Like many Americans, Texans often travel great distances in search of fun experiences, overlooking opportunities in their own backyard. Gonzales is a Texas town like no other. About 50 miles South of Bastrop on State Highway 304, it’s a truly enchanted place, a living legend, a jewel in the crown of Texas independence.
Gonzales is a trove of colorful history, heroes and fascinating stories.
Your first stop needs to be the Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center, located in the old Gonzales County jail. Here you will find focused suggestions, docents who actually grew up in the old jail, tour guides who will happily climb aboard your tour bus or take you in their personal vehicle, and a staff that works hard to create reasons for the casual traveler to return. Citizens are proud of this town. Not only is this where the first shots were fired in the Texas War of Independence but it is teeming with Texas pride. These are the sons and daughters of pioneers who put it all on the line for independence. Walking down the street, you can sense a will to prevail—in the offices, the stores and on the sidewalk.
The city, known originally as the DeWitt Colony, was the first Anglo-American settlement west of the Colorado River.
It was established by Empresario Green DeWitt in 1825, named after the governor of Coahuila y Tejas, Rafael Gonzales. The town remains today as it was originally surveyed, containing seven public squares and streets running north and south, east and west in the shape of a Spanish Cross. There is over 190 years of history here. The town motto, “Come and Take it,” refers to the refusal of citizens to return a cannon to the government of Mexico when Mexican troops were dispatched from San Antonio to reclaim it. An iconic flag was fashioned as a prelude to the historic confrontation and replicas are proudly displayed all over town. It’s a source of inspiration for the citizens of Gonzales and exemplifies the very spirit of Texas—bold and brassy.
The public face of Gonzales takes the form of two tour guides, Paul Frenzel and Leon Netardus.
Exploration of this city without the insights of these two pilots is like ordering gizzards without gravy. Paul is an historical encyclopedia, versed in the details of all the city deed records and tax rolls (from day one), but he uses flesh and blood language everyday people understand. Leon is an artful storyteller—a disciplined historian in his own right—and a magician at pulling his listeners into the deep current of his tales. Each man provides a slightly different but complimentary perspective, insuring a fresh experience for each audience. These tours are all free and usually start off in a re-purposed room in the old jail, graced with a conference table about the size of the famous Indian canoe at the Museum of Natural History.
A guided visit is a pleasant blend of facts and stories.
One such story explains why the four clocks on the old courthouse tower seldom show the same time. Seems the last man to be hanged in the old jail (1921) put a curse on the massive timepiece. After his execution—with few exceptions since—the four chronometers have struggled to agree. The clockworks were tinkered with, overhauled and eventually changed out—they still did not keep synchronized time. In recent years an expensive repair job appeared to finally fix the problem . . . until the clock tower was struck by lightening—twice!
Don’t believe in curses? Better get used to the paranormal in Gonzales!
Although you can take your own walking tour with a chamber guidebook, do whatever you have to do to experience the personalized driving tour. It takes about an hour and is guaranteed to make you one more friend than you had before you arrived. The stories will connect history to places like no guidebook ever could. You will, for example, pass by an old building which once hosted public rooftop dances in the 1940’s and see the restored Alcalde Hotel where legend has it that Bonny and Clyde once escaped from a second story window, just a step ahead of the law. The old hotel also sports tasty cocktails and oozes period ambiance. Your driving tour will visit where the famous old cannon was once buried, presumably to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Mexicans, and you will drive by the outdoor arena where a little known Elvis Presley once played an early concert. Your tour guide may even have worked the concession stand that evening and served the fabled rocker a Coke without knowing who he was.
Gonzales is internationally known for its historical homes.
The architecture is varied and magnificent, Colonial, folk Victorian, Mansard-style, Greek revival and more. Workmanship and materials are exquisite, ranging from hand painted murals, fine walnut furniture, marble steps, mahogany paneling and detailed tapestry. These were trophies of their era, proudly erected by cattle barons, lumbermen, European entrepreneurs, doctors and bankers. Several of these homes are opened to the public in December each year. You should be warned, however, that many of these homes are haunted! One of the guides, Paul Frenzel, actually lives in one. A team of professional ghost hunters—complete with arcane detection gear—stopped by in October of 2015. In an old church at Pioneer Village, Paul’s wife Vicki relates how a chair began rocking on its own in the presence of these ghost busters. . .then flames spontaneously appeared next to one. It was captured on camera (photo by Robert Flores).
The authority on local ghosts, apparently, is the mischievous Leon Netardus.
Leon will relate stories of a Bed & Breakfast on St. James Street in which specters routinely startle guests by asking them why they are sleeping in their beds, or about when residents at 621 St. Louis Street glimpsed a dwarf white-complexioned man peeping around corners, or about door latches that mysteriously open and close at the Rather House. Ghosts also haunt certain public buildings around town. Churches built over former city cemeteries report strange events, such as pews impaled by organ pipes, creaking floors and a row of pews in the back that seem to have an invisible presence. Unusual changes in temperature can be felt in the Alcalde Hotel and an old western wear store produces doors that open and close on their own, mysterious footsteps and the sound of an upstairs safe door closing upon entry in the morning. Leon is so learned in local ghost lore that he wrote a 37 page pamphlet (Ghosts of Gonzales) you can find in the visitor center for a reasonable price. Paul and Vicki Frenzel have also published books about the history and happenings in this dramatic town. Ask about them.
One advantage of the guided driving tour of Gonzales is that you cannot possibly absorb all the details and sights visited. You will, however, be exposed to many attractions the city has to offer—meaning you can return on your own to explore in more depth later. And there is much to see and do: historic cemeteries, the old battleground, Pioneer Village, Texas Pioneer Museum, Independence Park and the Sam Houston Oak, to name but a few. Another dubious advantage of the guided driving tour is that you are captive to witty joke telling of both types—good and bad. Depending on who your driver is, you may hear the fate of certain celebrities upon meeting St. Peter or why a golden telephone with a direct line to Heaven is only a local call, when made from Gonzales!
As entertaining as the guided driving tour is, don’t go home without getting out on your own.
Take the tour early and explore Gonzales by yourself after. Let your curiosity take you by the hand. Take the time to walk the streets, speak to the people, visit the shops and eat in the restaurants—but beware the drivers. Turn lanes and stop signs are merely suggestions here. Do not pass up the opportunity to explore the old jail. Every room, upstairs and down, is filled with Old West authenticity from the solitary “black box,” to the intrepid cell block, to the imposing indoor gallows. Be careful of the questions you ask. The physics of “hanging by the neck till dead” can be related in gruesome detail. Built in 1887, the Gonzales County Jail was all business until as late as 1975.
Suffering from cabin fever? Need a weekend away? Call the Gonzales Visitor Center at 830-672-6532 and plan your getaway. An accredited Main Street Program town, there is something going on nearly every month of the year, from the Texas Independence Day celebration in March to the Historic Homes tour in December. The entire town is suspended under a transparent dome of timelessness . . . and it’s as close as the palm of your hand.