Saved by the bell: Historic schoolhouses offer glimpse into Texas’ past
Step inside and glance back in time.
Window light flows down on rows of old wooden and metal desks — each desktop has an empty hole at the upper corner for an inkwell — with a chalkboard and a globe nearby. The scene looks like it could be from a museum photo of a bygone schoolhouse. But the small Williams Creek School, which hasn’t had students for more than a half-century, is still standing in Gillespie County. On a recent Saturday, a couple dozen visitors amble through this two-room schoolhouse that had its beginnings in the 1890s; classmates used to speak German, and for a short time, the future President Lyndon B. Johnson attended.
The building is among 17 historic schools — from one-room schoolhouses to a dogtrot building with a bell up top — that are part of the Gillespie County Country Schools Driving Trail. Each is a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, which helps celebrate the schools’ rural roots in the Hill Country, said Jane Woellhof, a director-at-large of the nonprofit Friends of Gillespie County Country Schools. As well, the schools illustrate the German influence in the area.
During periodic open houses, one or more schools are open for history enthusiasts and others to get a look-see. The locations rotate, and the schedule is available on the website historicschools.org (where a map for the driving trail can also be found). However, “Sometimes you just drop by and somebody is there and you can visit,” Woellhof said. A few schoolhouses — such as one at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park — have more regular hours.
The schools draw sightseers because “people want to be attached to the past. They want to know, and they want their children to know,” Woellhof said. “The schools really were the place of the community.” The schools attract all kinds of visitors. “A lot of people like to tell us if they went to a country school,” Woellhof said.
At the recent open house at the Williams Creek School, Woellhof welcomed folks inside the building, which has its original bell. A bit later, her husband, Ron Woellhof, took a long pole with a hook to reach a rope dangling from the ceiling.
Clang, clang. The bell rang.
Stretched across the front of a classroom, a long, colorful “painted school stage curtain” — as she called it — hangs where students would participate in programs. Such a curtain required the help of school kids to operate it, and “that was an honor,” Jane Woellhof said. The curtain’s bright hues mostly depict advertisements for old businesses, such as Stroeher & Son, which is still in operation, she said.
“Some schools weren’t this well built,” said Woellhof, pointing to large limestone blocks. “This is a good-size school.”
Another part of the dogtrot school’s exterior is also made of tin, with a texture resembling bricks. Elsewhere on the school grounds, a wood outhouse sits, with two diamond-shaped holes near the top.
Johnson attended during the 1920-1921 school year, and “he was considered an outsider because he was not German like most of the students, and he was teased because he rode a donkey to school,” according to a brochure for the school.
Ada Wilke, 82, attended the school as a youngster, until it closed about 70 years ago, she said. “The school looks the same as what it was then,” she said. Her cousin was a teacher, and “my dad went to school there in 1902.”
A quick walk nearby is the Albert Ice House and Dance Hall, which has its own history. Built in 1922, the dance hall still offers frequent live music shows in this tiny community of Albert (which has sometimes been referred to as a ghost town).
The trail’s entire route, roughly 120 miles, curves around narrow roads in and around Fredericksburg and small communities such as Willow City, Crabapple and Luckenbach. Travelers and locals might also stop at school locations that aren’t open and peek in the windows at items such as old wood-burning stoves, wood floors or a framed picture of Abraham Lincoln that outfit some of these notable sites.
Visitors from the Austin area can fill the day, driving an hour and a half or so to Gillespie County, then jaunting from school to school. While gadding around, they can perhaps add stops at some historic churches, as well as at wineries and vineyards in the area.
The lucky ones who make the trip on a cool, clear day can gaze out at the long vistas, with trees abounding, to see hay bales and windmills. Perhaps they will catch sight of a llama or other animals, too. Traveling some steep, two-lane roads, they can feel firsthand why areas around there are called the Hill Country.
The driving trail map shows routes between the schools, which are divided into groups, to perhaps plan a driving tour in more manageable chunks. Also on the website is a modified map for bicyclists with the stamina and leg power to pedal their way around the schools.
Two women have driven the entire route and visited each school in one day — Christmas Day — a few years ago, Jane Woellhof said. “They told us it took six and a half hours,” she said. “They just wanted to check out the schools.”
More than 10,000 visitors total came to the school open houses in 2018, Jane Woellhof said. The next open house is at the Cave Creek School on Feb. 15.
Group tours can also be arranged by making contact through the historicschools.org website, she said; in addition, 12 of the schools also serve as community centers and can also be rented out for weddings and other occasions.
Not far from the Williams Creek School, at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, is the one-room Junction School, which is open during park hours. It has been restored to look as it did in 1912. Inside, onlookers can peer at rows of wooden seats attached to the desks behind them, and wooden double doors for an entryway.
Its noteworthy history includes not only the fact that Johnson attended there. In addition, in 1965, the president poetically said, “Education is the only valid passport from poverty,” and signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the school, accompanied by his first teacher, according to historicschools.org.
Outside the small structure, built near the Pedernales River, visitors on a pretty day might breathe deeply and take in a sweeping view.
Another country school on the trail can land visitors in Luckenbach, a semi-famous community known from a song performed by Waylon Jennings. The understated school — where kids during recess played Stink Base and Drop the Hankie, according to the driving trail brochure — is on a quiet road away from the livelier part of Luckenbach.
However, after a quick hop over to the epicenter of the community, music lovers and others can find a few sites such as a Kissing Booth and outdoor stage — with license plates hanging all over. Of course, this treasured offbeat area features lots of live music.
The brochure for the driving trail gives anecdotes about the school days back then. At the small Lower South Grape Creek School, built around 1901, kids put on Christmas plays, with Santa Claus giving out fruit and candy. “One year, his beard caught on fire. He quickly exited through the window and headed for the water well,” it says.
While these schools might not receive the same attention as other attractions in the area, they are hidden gems. With an emphasis on culture and heritage these days, folks are appreciating the schools even more, said Amanda Koone, director of communications for the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor Bureau.
“One of my favorite things to do is get one of their driving maps and, during wildflower season, use that to see flowers while on the driving trail,” Koone said. “It’s beautiful.”
The schools offer a good chance for folks to “compare and contrast” how education was done back then versus how it is done now, said Richard Lewis, board member of the Country School Association of America. “You learn from that.”
The association is a “nonprofit national organization dedicated to preserving memories of country schools and promoting scholarship about the early American educational experience,” according to its website.
Adding just a little extra mileage to a tour of schools, visitors can travel a small circuit to see historic churches, such as Trinity Lutheran Church, near the Junction School. The white-and-grayish church, which still holds services, has a humble but majestic presence, with a cross-topped spire reaching skyward.
The church’s Recorded Texas Historic Landmark sign boasts of its Gothic revival style of architecture and says “the church features fine details in its arched window and door openings, Gothic steeple, and original pressed metal siding.” The current structure was built in 1928, it says.
Sightseers to the area also might notice that numerous vineyards and wineries are clustered like grapes between stops. More than 40 wineries and tasting rooms can be found within Gillespie County, according to the visitor bureau website; various wine tours — with transportation, from limousines to shuttles — are available.
After a day of touring schoolhouses, a place such as Narrow Path Winery and Vineyard can bring guests back to modern-day life, with a sleek building that has tall windows. Wine sippers can relax on cushioned outdoor seating as they admire the expanse of vineyard land.
From schools to churches to wineries, visitors might not get to see everything in one outing. On the trip back — to home and to the present day — travelers might wonder when they can schedule another excursion to see the rest.