by Layne Lynch
There’s something about a small town that tugs fervently at our heartstrings. Bustling cities like Austin, Houston and Dallas are known for well-curated museums, trendy cocktail lounges, James Beard award-winning restaurants and stadium-filling concerts, but a trip outside these realms often reveals a fresh landscape—one resembling a view through Rip Van Winkle’s eyes.
Just an hour-and-a-half drive outside Austin and Houston delivers travelers to the historic town of Schulenburg. Appropriately nicknamed the “Gateway to the Rolling Hills,” this town of just over 2,500 people was founded in the late 1800s by people of primarily German, Czech and Austrian descent. These foreign settlers bestowed the spacious, quiet town with a rich melting pot of culture and character that has enlivened its permanent heirloom spirit and given birth to an array of delicious cuisines, alluring mom-and-pop shops and influential community hubs.
The town attracts the usual weekend crowd from near and far with trademarks like crunchy fried chicken and fresh fruit pies at Frank’s Restaurant, fluffy kolaches at Oakridge Smokehouse, Texas pecan fudge at Potter Country Store and, of course, seed spittin’ at the annual Watermelon Thump, in neighboring Luling. But the town’s greatest attributes, without question, are its treasured architectural sentinels.
One of these is the central gathering spot, Sengelmann Hall—an historic dance hall that has attracted Texans from around the state since it was founded by settlers in 1894 under the name Two Brothers Saloon. “Everyone loves the building but a lot of people don’t even know its history,” says Garrett Pettit, owner of Momma’s Restaurant at Sengelmann Hall. “When you learn more about it, you discover how important the Hall really is to Schulenburg’s history.”
For years, the stoic crimson facade played witness to countless live music and community events, but all that excitement came to an end in the ’40s when the owners decided to shutter the town space. “None of the sons wanted to continue running the business, and I’m sure World War II had something to do with its closing, too,” Pettit says.
After its abrupt, untimely closure, the saloon and dance hall slowly disintegrated and lost luster—recycled into an array of local, family-owned businesses that included an ice cream parlor, accounting office and a Western Auto shop. In 2007, though, artist Dana Harper—an heir to the Cullen family fortune—breathed life into the past when he renovated and restored the old, worn hall, nail by nail, plank by plank, from the hardwood floors to the cast-iron columns, tin ceilings and bullet hole accents.
Pettit, a native Schulenburger, joined the Sengelmann Hall team in 2009 and eventually took over the restaurant operations from Harper. “[Harper’s] goal wasn’t to make the building look new and fancy. As an artist, he really appreciated the history of the building and the journey it had made,” Pettit says. “He wanted to peel back the layers, dust it off a bit and let the structure speak for itself.” And speak it does. The Hall is not only a grand sight to behold, but also a time capsule of Texas history, turn-of-tide events and even ghosts. “Let’s be honest: It wouldn’t be a Texas dance hall without a good ghost story,” Pettit says.
In the years since its reopening, the Hall has filled its rustic, antique rooms with country music, wedding receptions, polka dancing, multiple celebratory meals of pork schnitzel and sausage and the raucous reveling of locals and travelers alike.
But Sengelmann Hall isn’t the only piece of Americana art in town. Schulenburg also boasts four famed-and-acclaimed, hand-painted Catholic churches that are, hands down, the most popular town attractions. “As a kid, my friends and I would run in and start ringing the bells. It was so fun to grow up with them right next to us,” Pettit says. “They’re unlike any church you’ve ever seen.” (Currently, there are around 20 of these painted churches across Texas.)
Schulenburg’s painted churches—St. Mary’s Catholic Church, St. Mary’s Parish, St. John the Baptist Church and Saints Cyril and Methodius Church—were commissioned in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Catholic officials who originally planned to embrace Spanish, French and mission-style architecture in the churches. However, after receiving pressure from the German townsfolk, the church eventually relented and embraced the cultural hierarchy.
The four ornate structures utilized delicate paints instead of more durable materials to mimic features such as gothic vaulting, stained glass and supporting arches in a deceptive but beautiful visual allusion. “People will stand and marvel at every single detail. They’re an asset to our town.”
These days, Austinites eagerly dedicate weekend trips to nearby locales for delights like barbecue feasts, Hamilton Pool’s natural waters and wining and dining in Fredericksburg. And while a trip to Schulenburg may not be as adventurous as a culinary tour of Houston or an art-scouting stop in Marfa, what the town holds is a dedicated, lasting appreciation for Texas history, and a cultural heritage and time map you won’t find anywhere else on the road.