A Texas town with a surprising mix of flavors
Fredericksburg, Texas — Nothing about the Lone Star State ever surprises me, so I did only a mild double take at the sight of all the German names and German gingerbread details the morning I drove into Fredericksburg.
But what was a museum dedicated to the Pacific theater of World War II doing out here in Hill Country, about as deep in the heart of Texas as one can get?
Welcome to Fredericksburg, a remarkable little oasis 75 miles west of Austin and about the same distance north of San Antonio. The town was settled in the 1840s by German immigrants, who also left their stamp on New Braunfels, just northeast of San Antonio. One of the early settlers was Charles Nimitz, who attained a measure of fame hereabouts for running a hotel, but who, more important, had a grandson named Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet in World War II. Thus the museum, built into the old family hotel.
If you approach Fredericksburg from Austin you can also pay homage to another famous Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose boyhood home in Johnson City, and whose LBJ Ranch, nestled by his beloved Pedernales River, are part of a National Historic Park. I was saving LBJ country for another day and flew west through the Hill Country, itself a Texas surprise in that the wooded rolling terrain and string of lakes run counter to one's image of flat sagebrush plain.
To start off right in Fredericksburg, drop in at the Chamber of Commerce office just off Main Street. Basilia Martinez, a cheery woman who runs the tourist desk, who seemed as happy to meet a real New Yorker as I was to meet a Fredericksburger, supplied me with a handful of brochures and sent me on my way.
Main Street, a broad and sun-baked thoroughfare, could be right out of ''High Noon'' except for the Grimm Brothers architectural details. Hand-hewn limestone buildings with wide overhanging eaves line both sides of the street, and ''Wilkommen'' signs hang in front of the shops. Here and there are tributes to the little Hill Country boy who went on to steer the big naval triumph in the Pacific.
As I stepped into the handsome olive-shuttered Pioneer Memorial Library, which served as the courthouse from 1882 to 1939 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, I saw a portrait of Admiral Nimitz peering down from the wall. Up the street, a sign on the Country Cottage antique store noted that the green-shuttered limestone building was the Nimitz birthplace, in 1885.
I shouldn't leave the impression that Fredericksburg dwells only on its origins and its favorite son. There are other flavors running through the town - Mexican-American and Hill Country ranching influences, along with a mild 1980s rural gentrification. Main Street's high-walled 19th-century buildings house a number of antiques stores, attractive but not precious. In one, the Rocking Horse, I found a wonderful profusion of country oak pieces - iceboxes, dressers, rockers - and some fine antique quilts made by German-descended townsfolk.
Another honest establishment, the Dietz Bakery, drew me inside well before my feeding hour. In the rear, an elderly woman was running large loaves of bread through a trembling slicer, while behind the counter Mrs. Dietz was busily wrapping and handing over packages to a growing line of customers.
''My husband's family started the bakery 60 years ago,'' she said. ''They came here in 1847. My family didn't. I'm from New Jersey.'' Tempted as I was, I couldn't handle a one-pound bread but had no trouble putting away another house specialty, a 25-cent blueberry roll.
Only a few days before, on Nov. 11, Fredericksburg had dedicated the new Nimitz museum in an arresting piece of architecture on Main Street. With hurricane deck, pilothouse, and crow's-nest, the high-peaked, cedar-shake building looms like a steamboat deck above the street. In fact, it was called the Steamboat Hotel at one time, and when the admiral's grandfather was in charge, it was a popular way station on the stagecoach trail between San Antonio and San Diego.
Rebuilt with $1 million of locally raised funds, the hotel is now more than just a naval museum. The well-assembled collection of photo murals, historic objects, and recordings traces German immigrant roots in central Texas and the rise of young Chester Nimitz against a backdrop of world events leading to the confrontation in the Pacific. Above the front desk is a fine photo of the young ensign with his bearded grandfather.
I heard the unmistakable tones of FDR (''Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy . . . '') and crossed the hall to a display of the Pearl Harbor attack. There were fragments of a Japanese plane, a Japanese cipher machine that looked like a crude black word processor, and the rusty hatch of the USS Arizona, sunk at Pearl Harbor.
Behind the museum is a Japanese Garden of Peace, given by the people of Japan , and a few blocks away an extension of the Nimitz Historic Park displays dive bombers, landing craft, and other rusted hardware from the Pacific campaign. How strange to see a torn Japanese bomber moldering in the Hill Country sun, but then, nothing about Texas will ever seem strange to me again.