by Claire Cella • Photography by Whitney Martin
Located within the cradle of the Pedernales River Valley just past the junction of Highways 290 and 281 sits present-day Johnson City. As far back as the 16th century, this spot was a frequent thoroughfare and trade stop, according to the city’s Chamber of Commerce. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that the city was officially founded—on ranch land owned by James Polk Johnson, a cousin once removed of former president Lyndon B. Johnson. Both men grew up in the area, and by the time James Johnson died in 1885, he had established a gristmill, a hotel and a general merchandise store in Johnson City proper. At that time in the early 1900s, resident Georgia Edgeworth was quoted as saying, “It was just a big family town. Nobody was rich, and everybody had plenty to eat and plenty to wear. It was just a good, sweet, country town.”
Changes would soon be in store for wee Johnson City, though. Today, it still has the essence of that sweet, country town Ms. Edgeworth spoke of, but it’s rapidly becoming bolstered by the growing family of businesses, eateries, wineries and galleries that hug the perimeter of its stately Blanco County Courthouse.
And with the rising acclaim of the Central Texas wine country, the city’s proximity on the popular Wine Road 290 and the growing appeal of cultural destinations such as Fredericksburg, Johnson City has become a highly trafficked area. Yet, that steady stream of traffic posed a concern for the city’s businesses: Many travelers simply continued on determinedly toward other destinations without pause. That’s why, in recent years, efforts have been made to help the city grow into a destination all its own. Many of the long-empty buildings have been bought, restored and repurposed—a project aimed to entice travelers to stop, shop, see and sip their way around this unique blend of scrubland charm.
Gary Gilstrap of Texas Hills Vineyard believes the wine industry is largely responsible for generating the current popularity of the Hill Country. “As [the wine industry] has blossomed, more and more people have driven through Johnson City and said ‘Gosh, this old and falling-down city could really be a good place to start a business.’ They can see the growth potential, but for now, this really is the little hidden gem of the Hill Country.” Gilstrap and his wife, Kathy, moved to Johnson City from Colleyville in the mid-1990s, when there were only 16 wineries in the area. Now, there are close to 50. Gilstrap helped found the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail in 1999, and at the same time, opened his own doors to Texas Hills Vineyard. The Gilstraps currently produce 19 varieties of wine from their vines, in a range to suit all palates. They’re renowned, however, for their cabernet sauvignon, called “Kick Butt Cab,” which consistently wins awards across the state and even the country every year.
Of course, the Gilstraps have a lot of company in the Texas wine business these days. A young and enterprising duo, Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb behind Lewis Wines, are quickly making a name for themselves just west of Texas Hills, but Gary welcomes their success. “One thing about the wine business, is that it doesn’t matter if you have another winery right next door; it’s synergistic,” he says. “If they’re bringing people in, those same people are coming to you, too.”
This synergy holds true for the rest of Johnson City’s businesses, as well. Susan Kirchman and Warren Vilmaire, owners of Taste Wine + Art, have similarly taken advantage of the wine corridor just outside their gallery doors. The couple opened a contemporary art gallery in 2005 and soon began to draw not only aficionados of art but of wine as well, through their carefully curated wine collection. At any given time, visitors can sample up to 24 wines from boutique vineyards all around the world while gazing upon colorfully clad walls adorned with Kirchman’s rotating exhibition of 45 Texas artists. Taste also hosts monthly happy hours, live artist receptions and music events, and the couple claims their social life is busier than it once was in Austin. “It’s getting to be such a vibrant community,” Kirchman says. “Partly, I believe, because of the natural beauty of the Hill Country. It doesn’t take people long to figure out that this is the best part of Texas. But it’s also the wine industry—it’s just booming.”
And while she’s certainly correct, there’s also another new force in town that’s getting attention. The Hill Country Science Mill—housed within the once-abandoned and rusted gristmill that loomed over the city for years—is a state-of-the-art, nonprofit science museum with fiber internet and modern technology that aims to engage and inspire young people by introducing them to the profound career potential in the fields of science, technology and math. The Mill’s grand opening this year drew 12,000 visitors—six times the total population of Johnson City—says Holly Barton, director of operations. Founded by local resident and career scientist Bonnie Baskin and her husband, Robert Elde, the former dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences, the Mill has become a symbol for Johnson City’s progress. Within the preserved limestone walls and the 36-foot-tall silos are touch-table interfaces and game-based learning stations aimed at sparking the imaginations of multiple generations of students. Using 3-D-augmented technology, visitors are guided by a customizable avatar that can be fashioned with Einstein hair or an apropos pair of cowboy boots. Along the way, the avatar explains the science, math or technology that powers the various exhibits and connects the activities with careers. The avatar is as encouraging as the entire experience—urging visitors to “be curious about how things work, ask questions and stop to see the tiniest of details.”
And that’s just what the rest of Johnson City hopes visitors will do, too, at places like funky retail shop Texcetera, featuring an array of local treasures, and Pecan Street Brewing which offers handcrafted beer and fresh twists on country classics, both owned by Patty and Tim Elliott. Pecan Street Brewing opened in 2008, in the restored remains of a hardware and supply store where local men used to “while away the day over coffee,” says Patty. Today, the brewpub’s authentic and homelike wooden expanse is the perfect place to lounge and laugh over a pint of Screw Loose Blonde Ale—brewed in-house by son Sean—and a plate of their Pecan Sweet Chicken made with pecans from Durham-Ellis Pecan Company in Comanche.
Or if the weather’s nice, there’s a chance the picnic tables in the seemingly abandoned lot off 290 will be teeming. That’s because the lot serves as the alfresco dining room for Lot 102, a farm-to-market-style food trailer that offers dishes bursting with fresh produce procured from independent farms. Lot 102 is owned and operated by Matt Wigglesworth and Shelton Coleman, the force behind the adjacent Texas 290 Diner—a bright, clean space intended to hold its historic charm while serving up reinvented homestyle classics, such as tangy grilled lemon-pepper catfish over roasted and sautéed vegetables, and fresh Gulf shrimp and cheddar grits drizzled with spicy butter sauce.
Maintaining Johnson City’s historic integrity and charm in the face of such rapid growth seems paramount to the vast majority of business owners. Wigglesworth says that preservation was hugely important during their renovation process. “Everything has to evolve, and eventually [development] will happen,” he says. “But preservation is important. In the end, it’s so worth it to be able to tell people about all the things that a place used to be.”