Downtown Art, Texas
Downtown Art, Texas (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Art, Texas, is more a state of mind than a place. Texas 29 between Llano and Mason is lined with a jungle of mesquite trees and prickly pear that is broken by occasional fields and pastures that tame the wild hills. In such a harsh environment, Art has managed to hang on for more than 150 years.

"It's pleasant," is how La Verne Lee describes the rolling landscape of eastern Mason County. "It's not fabulous scenery, but it's very pleasant." Large oak trees break the sun-baked land and cool the country breeze. Besides operating the ranch that has been in her family since 1860, Lee welcomes guests to stay in the family homestead on the outskirts of Art.

The old German settlement could easily qualify as just a wide spot in the highway, except for the history that has taken place here. What was once a prosperous community has slowly dwindled down to the old general store that has been turned into a restaurant, a post office in an aluminum building that has the character of a luxury doublewide, a red brick Methodist church whose steeple towers above the chaparral, and a cemetery with more headstones than the town has residents.

In the waning days of the Republic, before Texas joined the Union, the area between the Llano and San Saba rivers was part of a land grant sold to German immigrants. As they migrated westward, the Germans created the towns of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg. The arid lands of what became Mason County proved to be a little more difficult to tame.

As inviting as the cheap land was to European settlers, the open spaces had hidden drawbacks. Agriculture proved difficult, because the rocky soil was not conducive to the type of farming brought from the Continent. But the biggest problem with the land was that it was the domain of the Kiowa, Lipan Apache, and Comanche, who were not interested in sharing their hunting grounds with interlopers.

By 1851, Fort Mason and a string of frontier outposts pushed the Indians farther west. Although the Army's presence helped open the land to settlers, it did not quiet the violence. German- and English-speaking factions eventually erupted into what was called the Mason County War or Hoo Doo War.

"It was basically an ethnic conflict," Lee says with her usual understatement. "What happened depends upon who's telling the story."

According to most history books, the battle began when nine Germans were arrested for stealing American-born ranchers' cattle. On Feb. 18, 1875, a mob of 40 men took five of the rustlers to a spring north of the Art General Store and hung them from an oak tree. Revenge and retaliation turned the county into the Wild West with bushwhacking, gunfights, and mob violence. "It lasted long enough for plenty of people to get killed and a few hung," Lee says.

By the fall of 1876, peace was established in the county by two units of the Texas Rangers. Historians estimate that more than a dozen cattlemen died, but all records relating to the feud were destroyed when the county courthouse burned in 1877.

Through it all, the Art General Store was a meeting place and supply station for German settlers along the Llano River. By 1886, the cluster of buildings comprising the general merchandise and feed store, the school, the post office, and two churches was known as Plehweville after the proprietor, Otto Plehwe. The name was changed in 1920, to the last three letters of Eli Dechart's last name to avoid confusion with Pflugerville.

The store continued as a supply station for area ranchers and travelers until 1999, when Randy Gaulding turned the two mercantile buildings into the Hoo Doo Cafe. The roadhouse diner on TX 29 preserves the historical character and charm of the old buildings while offering food and live music. The cafe is open Thursday, 5-9pm; Friday and Saturday, 5-10pm; and Sunday, noon-7pm. For information, call 325/347-5087.

La Verne Lee's Hasse House Ranch bed and breakfast has two bedrooms and two miles of hiking trails on a 320-acre working ranch. For information, call 325/347-6463 or 888/414-2773. See pictures of the two-story rock house.

639th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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