"We're diversified," says store owner Ronnie Wenzel with considerable understatement. The store is a throwback to the days when locally owned roadside shops selling homemade cider, preserves, produce, and arts and crafts used to dot the nation's highways, providing motorists a place to use the restrooms, stretch their legs, and lighten their wallets.
In fact, the Hidden Valley Country Store began nearly 40 years ago as a roadside produce stand. "Johnny Harris had a place down around here where he raised pecans, persimmons, and he had some blackberries and peaches," Wenzel says. "Johnny bought a building, more of a lean-to, and moved it out to the highway to sell his produce."
Business must have been good for Harris over the 25 years that he owned the place because he added on six of the rooms in a line parallel to the highway to hold his expanding line of merchandise.
Since obtaining the store 15 years ago, Wenzel says the biggest addition to the store is the deli, bakery, and butcher shop in the back of the store. "We make a mean Rueben sandwich," he says. They also grind the wheat which they get from an organic farmer near Lampasas for their homemade baked goods and breads.
One of the most unusual items in the shop is the bison sausage and jerky that is made on the property from Wenzel's own herd of the shaggy bovines. "I work seven days a week in retail to raise my bison," he says.
Wenzel has only been in the bison business for about three years, but it is his favorite part of the business. "I'm just an old German boy who loved to sneak into the smokehouse and cut off a piece of meat," he says. The fond memories inspired him to build his own smokehouse. His smoked meats are a blend of spices that will seldom offend and usually satisfy most any palate.
As if smoked meats and homemade bread weren't enough to keep the staff at the Country Store business, then the homemade candies should keep everyone working overtime. The Dutchman's fudge and peanut brittle inspire many customers to drive out of their way just to stop by for a package to take home. A candy distributor in Oklahoma and a TV shopping network in Florida both wanted to sell the candies, but Wenzel didn't want the added work. "You get too big too fast, and you get strung out and forget about the little things that make life worth living," Wenzel says. Flattered by the out-of-state companies' offer, he turned them both down. "I'd rather stay small and stay good," he says.
Wenzel and one of his sons have opened a candy store in nearby Hico where they make the candy and specialize in hand-dipped truffles. Called the Wiseman House, the chocolate and collectable dealership is in a 96-year-old Victorian house that was owned by Hico's first photographer.
On any given day, you will probably find Ronnie Wenzel behind the cash register near the big windows overlooking the highway and the restrooms that have attracted many a traveler to his unique store. If it's not Ronnie greeting the customers as they come and go then it will probably be his mother, one of two sons, or a daughter-in-law. The Dutchman's Hidden Valley Country Store is a family affair.
For Ronnie Wenzel, the best part of his job is meeting the diverse crowd of people that step into his store. On US281, also known as the Veterans Memorial Highway, the road is the scenic alternative to I-35, running from Canada to the Rio Grande. Most of the road is two-lane and traffic moves at a slower pace. "We use more than 100 rolls of toilet paper a month," Wenzel says, as a measurement of how good business is.
Toys, antiques, kitchen utensils, souvenirs, knick-knacks, and homemade candy are just some of the things on Wenzel's shelves. He has one whole wall filled with nothing but Texas products from prickly pear pickles to fresh clover honey. There is always a fresh pot of coffee on and it's okay to stop just to use the restroom and say howdy.
The Dutchman's Hidden Valley Country Store is a little more than three miles north of Hamilton, about 115 miles north of Austin and 70 miles west of Waco. The store is open seven days a week, 10am-6pm weekdays and 9am-6pm Friday-Sunday. To have them ship some bison sausage to you or a friend, call 254/386-3018.
Coming up this weekend...
Republic of Texas Chilympiad winner Terry Massey of Joshua, Texas, will be defending his 1996 championship at the "biggest chili cookoff in the world" at the Hays County Civic Center south of San Marcos, Sept. 19-20. 512/396-5400 or http://www.axiom.net/chilympiad.
A Gathering of Glass Show will include some of the 60 artists exhibiting their work at Sable V Fine Art Galley in Wimberley, Sept. 20. 512/847-8975.
Lone Star Weekend Aloft Balloon Festival at Old Settler's Park on TX79 east of Round Rock rounds up transportation-related shows plus lots of fun, Sept. 19-21 or http://www.grfxdude.com/lswa.
State Fair of Texas began in 1886 at Dallas' Fair Park and this year continues nightly Sept. 26-Oct. 19. 214/421-8716 or http://www.texfair.com.
Plum Creek Bluegrass Festival in Groesbeck invites national and regional groups for a weekend of music, Sept. 25-27. 254/729-3702.