How much do you know about Texas history? If you're like the average American, your knowledge on the subject probably doesn't extend much beyond the Alamo and whatever information you might have absorbed from reruns of “Walker, Texas Ranger.” With that said, it's not a huge surprise that those interested in historical events, artifacts, and sites don't necessarily think of the Lone Star State when they plan a sightseeing getaway. It's our hope that this article will help those people to re-think those plans, especially when they visit the historic Texas Hill Country.
Hill Country history is fascinating and diverse, from the geological and fossil records that can be found here to modern history being made right under our noses. Both native peoples and immigrants from all over the world have shaped the culture here, and the very land where they lived and worked. While there may not be any major Civil War battlefields in the area, there are visible influences that conflict had on the people of the region. During the westward expansion of the United States, many thousands of people came through here, and many stayed to lay the foundations for the places we know today. One of the most influential admirals of World War II was born and raised here. Lyndon B. Johnson, our 36 th president, was also born in the Hill Country, and when he wasn't in the White House, he ran the country from his ranch here. Influential movers and shakers in fields like construction, cuisine, wildlife study, the military, law enforcement, and politics have come from here, and have shaped the world from here. The Hill Country has contributed so much to the growth of the Lone Star State, and has played an important role in Texas history.
The folks in the Hill Country are proud of their home, heritage, and history, and the stories of the people and events that shaped the region (and, to a degree, the rest of the country) are on public display for those who are fascinated by regional history. Are you interested in fossils and strata that chronicle events and wildlife from millions of years ago? Maybe you study the native folks of the region, like the Native Americans and Mexicans who settled here so many generations ago. Perhaps the pioneer era is more your speed, the hardships and perseverance that shaped the country one westward mile at a time. And you can't study Texas history without visiting the world of the cowboy, and the sometimes lawless and intense period of the Wild West. No matter your
field of interest—or if you're just a history junkie who loves it all—there are plenty of Hill Country museums and historical sites!
Backroads Reservations is proud to present this article for all the history buffs out there looking to explore the Hill Country's colorful past. Our goal is to answer the important question: Where are the Hill Country museums and spots of historical importance? We've done the electronic legwork for you, and have compiled an expansive list of the varied and fascinating history our friends can experience here. From reenactments of Wild West gunfights to museums highlighting everything from fossils to motorcycles to nutcrackers, you'll find artifacts, artwork, and guided tours to educate and entertain. We've also included some additional resources for your historic Hill Country visit toward the end of this article. The listings below are arranged in alphabetical order.
HILL COUNTRY MUSEUMS AND HISTORICAL SITES
Bandera Natural History Museum (Bandera)
This Bandera museum directs ifs focus on the natural environment of The Cowboy Capital of the World and the surrounding Hill Country, and the effects life (human, animal, and plant) has had on its development over the ages. Originally planned as an exotic wildlife exhibit, the museum has since expanded to its current 14,000 square-foot building, with artwork, artifacts, and interactive exhibits that educate and entertain visitors on not only Texas' natural history, but that of several regions of the world. The scope of this inclusive museum covers everything from the age of the dinosaurs to the present!
Castro Colonies Living History Center (Castroville)
This Castroville museum and reenactment attraction is located in the Biry House, built here around 1850. It's operated by the Castro Colonies Heritage Association, and serves as their centerpiece of historical significance in the area. Open to the public on weekends, the Living History Center's knowledgeable staff invites visitors to peruse the vintage home and its furnishings, and they also present period-dress reenactments that bring the home's history alive!
Comfort National Historic District (Comfort)
History surrounds you in every direction when you visit the downtown area of this Hill Country town! The majority of Comfort has been designated an official National Historic District, with nearly 100 buildings here built before 1910. The work of renowned British architect Alfred Giles is highlighted here; his work ranges from residences to courthouses, and his work is celebrated in San Antonio and throughout the Hill Country region. Seven faithfully restored examples of his style can be visited in Comfort.
Cowboys on Main (Bandera)
No celebration of the American Wild West would be complete without a rootin' tootin' gunfight, right? Well, if you stop by Rattlesnake Ridge (just behind the Bandera Convention and Visitors' Bureau), the Bandera Cattle Company Gunfighters will be more than happy to oblige! Their gunfights are a historically-accurate depiction of genuine shootouts, with a modern twist: each reenactment also comes with a gun safety demonstration. Folks can also enjoy strolling singers, wagon rides, trick rope performers, and more!
Der Stadt Friedhof Cemetery (Fredericksburg)
This historic cemetery in Fredericksburg (its name translated from German means “the city cemetery”) was established in the 1870s, and commemorates many of the German immigrants who settled and developed the area. Among those interred here are the ancestors of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a Fredericksburg native who grew up to be an influential figure in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Many of the gravestone inscriptions here are in German. The cemetery is open to the public during daylight hours.
D'Hanis Brick and Tile Company (D'Hanis)
It might seem a bit odd to include this business, which has been serving D'Hanis and the Lone Star State since 1905, in this listing, but hear us out! The location of a natural brick material quarry just outside this little Hill Country town quickly gave it a strong regional reputation of producing high-quality bricks and other building materials. As a result, the bricks produced here became synonymous with the town's name. Their famous bricks, marked with the simple inscription “D'Hanis,” can be seen throughout the area's historic buildings.
Fort Lincoln (D'Hanis)
Contrary to what you might think, this historic fort one mile north of D'Hanis was not named for Honest Abe. Captain George Lincoln lost his life in the Mexican War at the Battle of Buena Vista, and it is his memory that gave the fort its name. Established in 1849, Fort Lincoln stood as a supply source and protection from Native American raids for pioneers and immigrants in the region. Essentially abandoned in 1852, the remaining buildings of the fort were salvaged and became structures of the new town of D'Hanis. The Texas Centennial Commission has erected a roadside plaque at the site of the original fort; most of the land on which it stood is now privately owned.
Fort Martin Scott (Fredericksburg)
This fort, just southeast of Fredericksburg, was the first US Army outpost built on the Texas frontier. It was built in 1848, and was briefly occupied by the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After its military history ended, the land served as a family farm for several decades, before being purchased by the city of Fredericksburg in 1949. Today, the site is composed of both original and restored buildings from the era. Visitors are invited to take an immersive self-guided tour of the grounds, aided by numerous signs and period artifacts throughout. Twice a year, living history reenactments are performed on the fort's grounds.
Frontier Times Museum (Bandera)
This museum is located in the heart of Bandera, the Cowboy Capital of the World, and as its name might suggest, it traces the history of the pioneers and cowboys of the American West and the role they played in the building of our country. Unique artwork celebrating the cowboy lifestyle is on display in the Doane Gallery here, hand-picked by the museum's former owner. Stroll through the Texas Heroes Hall of Honor, where those whose contributions to the advancement and reputation of the Lone Star State are commemorated. Aficionados of the Wild West will definitely want to check out the exhibits, items, and art on display here!
Gillespie County Country Schools (Fredericksburg)
The country schools in Fredericksburg and the surrounding rural areas in Gillespie County have a storied history, and that history is being told by the Friends of Gillespie County Country Schools. Their members include former students at these very schools, and their mission is to play a role in the preservation of this integral part of local and state history. One of the schools represented here, Williams Creek, was attended by a young Lyndon B. Johnson, our future 36th president. Tours of these educational centers are available, and the Friends website also provided detailed histories of many of the schools in the area.
Herff Farm (Boerne)
The Cibolo Center for Conservation in Boerne is dedicated to education and implementation of responsible natural conservation principles, and the center includes the historic Herff Farm. Purchased by Ferdinand Herff in 1954, the homestead was one of the first German settlements in the Boerne area, and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The barn here includes interpretive displays that tell the story of the farm's history. Folks can also enjoy a farmer's market, live entertainment, and numerous learning opportunities!
Hill Country Science Mill (Johnson City)
Originally built as a steam mill back in 1880, this historic Johnson City building just east of Fredericksburg has played a number of roles in the community—feed mill, flour mill, and even a restaurant. It's been a scenic draw to visitors to the area, and today, it's home to the Hill Country Science Mill. Visitors of all ages can explore its displays and interactive exhibits, which tell not only the historical story of the role science has played in our world, but the future influences it will have, as well.
John T. Floore's Country Store (Helotes)
If these walls could talk! The history of American country music has been taking place in this influential dance hall and live music venue since it was established in the early 1940s. Legends of the musical genre such as Patsy Cline and Hank Williams played here, and it continues to shape the evolution of country music with its live performances today. Floore's (the simpler name for which it is more widely known) has earned its place in history; Willie Nelson immortalized it in his song “Shotgun Willie,” and the iconic building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Kerr Arts and Cultural Center (Kerrville)
In 1999, representatives of over 500 area artists bought the old Kerrville post office and transformed it into the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center. Visitors can peruse the three galleries here, where the exhibits are constantly being updated and rotated, highlighting media like paintings, drawings, quilting, woodwork, photography, and more! Programs for artists and patrons of the arts alike are being developed and implemented constantly, and no two visits to the center are ever the same!
Lone Star Motorcycle Museum (Vanderpool)
Miles of scenic roads wind through the Texas Hill Country, and they offer an almost magnetic attraction to motorcyclists for the gorgeous views they'll only find here. While you're touring on your bike, make a stop at the Lone Star Motorcycle Museum in Vanderpool! Allan Johncock, an avid rider and motorcycle enthusiast, found his way from his native Australia to the Hill Country, and he found the perfect place to store his motorcycle collection near Vanderpool. What started as his private collection storage gained a reputation in the biking community, and the museum was born. During weekends between March and November, this extensive collection of bikes from 1910 to the present are open for public viewing.
Luckenbach Texas (Fredericksburg)
This dance hall in Fredericksburg (formally known as Luckenbach Dance Hall), beyond being immortalized by Waylon Jennings in his 1977 song, has a robust history that dates back to when it was built in 1887. Dances, concerts, and live music are the very fabric of the area's history, predating even the dance hall. This history is perpetuated in Texas style, with regularly-scheduled live music events. This is a definite must-see for fans of country music and its history!
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park (Johnson City)
Our 36th president grew up on the ranch here, just east of Fredericksburg near Johnson City, a town founded by LBJ's great-uncle, James Polk Johnson. The original Johnson family settlement can be toured by visitors near the presidential ranch, and knowledgeable park rangers offer tours of the ranch itself, which served as the “Texas White House” during the Johnson administration. Guests can also check out LBJ's boyhood home, and the one-room Junction Schoolhouse, which the future president briefly attended in 1912. (We are listing this park separately from the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, since that one is state-run; this site is federal.)
Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site (Stonewall)
This site near Johnson City (which was founded by the future president's great-uncle) is located just east of Fredericksburg, is dotted with 1800's-era log cabins, and celebrates the heritage that influenced our 36th president. Featured here is the Sauer-Beckman Living History Farm, where park rangers in period dress reenact the day-to-day chores and entertainments of that bygone time. This state-run park is located near the federally-operated Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, where visitors can tour the original Johnson City settlement, and LBJ's ranch, boyhood home, one-room schoolhouse, and gravesite.
Museum of Western Art (Kerrville)
Opened in 1983 as the Cowboy Artists of America Museum, this Kerrville museum is dedicated to the collection, preservation, and promotion of artwork in various media that depicts the unique activities and history of the American West. The building housing the museum itself is a rugged example of Western art, designed with sturdy wooden beams limestone walls by Texas architect O'Neil Ford. Vintage artifacts and displays complement the artwork displayed here, and help back it up with both cultural and historical contexts. The artwork here represents all eras of Western creativity, from Native American and Mexican inhabitants all the way up to modern times.
National Museum of the Pacific War (Fredericksburg)
This Fredericksburg museum is the only one in the continental United States that is focused specifically on the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of World War II. Three extensive galleries on six acres create an emphasis on not only historical education, but the historical lessons we can learn from this time in global history, if only we are willing to heed them. The Admiral Nimitz Gallery is devoted to the life of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (a Fredericksburg native), and the pivotal role he played in the Pacific Theater. The Nimitz section of the museum is also a National Historical Site, housed in a hotel Nimitz's grandfather built in 1852. All sections of the complex feature artifacts, heavily-detailed exhibits, and both special and recurring events all help to bring the unique history alive to guests.
Just east of the modern D'Hanis High School building lies this historic site, which was established in 1847 with the building of the stately church. It, and the cemetery nearby, served the citizens of “old” D'Hanis until the entire town was compelled to relocate one mile west of its original location due to a sweeping diphtheria epidemic and the building of a new railroad line. The ruins of St. Dominic still stand, and the cemetery's markers are distinguished by their decorative Old World European artistry.
Old Spanish Trail Restaurant (Bandera)
This Bandera institution is known for its hearty Texas ranch-style meals, and rightly so, but its location has also played a role in local history. Centuries ago, Native Americans discovered the best route to use when traveling through the region, and Spanish conquistadors adopted it as their own, establishing the famous Old Spanish Trail. The restaurant, more commonly known locally as “The OST,” opened in 1921 on the site of a grocery store. They take pride in their food, yes, but they also respect their local history; for example, the salad bar here is staged on a vintage pioneer-era wagon!
Pape Pecan House Nutcracker Museum (Seguin)
This Seguin business is locally known for growing and selling hand-picked pecan products; they're purveyors of Texas' favorite and most bountiful nut! But there's also a unique museum here, culled from a collection that's been built by Kenneth Pape since the early 1960s: the Nutcracker Museum. This enormous exhibit shows nutcrackers and nut bowls from all over the world, in an expansive display of over 13,000 pieces. Right outside the Pecan House stands the ten foot-long fiberglass pecan sculpture on wheels, the largest mobile pecan in the world.
Pioneer Museum (Fredericksburg)
The name of this Fredericksburg historical attraction can be a little misleading. Yes, the museum on the grounds celebrates the town's German heritage, and the bigger picture of the region's history with artifacts and special events, but there's a lot more to see here! Visitors can also tour the 1885 Gillespie County Jail (known locally simply as the “Old Jail”); the Vereins Kirche Museum centers on Fredericksburg's history specifically; and there are walking tours of both the Pioneer Museum complex and the town of Fredericksburg itself.
Polly's Chapel (Pipe Creek)
At first glance, you might think this notable site was named after a woman; that's a common misconception. Construction began in 1879, and the chapel was designed and almost entirely built by Policarpio “Polly” Rodriguez, a rancher, justice of the peace, and Texas Ranger who called the region home. Polly's Chapel became the heart and soul of the tiny village of Polly that formed around it. Even though the tiny town has since been disbanded, the chapel still stands, and in 1986 it officially became a Texas historical landmark. Centrally located between Bandera, Kerrville and Pipe Creek, Polly's Chapel's official address is in Pipe Creek, and guests are invited to visit and rent the chapel as a venue for their next important event.
Real County Historical Museum (Leakey)
Little Leakey is the country seat of Texas' Real County, and the history of the region is faithfully commemorated and reflected in the collection at the museum here. The vast majority of the exhibit pieces here were donated by local residents, so the historical accuracy and authenticity of the displays are excellently represented. All the eras of the region's development are represented, too, from ancient Native American artifacts to a restored log cabin parlor, to modern day.
Rio Frio Landmark Oak (Leakey)
This enormous tree just south of Leakey near the tiny settlement of Rio Frio is of such historical significance that it has a historical site marker of its own! It dates back to well before pioneer times, and directions to other landmarks in the area invariably use the oak as a reference point. Its presence in the area is so prevalent that several deeds and legal documents related to properties in the region mention it specifically. While the oak itself is on fenced and private property, it and its historical marker can be viewed from the roadside.
Sabinal Canyon Museum (Utopia)
Named after the Hill Country river that flows nearby, the Sabinal Canyon Museum in Utopia dedicates itself to the natural and human history that has shaped the region. Geological samples and fossils on display document the area's natural formation, while man-made artifacts from ancient Native Americans to pioneer-era farm equipment trace the mark mankind has made here. In March every year, the museum commemorates Texas' Independence Day with their Celebrate Texas event.
St. Louis Day (Castroville)
This is a festival that's traditionally held in late August in Castroville, to celebrate the St. Louis Catholic Church here. Its steeple rises 110 feet over the landscape, and is a powerful and historic presence in the town. Visitors can tour the 1844 church and surrounding historical buildings in downtown Castroville, while proceeds from the festival go toward the upkeep of the church and the parish's humanitarian projects.
Schreiner Mansion (Kerrville)
After the Civil War wound down, Confederate Captain Charles Schreiner returned to his family in central Texas, and the family built a modest frame house in Kerrville. A few years later, Schreiner called on renowned San Antonio architect Alfred Giles to design a unique and castle-like limestone mansion. The home was completed in 1897—it was the first home in Kerrville with electricity—and it still stands as a sentinel of Kerrville's past. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and as a Texas Historic Landmark, the Schreiner Mansion is open for public tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Sebastopol House (Seguin)
An early nickname of Seguin, where this historic building is located, was “Concrete City,” because a groundbreaking process of concrete construction using limestone as a key ingredient was developed and perfected here. One of the best-preserved examples of this type of construction is represented by the Sebastopol House, erected here in 1856. Visitors here can view exhibits of the technology and processes used in the mansion's construction, and displays of rare pottery work from the Wilson Pottery Foundation.
The building that houses this museum is itself historically interesting; it was built in 1898, and it has been carefully restored, keeping its original wooden floors and tin ceiling. The museum chronicles the history of the Hill Country town of Seguin and the surrounding Guadalupe County region and its inhabitants over the ages. Artifacts on display here cover everything from modern times and back millions of years, starting with local fossils and Native American craftsmanship. Themed displays here include salutes to the American military, Texas Rangers, and the history of the German immigrants who settled here during pioneer times.
SS American Memorial Foundation (Seguin)
This private organization in Seguin not only honors those who have served in the American military throughout our country's history, but also serves as a safe and restorative place for living veterans and current members of the military. Artifacts, paintings, sculptures, and statuary solemnly commemorate the role our military has played in the development of our country. The SS American Memorial Foundation exists to honor this military role and those who have taken part in it, as well as to educate visitors to respect and perpetuate that honor.
The Steinbach House (Castroville)
This is a house from the Alsace region of France that was built in the 17th century, and was painstakingly relocated and restored in Castroville, to celebrate and commemorate that town's French immigrant history. Named for the original family that lived here in Wahlbach, France, four years of research and interior and exterior work went into the historical authenticity of this beautiful home, which opened to the public in 2002. The Steinbach House serves as both a visitor's center to the Castroville area, and a peek into the simple country living of France almost 400 years ago.
If the name of the place seems like a mouthful, call it “The Big Red Barn,” the name by which it's affectionately known. Located near Seguin, this center educates visitors not only on agricultural processes used on the rich and fertile Hill Country land, but the roles heritage and history play in that topic, as well. The land here has been farmed continuously since the 1850s, and the Heritage Center complex includes a pioneer village. Displays in the main building of the center trace the evolution of agricultural practices through the years, and special events and classes are held regularly on related topics. If you're a fan of pecans, the Pecan Museum of Texas houses a celebration of the Lone Star State's favorite nut!
Texas Rangers Heritage Center (Fredericksburg)
This 12-acre compound just outside of Fredericksburg is dedicated to the history and legacy of one of the most unique and fabled law enforcement agencies in the United States: The Texas Rangers! The center is a continuously-expanding work in progress, with a museum of Rangers history in the works, a massive pavilion and open-air amphitheater. The towering campanile on the grounds stands as a salute to the Rangers' credo of good citizenship, and the Ranger Ring of Honor is dedicated to Rangers past who gave their all in their service to the Lone Star State.
Treue der Union Monument (Comfort)
This monument in Comfort, which when translated from German means “loyalty to the union,” is distinguished in two ways: first, it's the oldest American Civil War monument in Texas, constructed in 1866, just one year after the war ended; second, it's one of the very few monuments erected in memory of Union soldiers on ground belonging to the former Confederacy. Treue der Union commemorates the Battle of the Nueces, which took place on August 10, 1862, where German immigrants loyal to the Union fled toward Mexico rather than take part in the conflict raging through the young country. 38 of these men were killed, and their companions gathered the bodies and buried their remains at the monument site.
Wildlife Art Museum (Leakey)
This humble yet fascinating museum is located in Leakey, and features dynamic displays of regional and global wildlife. Numerous natural tableaux are presented in drawings, paintings, sculpture, historic carvings, and taxidermy displays. Contact the museum directly for a visit at (830) 232-5607.
We've listed the most historically significant and popular museums and historical sites in the region of the Texas Hill Country that we serve, and which are of most interest to our guests. However, there's much more to see on a historical level for serious history buffs!
The National Register of Historic Places
The National Register of Historic Places uses four criteria in order to evaluate and designate a location in the United States of enough historical significance to justify being named an official historic place. Those criteria are:
Event: a major event that shaped history took place at the location;
Person: the location played a major role in the life of a historically significant person;
Design/Construction: the location is architecturally significant, or the work of a known master; and
Information Potential: the location is likely to yield relevant historical information to the visitor.
Over 3,300 sites in the state of Texas are listed with the National Register of Historic Places, and a respectable number of them are in the Hill Country. In addition, new locations are added each year. The National Archives website (which maintains a comprehensive listing of all historic places) is not exactly user-friendly beyond the state level; however, Wikipedia has broken down all current listings by county. The following links will connect you to the Wikipedia listings in the corresponding southern Hill Country counties.
Bandera (Bandera, Pipe Creek, Tarpley, Vanderpool)
Bexar (Helotes, San Antonio)
Blanco (Johnson City)
Gillespie (Fredericksburg, Stonewall)
Kendall (Boerne, Comfort)
Medina (Castroville, D'Hanis, Hondo, Medina)
Uvalde (Concan, Utopia)
Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks
This is similar to the National Register of Historic Places, except it's on a state level, instead of federal. As a result, these landmarks focus on Texas history, and not necessarily that of the entire nation. Also similar to the federal system, the Texas Historical Commission (who designates landmarks within the state) has three criteria locations must meet in order to be considered official landmarks:
Age: Structures must be at least 50 years of age, and unaltered within the last 50 years;
Historical Significance: applicants must thoroughly document this for consideration; and
Architectural Integrity: the site must represent its time period accurately, without major alteration.
The Texas Historical Commission (THC) maintains an online atlas (database) of all sites that have been designated as Recorded Texas Historical Landmarks. This site is much more user-friendly than the national one; readers can select by site name, keywords, and designations, and can also search by county. You can also search categories such as courthouses, National Register properties (so there is some overlap between the federal and state databases), state antiquities landmarks, historical markers, cemeteries, and museums. Simply check off as many or as few of these categories as you wish, depending on your field(s) of interest. Listings here include information such as site history, images, and location maps.
Even though there is a slight bit of overlap between the national and state historic databases, it should be noted here that the THC atlas contains over 300,000 statewide entries. That's more than ninety times the amount of listings on the national database for the state of Texas! Suffice it to say, there's plenty to keep aficionados of Hill Country history busy here. As a final note, please keep in mind that some historical structures and sites may be on privately-owned property. In such cases, if you don't have the owner's express permission to be on the property, please observe the historical site from a respectful distance on public land, such as a road.
As you can see, the Hill Country region plays its own unique role among Texas museums and historical sites. Wherever your interests in Hill Country history lie, you'll find plenty to satisfy even the most devoted buff in your group! Spend a few minutes reading a roadside historical marker as you take in the view, or plan an enlightening day at one of the more sprawling and expansive historical sites and museums. Our beautiful part of the state has many stories to tell!
Your historical exploration of the beautiful Hill Country can be extended to your lodging, too! At Backroads Reservations, we've helped our guests find the most interesting, luxurious, and affordable getaways in the area since 2001. Among the guest houses and cabins we have available are several places that date back over 100 years, lovingly restored and populated with vintage era furnishings. There's no better place to build onto your own personal history than a comfortable and historically-relevant place to stay!