June 24, 2007

Travel Notes: Comfort, Texas

Down the road a few miles from Welfare, another of those little Hill Country towns named by the German immigrants who stopped and settled instead of continuing further west, having recognized a paradise when they saw it. Comfort was founded by freethinkers and abolitionists and, like many towns in this part of the state, voted against secession in the Civil War. In fact a battle broke out here between local Union sympathizers and Confederate soldiers, and a monument flies the flag permanently at half-staff.

It’s about 110 miles from Austin, through the broken plateau with its toothed hills and seasonally flooding creek beds. Once, we stayed at an inn here, crossing a bridge over a waterless rocky gulley, and after an overnight storm the creek bed overflowed into the pasture and almost to the house. That’s what the wildflowers count on. By this time they’re darker than in the spring, dusty purple and orange like dirt-smudged fruit, with lots of bare stalks, and they appeal to me as much as in their youth. I’d like to stay with them, to sit with them and talk about what we’ve seen and what we remember. The Hill Country storms also make Richard’s Rainwater possible: the nation’s first bottled rainwater company, its tall collecting tanks rising in faded crayon colors above a green meadow. When you get past the For Sale signs on the ranchland on Highway 290, there’s a wildflower seed farm: a big square field of purple next to a big square field of orange next to a big square field of yellow; a lavender farms. And peach orchards and blackberry bushes, and roadside stands one after another offering homemade jams, ice creams, cobblers, and pies. A claque of adoring purple flowers applauds rapturously at the feet of graceful young fruit trees.

With a population of about 2,400, Comfort strikes me as a smaller and more easeful Boerne, which in turn, at 10,000, is a smaller and infinitely more bearable Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg, the area’s foremost cutesey-boutiquey retro-Teutonic daytrip destination, has become absolutely choked with chain hotels and fast-food franchises and weekend crowds, while Boerne offers the same features – the town square, the streets signs in German, the big stone library, the old houses with nineteenth-century trellises and columns, the cowboy-style storefronts – and still makes them a pleasure. In Boerne’s outskirts, I drove past a spanking new biotech company and right afterwards 2 Fat Guys Complete Automotive.

Comfort was where I stopped and walked, though. High Street is lined with antique shops and cafes and the storefront public library, a 1916 native limestone building incorporating elements of an earlier building. The Closet, a dress shop, is also a full-sized old-fashioned soda fountain with big vinyl booths. In Bud Kracher’s antique shop, amid beautiful tables and armoire, I saw an authentic Sinclair gasoline pump with the dinosaur logo, $2,250. A sign points to Comfort Cellars Winery, as small a winery as you could possibly hope for –- I couldn’t find it, and concluded it must be someone’s backyard. Across the street, the window of the Meet Market, a club-in-progress, bears a handwritten “Opening Soon” sign, with each of its optimistic dates crossed off and replaced by a later one—“Spring!”—“Summer!”—and finally someone’s scrawled response, “Really?”

High Street is marred by the gutted shell of a big old limestone building protected by a chain fence, but it’s no long-term eyesore. It’s the Ingenhuett Store, a landmark built in 1887 and burned in the middle of a March night in 2006. There are ribbons on the fence, and signs saying how much the store is missed and promising to rebuild it. Down the street, two of the Ingenhuetts’ ancestral homes have been preserved; the newer one, from about 1900, is a reasonable size, but the original is tiny; yet here lived the town’s first family, who owned the hotel, the saloon, and many of the stores, and who filled the lucrative sinecure of postmaster.

Comfort. Just enough city escapees have moved here to keep it alive. No evidence of construction anywhere downtown. In an antique mall I was sorely tempted by an Arkansas toothpick in a beaded leather sheath, but it was a multi-owner place and the cashiers weren’t authorized to bargain. Well, I was just as glad to see it and leave it alone. I strolled and smiled, I greeted shopkeepers and appreciatively left without buying, and drove home carrying plenty to write about.

Labels: ,