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Small-town vibes

What's there to see and do in little Rockne, Texas?

Carolyn Lindell Special to the American-Statesman
Ovon Goertz by the baptismal font at the Rockne Museum, which draws visitors from all over. [Contributed by Carolyn Lindell]

A mustache cup. A hog scraper. An outhouse.

In the small community of Rockne, in Bastrop County, visitors to local sites can see such reminders of times gone by.

The main road of Rockne is along a stretch of FM 535. There, the Rockne Museum draws visitors from all over; the guest book lists travelers from Texas cities as well as Louisville, Ky., Milwaukee, Wisc., and farther away.

“The majority of visitors who are not local are just driving by and see the sign and stop in,” said museum manager Ovon Goertz, 80, who graciously leads visitors around the large room that holds much area history. “I’ve had a number of people come from Europe.”

The museum in Hilbig Park is operated by the Rockne Historical Association, Goertz said, adding that it is free to tour Tuesdays through Saturdays (and by appointment).

From Austin, the roughly 45-minute trip to Rockne offers a scenic way to help drivers de-frazzle from hectic city thoroughfares. A gentle roller coaster of hills on FM 20 can usher visitors into the area through a picturesque, tree-draped two-lane road.

The town had a few previous names, starting with Walnut Creek, then Lehman and Hilbigville, according to a Texas Historical Commission marker near Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

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“In 1931,” the marker says, “the children of Sacred Heart School renamed the town in honor of Knute Rockne,” football coach at the University of Notre Dame, “who had died in a plane crash earlier that year.”

The kids had been given a choice of two names: poet Joyce Kilmer or Knute Rockne, Goertz said; the vote was a tie, and the kids voted again the next day. “One little girl changed her vote to Knute Rockne,” she said.

In his honor, a bust of Rockne adorns a lovely garden area in front of the museum. Inside the one-room museum, sightseers can see many artifacts, both quaint and obscure.

“Have you ever seen a mustache cup?” asked Clara White, 76, who grew up in Rockne, showing a cup with a partial covering across the top. “It keeps the liquid off their mustache.”

Visitors can also see a wooden crank phone, accordions and a homemade mattress, along with a large mattress needle.

“People didn’t throw things away,” Goertz said.

One corner of the museum has ornate church items that were removed when the church was remodeled in the 1970s, Goertz said.

“We were both baptized at this (baptismal) font,” said White, who now lives in Austin.

These days, Goertz said, the town has a population of about 250 families, based on the membership at the Catholic church, which serves as a focal point for the community.

“Everything is around the Catholic church,” she said.

Goertz, who grew up in Rockne, uses a long pointer to show visitors the names and dates on a timeline that chronicles the local history. By the 1850s, it was a town of German Catholics, she said. Several surnames — such as Goertz, Lehman and Hilbig — crop up numerous times in the telling of Rockne’s past, which could cause confusion. Fortunately, local genealogy and other information was compiled into a book titled “Rockne”; it’s the go-to source for locals who may check in the book to see if they are related “to see if they can date,” White said.

Also in Hilbig Park are structures generally referred to as Pioneer Village, with an outhouse, a corn crib, a barn, a smokehouse and a couple of cabins. Various rooms in the cabins re-create life from an earlier era, with furnishings such as a spinning wheel. And, of course, “everybody had a pie safe,” she said.

Displayed next to a cotton fluffer is a hog scraper. “Whenever they would kill a hog, they would dip it in hot water and then scrape it to get all that hair off,” Goertz said.

One side of a dogtrot log cabin, circa 1860, has its original logs, Goertz said.

In front of the buildings is an open space. “In the spring, it’s a beautiful place,” she said, adding that it’s not unusual to drive by and see people out there taking pictures.

Farther up the road, by the church, is the Sacred Heart Catholic Cemetery. John Lehman donated the land for the church, as well as the cemetery, White said.

“He was the first one to be buried in that cemetery,” White said. “I don’t think he (expected) that when he donated it.”

Nearby, visitors who want to linger later in the day can head over to Leon’s Country Store, which is open in the afternoons and runs on into the nights (closed Mondays), according to the sign posted outside.

It’s more of a social gathering spot than a store, offering beer, pool tables, some live music and a jukebox, said manager Carol Jenkins.

“For $5 you get 30 songs,” she said. It plays “everything you can think of,” from Elvis Presley to Elton John to Ernest Tubb, she said.

“Friday nights and Saturday nights, we get a nice crowd” of mostly locals, she said, but “we welcome newcomers.”

Hungry visitors can also check out the Red Rock Steakhouse and Saloon in the town of Red Rock a few miles away. The building was originally a general store in Elroy, but it was moved to Red Rock, said co-owner Rose Henderson.

“We didn’t change anything,” Henderson said. “The bins for flour and sugar and beans are all still there. Still the same hardwood floor, same ceilings.” However, electricity was added, she said, and “we built the saloon adjoining it.”

Rockne hosts regular events throughout the year, such as an End of Summer Car Show, put on by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2527, a spring festival and an annual Homecoming Parade and Bazaar.

“Believe me, Rockne has a lot of celebrations,” White said. “They always have something going on here.”