The county seat of Fayette County, La Grange, is a good starting point on a day trip because it’s the home of Weikel’s Bakery, which serves great sandwiches on fresh-baked wheat bread, as well as an assortment of kolaches, both fruit-filled and meat-filled. Don’t be deterred by the construction in front, Weikel’s has “gotcha kolache!”
Find prime picnicking at Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Sites in La Grange. There are also great walking trails, a tomb of executed soldiers and the skeleton of an old brewery- – not to mention incredible views from a bluff overlooking the Colorado River.
To brush up on Czech history in the region — or to trace relatives — a stop at the new Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center at the Fayette County Fairgrounds (888-785-4500) in La Grange is in order. The center has a library, museum, amphitheater, gift shop and a banquet hall featuring a Czech-made chandelier fit for a castle. More than a dozen years in the planning, the cultural center finally opened in October 2009.
From La Grange, which boasts a classic county courthouse on the town square, take U.S. 77 south to delve deep into Czech Country. Look for the sign to turn left for Ammansville, which has a wonderfully ornate painted church, a KJT Hall and an old Bohemian tavern.
Unfortunately, the Piano Bridge, an iron structure built in 1885, is currently closed for improvements, so that gorgeous drive from Ammansville to Dubina, the first all-Czech settlement in Texas, will have to wait a few weeks. The alternate route is also under construction, with a couple miles of rocky, dirt road to get there.
Better to head on to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in High Hill, the most spectacular of all the Painted Churches. What makes the St. Mary’s wall paintings unique is that they were done on canvas and then glued and hot-ironed to the walls.
Little donkeys, very big horses and good steak
Admittedly, dance halls and painted churches can get repetitive, but there are several other attractions in the area. Round Top and Fayetteville are two old towns with tons of charm, plus restaurants and bars.
Other points of interest include the Itsy Bitsy Burro Company, a delightful ranch on Lidiak Road where Tonnie and Jerry Willrich raise miniature donkeys, as well as Norwich terriers. One of the Willrich’s jacks, Smart Derby (born in 2004 on the day Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby) is a three-time national champion in the miniature donkey category.
No need to call ahead; the Willriches are friendly hosts who even built a circular driveway to accommodate tour buses.
There’s also the 2S Ranch on Company Field Road, home to the second-largest collection of Clydesdales in the country. A unique attraction in Schulenburg — home of the haunted Von Minden Hotel (979-743-6521) — is the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum (979-743-6559). Schulenburg also boasts the Texas Polka Music Museum (625 N. Main St.), which has old instruments and uniforms on display, plus tons of old photos and recordings.
Two of the great “secret,” out-of-the way places to eat are near Flatonia, about 8 miles west of Schulenburg off I-10. The town store of tiny Waelder serves some of the best barbecue sausage in the state. On weekends, the Cistern Country Store has a pork butt sandwich folks drive 10- 15 miles to eat. Great place for whistle-wetting, too.
Locals swear by Murphy’s Steakhouse in Winchester, which is also the town’s post office, as well as the Holman Valley Steakhouse in Holman. Open Thursday through Saturday, Holman’s is mere feet from grazing cattle, which suggests freshness like a seafood restaurant on the ocean.
Best of all about taking this drive through history is that it’s a relaxing antidote to the stop ‘n go traffic of Austin; it’s possible to drive five or 10 minutes without seeing another car. Even at $3 a gallon, it’s worth it.
BEAUTIFUL DAYBREAK FROM AUSTIN
written by Michael Corcoran, photos by Mark Younger-Smith
My favorite drive in all of Texas is the 10 miles on Hwy 71 between the last traffic light in Bastrop and the Smithville “tin man” water tower. Even with most of the “lost pines” along the route sadly stripped and blackened by the Sept. 2011 wildfire, those are mindset miles that lift and separate from Austin burnout. Smithville is too far away, 45 miles, to be a suburb of Austin. But it’s too close to not consider visiting when you just need a break from the fastest-growing city in the fastest-growing state. This town of about 4,000 seems to have its own eco-system, its own quirks and charms.
Hollywood fell in love with this version of Smalltown, USA, with its Victorian houses, art deco post office, wide, tree-bracketed avenues and seen-better-days Main Street, in the late ‘90s. Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker directed Oscar winner Sandra Bullock in “Hope Floats” there in 1998 and Terrence Malick linked the ever-present lizards of Smithville with prehistoric dinosaurs in “Tree of Life” ten years later.
The town celebrates its cinematic footprint with the Reel Film Expo, which will show movies made in Smithville, host a seminar on film opportunities and throw a meet-and-greet with industry professionals from May 3 -5 at various Main Street locations. Along with “Hope” and “Tree,” such locally-shot films as “Doonby,” starring John Schneider and “Beneath the Darkness” with Dennis Quaid will be screened.
Also showing will be “Bernie,” the Jack Black, which is probably the film partially made there which best represents life in Smithville. That Richard Linklater film’s comical portrayal of townspeople so flamboyantly plain and helpful is spot on at the Home of the Smithville High Tigers. It’s the people, not just the wonderfully preserved old neighborhoods, that filmmakers such as Malick rave about at the wrap parties.
Both progressive and traditional, Smithville has had a recycling center since the 1980s and is home of the company, Devonshire Organics, which makes incense for the Vatican, among other churches and monasteries.
But there’s no nightlife to speak of, save Huebel’s Bier Garden (207 NW Second St.), an old-fashioned, no frills watering hole, and Charley’s, a biker-friendly bar of friendly bikers next to a busy laundromat.
Smithville is both exotic and a classic Texas town, where Dairy Queen is the only fast food franchise and folks from both sides of the railroad track meet at the barbecue joint. Smithville’s got a good one with Zimmerhanzel’s, which Dee Dee and Bert Bunte have run since they were fiancées just out of high school in the ‘70s. A former regular was Robert Earl Davis, Jr., better known as hip hop innovator D.J. Screw, who grew up in Smithville, along with world class jazz trumpeter/ composer Hannibal Lokumbe and blues guitarist Sonny Rhodes. Davis died in 2000 and is buried in the Cunningham Cemetary about 10 miles from downtown.
Lokumbe, Rhodes, pianist Grey Ghost and such touring acts as T-Bone Walker and Joe Tex used to play West End Park (718 Gazeley St.), the Smithville stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” of R&B clubs. The building on the outskirts of town is still there, along with the backstop of the baseball field where Satchel Paige and a team of Negro League baseball players edged the Smithville team 2-1 in an infamous 1957 contest. West End owner I.T. Harper and fellow Smithvillian Felix McVey were former Kansas City Monarchs, pitcher and catcher, respectively, so baseball and blues went together at West End Park, which is now closed except for special events.
If your kind of park is more about trees and grass than rhythm and blues, there are two great ones less than five miles from downtown. Buescher State Park has a small lake for fishing and boating, plus RV sites and cabins. When you’re done there, take the slow, winding road 1C from Buescher to Bastrop State Park and you’ll be both hushed by the beauty and gasping at the wildfires’ devastation.
Riverbend Park, where the annual Jamboree celebration brings out the whole town each April, is dominated by century-old oak trees and the slow-moving waters of the Colorado River. There’s fishing off the pier and a disc golf course on the grounds.
Mountain bike enthusiasts best know Smithville for the Rocky Hill Ranch, with 25 challenging miles of trails, which opened 20 years ago and has been similarly up and down. But the ranch is currently on an upswing, with the Rocky Hill Roadhouse recently opened so two-wheeled mountaineers don’t have to leave to get a good cheeseburger.
Residents of Smithville (a group I became a member of in 2007, then rejoined in March 2013 after two years back in Austin fulltime) are well aware of the trade-offs of smalltown Texas living. There’s a skatepark, partially funded by Tony Hawk, but no public swimming pool. There’s zero live music, but affordable fine dining at the Back Door Café and half-pound cheeseburgers to rival Casino El Camino’s at Sherry’s Kitchen.
The best breakfast in town is at the Comfort Café, “Where Miracles Happen,” which is run by the Serenity Star addiction recovery organization. Owners Teri Costlow and Rosie Perez have established a “pay what you can” policy, even if it’s only an hour or two of your time.
Highway 71 offers decidedly different dining choices in the eastern and western edges of town. Coming in from Austin you’ll pass Kay’s Café, which serves great sandwiches, and the venerable La Cabana, which recently added a patio (front page news!), where Tex-Mex combos are the way to go.
Main Street boasts artful furniture at Mosaic, the famous Tom Tierney’s Tom-Kat paper dolls shop, the SACS resale clothing boutique, the Smithville Playhouse and about half a dozen antique stores. But several empty storefronts show Main Street to be a two-block strip that has yet to regain its glory years, a characteristic common in small, historic Texas downtowns. The shops depend on browsing weekenders from out of town to pay the bills.
For all its promise, Smithville has not grown in population in about 100 years. The town boomed in the 1890s when it became headquarters for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad. When cars became the main source of transportation in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the road from Austin to Houston went right through the middle of town. Smithville thrived as a metro area you had to go through to get to somewhere else.
But after the trains stopped taking people and the new Hwy 71 opened about two miles outside of town, the Smitty City has become a place all on its own. It’s 45 miles- and a whole world away.
Where to Stay: Katy House B&B 201 Ramona St. 512-237-4262, Auberge B&B 300 Garwood St. 512-237-3172
Where to Eat: Comfort Café 111 N.W. First St. 512-360-2100, Pocket’s Grille 205 Fawcett St. 512-237-5572, Back Door Café 117 Main St. 512-237-3128, Sherry’s Kitchen 207 N.W. First St. 512-237-2399, Zimmerhanzel’s BBQ 307 Royston St. 512-237-4244, La Cabana 719 Hwy 71 512-237-2385.
Where to Shop: Main Street Village antiques 219 Main St. 512-237-2323, Mosaic art & home 218 Main St. 512-360-2531, Shangri-La Emporium and Tom-Kat Paper Dolls 216 Main St. 512-237-1256, Miss Vickie’s Emporium 102 N.E. Loop 230 512-237-4100,
Points of Interest: “Tree of Life” house 709 Burleson St., “Hope Floats” house North end of Olive Street, Railroad Museum & Park 100 First St., Smithville Playhouse 110 Main Street, Rocky Hill Ranch 578 Hwy 153, Riverbend Park, Hwy 71 at Colorado River Bridge.
Read about the Smithville Music Festival and West End Park.
This is the kind of town that still blows a siren at noon sometimes, but for nearly three decades a more pungent form of clockwork has become a part of life here. You know it’s 10 a.m. when Bert Bunte, who has run Zimmerhanzel’s BBQ with his wife, Dee Dee, since he was 20 and she was 17, throws several pounds of onions onto the burning oak wood in his massive barbecue pit. On a windless day, the smell of burning onions wafts for hundreds of yards in each direction.
But two months ago, it seemed the zesty midmorning aroma would be just another piece of the past, like the highway between Austin and Houston that once went right through the middle of town.
A collective gasp greeted delivery of the December 18 edition of the Smithville Times, which announced on the front page that Zimmerhanzel’s was closing in five days. The Buntes, still in their 40s with the kids grown up and moved out, had decided to see if there was more to life than 70-hour work weeks. There are few occupations that age a person like running a barbecue restaurant, and these two wanted to get out while they are still young. But the unexpected news hit this town of 4,000 like a punch to the gut. If you were to list the best things about living in any small town in Texas, having a great barbecue joint would be up at the top.
Bert Bunte got a job with the City of Smithville’s water department, and Dee Dee Bunte was finally able to do things that we all take for granted, like being outside on a weekday when the sun is shining.
But the orange prefab building with the wacky tables beckoned. One day last month, Bert Bunte was installing a meter on a property next to the Zimmerhanzel’s location and had an epiphany. “I was just staring at (the building) and I thought, `That’s where I belong,'” he recalled. “I missed it like I never thought I would.”
Dee Dee Bunte had a similar thought going into the post office one afternoon. Zim’s regular Johnnie Ray Thomas was coming out. “What are you doing here?,” he asked, then remembered that Dee Dee Bunte was no longer in the barbecue business. “I realized that my whole identity was tied to Zimmerhanzel’s,” she said.
You can see where this is going, but let’s start over at the beginning. Like good barbecue, a good ending shouldn’t be rushed.
The year 1980 was one of major change for the Smithville High senior they always called Dee Dee because her real name is Dana Denise. On February 13, almost 29 years ago to the day, her parents Edwin and Donna Zimmerhanzel set her and fiancé Bert Bunte up to run a new barbecue joint they opened on Royston Street, next door to the family’s custom meat processing business. Three months later Dee Dee graduated from high school. The next month, she became Mrs. Bunte.
When they started, Bert and Dee Dee Bunte didn’t know a thing about barbecue. Dee Dee’s father, Edwin, coaxed 69-year-old Bastrop Country barbecue legend W.B. Brazil out of retirement to work side-by-side with the kids and show them the tricks. “Mr. Brazil (pronounced “Brazzle”) was such a stickler about things,” Dee Dee Bunte, 46, said, “like he always insisted on serving the meat on brown butcher paper, not white.”
Nearly three decades later, she can barely remember a time when she didn’t open the restaurant at 8:30 a.m. six days a weeks, to greet customers, work the counter and carve 20 to 30 briskets a day.
Bert Bunte, 49, runs the pit in the back and makes sausage fresh every day. Since 1980 he’s been getting up at 4 a.m. each morning to fire up the pit, custom built by his father-in-law, a former welder. Slow cooking is the key, so the brisket, pork ribs, sausage and chicken are thrown on the grill hours before the doors open for the breakfast crowd. (Yes, there are folks who eat sausage and brisket before 9 a.m.)
Although Zimmerhanzel’s closed at 5 p.m., the Buntes’ work day wasn’t usually over until about 7, when he finished spicing the meat for the next day and she did prep work and tidied up. Zimmerhanzel’s was closed Sundays, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t more work to be done, including catering weddings. He was a groomsman for her sister Laura’s wedding and still handled the food, slicing up brisket in his tuxedo.
Running a barbecue joint makes for a grueling schedule, made even more stressful, Dee Dee Bunte said, because her husband is a perfectionist. “He could hardly sleep some nights because he’d be worrying about something or other at the restaurant. Everything has to be just right.” For years, Bert Bunte had talked about selling the restaurant, which the Buntes bought from her parents 10 years ago.
One day he heard about the job opening in the water department. It was his if he wanted it.
Bert and Dee Dee Bunte had a heart-to-heart one night and decided that health and peace of mind were more important than running a thriving barbecue business. They knew they were letting down Smithville, but they were burned out. “It was the hardest decision we’ve ever made,” said Dee Dee Bunte, whose great-great-grandfather Jacob Zimmerhanzel came to America from Bohemia in 1866 as a 16-year-old. Running authentic pit barbecue joints in Texas is a Czech-American tradition, but the Buntes, after much agonizing, finally agreed that it wasn’t going to run their lives.
“Everyone was so understanding,” said Dee Dee Bunte. On the advertised final day of operation, the lines snaked through the restaurant and went out the door. Tears were shed and the staff heard “We’re sure gonna miss you” about a thousand times that day. The mood was that of folks coming to pay their respects. Dee Dee Bunte said she had little idea, until the closing was announced, just how much the town would be affected.
“There was just this big hole in the community,” said retired county judge Clarence Culberson. “I was giving a speech after the MLK Day parade (on January 19) and I said that the only thing that would make this day more glorious was if we could all go to Zimmerhanzel’s afterward.” Although Smithville’s black and white neighborhoods are separated by railroad tracks, as in most other small Texas towns, the barbecue joint was a place for all. When Culberson finished, Smithville Mayor Mark Bunte told him not to worry; his brother Bert Bunte had decided to reopen in a couple of weeks. Culberson went back to the mike to make the announcement and everyone cheered.
When Zimmerhanzel’s reopened February 5, the lines were almost as crazy and unrelenting as when they closed. “We’re sure gonna miss you” was replaced with “We’re sure glad you’re back.”
Although not as famous or highly ranked as Louie Mueller’s barbecue joint in Taylor, Snow’s in Lexington, Cooper’s in Llano or Kreuz and Smitty’s Markets in Lockhart, Zimmerhanzel’s is a strong B plus, receiving an honorable mention on Texas Monthly’s most recent list of best barbecue joints in Texas. On Saturdays, the busiest day of the week, Dee Dee Bunte estimates that 50 percent of the clientele is from out of town. A sign at the Smithville exit off Texas 71 welcomes visitors to “The Home of ‘Hope Floats,'” the Sandra Bullock movie filmed here in 1998, but to residents of nearby Rosanky, Flatonia, Cedar Creek and other farming communities, Smithville is home to the best barbecue in Bastrop and Fayette counties.
“I hope people don’t think we’re crazy, that we can’t make up our minds,” Dee Dee Bunte said. “It’s just that we’ve been doing this since we were pretty young. We had to step away from it for a little while to truly appreciate what we had.”
So it’s back to work for the Buntes, who’ve spent more than half their lives smoking and cooking and slicing and serving meat, adding their own touches to the simple seasoning – black pepper, red pepper, salt — from an old man who also couldn’t walk away from the business.
Brazil abhorred basting with sauce, believing that the best flavor came from the smoke. “I don’t dope nothing up,” he told the Bastrop County Times in 1984.
But he did have that one trademark touch: throwing onions on the fire in the morning to give the meat a little extra kick. Tradition carries on with the Buntes and the 10 o’clock smell is back, letting everyone know that Zimmerhanzel’s is once again open for business.
307 Royston St. Smithville
Open Mondays-Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or when the meat runs out) ♥
Zimmerhanzel’s BBQ • Smithville, TX | The Crush ListMay 4, 2015
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