Bastrop, deep in the heart of Texans

By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010; F07

First in a month-long series spotlighting the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Distinctive Destinations for 2010.

"Do you scare real easy?"

The waitress, washing glasses, has been talking a blue streak, but now she stops and looks at me. My husband and I are sitting at the bar in Hasler Brothers Steakhouse, a trendy new restaurant in an old building in Bastrop, a.k.a. "The Most Historic Small Town in Texas" (stay tuned). The waitress is telling us about the Haslers, German immigrants who opened a business in these digs in the early 1800s. In the custom of the day, their store had everything: hardware up front, textiles and dry goods in the middle, and then, oh . . . well . . . maybe she shouldn't say --

And she pops her startling question. I'm about to tell her that I looove spooky stories, and the ghoulier the better, but she plunges on.

"Back there," she nods to her right and drops her voice, "that was the . . . crematorium."

Ah, now that's intriguing. Let's have a look. We hop off our stools and go through a doorway in the far corner of the bar, into a high-ceilinged room furnished with a big banquet table. "And that," says our guide, pointing to a large, vaulted brick space at the rear, like a fireplace you could stand up in, "is where they did the baking."

Oh, those Texans. They're just so darned colorful. And I mean that in the most appreciative way. Ask a question, and you don't just get an answer. You get a story, and then some. Like this particular story, which gets a tad more colorful when I ask Shawn Pletsch, our B&B host and a sometime tour guide around town, about the background on the crematorium, which the waitress couldn't provide. Shawn confirms that among the services the good Hasler siblings offered the community were mortuary ones.

"But what lots of people don't know is that next door was the slaughterhouse," she says, arching an eyebrow. "So we had the funeral home for people right next to the funeral home for pigs."

And so it goes on a visit to Bastrop, a warmly welcoming little burg of about 8,000 about 30 miles southeast of Austin that's one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 12 Distinctive Destinations of 2010, and justifiably so. You can hardly walk into a shop or stop for a bite without hearing some entertaining Bastrop tale. People here just love their town, and they love to tell you all about it.

They'll tell you how it was founded in 1832 as part of Stephen F. Austin's original Texas colony, at the point where the Old San Antonio Road crossed the Colorado River. And how it was named after Austin's friend Felipe Enrique Neri, Baron de Bastrop. Then they'll tell you that Bastrop was actually a Dutchman who was a baron in his own mind only. ("He was an embezzler," Shawn declares.) They'll tell you that the town has more than 130 historic buildings; hence that "Most Historic Small Town" thing. They'll tell you they have the oldest school in Texas, the oldest newspaper, the oldest cemetery, the oldest black school.

Now, the accuracy of some of those claims is dependent on certain caveats too detailed to go into here, but there's no denying Bastropians' pride in their history, their heritage and their homes. And well-earned pride it is: Unlike some other old Texas towns that are fading and decaying, Bastrop is a shiny little gem of preservation and restoration. Gorgeous Victorian houses, many with a historic connection, line the well-groomed residential streets. Original storefronts -- well, make that original to 1862, when the town was rebuilt after a devastating fire -- with tin-ceilinged awnings and brass moldings on the windows house shops and eateries along Main and Chestnut streets.

And guess what? Yup, nearly every building has a story. We pop into the Visitor Center on Main, in the old First National Bank, to pick up a guide for a walking tour. And right off the bat, we're hearing the tale of the inept robber who tried and failed to open the vault one day in 1929 and got shot for his trouble. Farther down Main, City Hall was the drop-off point for a hitchhiker who got a ride into town from none other than Bonnie and Clyde (who bypassed the bank, thank goodness). A staircase in a building on Chestnut Street intrigues with the "For Men Only" signs stamped on the risers: Supposedly, soldiers stationed at a nearby base during World War II could go upstairs to sleep off the effects of a night on the town, and ladies were justly being warned to stay away.

On our Victorian homes walking tour, we check out the Crocheron-McDowall House, a beautiful Greek Revival now owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority. Its claim to fame: Sam Houston once gave a speech from the graceful columned balcony. Backstory to that: A notorious tippler, he was tied to the posts to keep from toppling over into the crowd below.

There's more at the Bastrop County Historical Society Museum. When I can't find the exhibit on the German POWs who were imprisoned nearby during World War II ("the Nazi corner," it's jokingly called), Howard New, the 80-something who's minding the store, takes me into a curtained-off storage area and lets me poke around among the haphazard stacks of photos and posters. But then he offers information no exhibit could supply.

"I remember Mom going over sometimes on a Sunday and signing one of them out and bringing him home for dinner," he says. Like many inhabitants of Bastrop County, Mom was of German extraction.

Makes you wonder about the strictness of that "P" in POW. But then, even if a prisoner had gotten away, where would he have gone? Maybe to hide out in the Lost Pines, the nearby forest of loblollies mysteriously separated from the vast pine stretches of East Texas by more than 80 miles. Story alert: Legend says they grew from seedlings that Native Americans brought to a homesick girl who had married into a local tribe. More likely, it's the result of glacial activity from eons ago.

Of course we had to check it out, so we went for a hike in Bastrop State Park on a glorious Sunday morning, keeping an eye out for the endangered Houston toad, which makes its habitat in this piney haven. We didn't see one, but at the lake, we watched a handful of people fish from rocks on the far shore. The water was still and smooth, the reflection of the trees and the blue, blue sky shimmering slightly on the silken surface, and the silence was so complete and so sublime it was like being in church.

From there, we headed over to the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa west of town, the fancy retreat that has become one of Bastrop's biggest employers. We had dinner and drinks on a porch as fireflies flitted through the darkening sky.

"Yes, that's a real nice place," Shawn's husband, Bill, said the next morning as he cooked up a breakfast of delectable pecan waffles. "But you know, they gave them that Lost Pines name for the exit, but the pines can't grow over there. They trucked a load in and had everybody out there planting them, schoolkids and all, but those pines need special soil."

See what I mean? Even behind the new stuff, there's a story.

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