Texas History: Taking the long view from Monument Hill
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LA GRANGE — For a long time, I misunderstood Monument Hill.
Posted on a high sandstone bluff above the Colorado River overlooking the town of La Grange, this Texas State Historic Site contains a dignified vault, a tall monument, a well-tended old house with outbuildings and the ruins of a big stone brewery, along with walking and hiking trails and a shady picnic area that comes with a panoramic view.
It is not, as I blithely had assumed on my first visit as a child, dedicated to those who died during the Texas Revolutionary War. Rather, it honors the members of several later sorrowful military conflicts and executions during the period of the Republic, one of which prominently featured Texans from surrounding Fayette County. (More on those events later.)
The remains were reinterred at this charismatic spot in 1848 after Texas had joined the Union in a ceremony attended by U.S. Sen. Sam Houston and other dignitaries. A soaring art deco slab decorated with some rather fantastic low-relief figures was added to the renovated tomb in 1936 during the Texas Centennial.
A few dozen yards away, one finds the solidly built Kreische House, thoughtfully furnished and decorated with pieces that reflect how its residents lived during the mid-19th century. One can view the domestic arrangements from behind ropes while standing in the breezy exterior doorways at more than one level.
In a ravine below the house sit the extensive remains of the Kreische Brewery, which can be seen from a high viewing point or fairly close up, although with restrictions. One of the site’s trails heads out beyond the ruins into the forests and prairies.
Let’s get this out of the way: No beer is served on site, at least not in an official capacity.
All in all, Monument Hill and nearby La Grange make up the ideal Texas history trip during the pandemic: Open spaces with no necessary detours inside, except into welcome public restrooms. When I visited on a very warm October Sunday, everyone wore masks while in the vicinity of strangers.
Heading east from Austin, I stopped first at Back Porch BBQ, at the crossroads of U.S. 71 and U.S. 77, where I carried out a “Back Porch Sandwich.” This behemoth enclosed a mountain of sausage and brisket in a hefty bun for my planned Monument Hill picnic. I brought along my own brewery-themed refreshments.
From there, I headed south on U.S 77 to the Fayette County Courthouse, a handsome Romanesque Revival affair. The fine residents of the county have done history buffs a favor by placing marble slabs on the perimeter of the courthouse lawn to guide visitors through the history of the area, which includes Round Top, Flatonia, Schulenburg and other historic little towns.
Worth a stroll: The blocks around the courthouse square, fairly deserted on this day, accommodate numerous well-preserved homes, some from the Victorian Era, others from the early 20th century, with deep yards and gracious porches, many of them shaded by massive oak and pecan trees. I also stumbled on the old Fayette County Jail, an elaborate building, almost a little limestone palace, that now serves as the Texas Heroes Museum. According to its Facebook page, the museum is closed until further notice because of the pandemic.
Not far away, there’s the stunning St. James Episcopal Church, a miracle of 1880s Gothic Revival architecture rendered in the wooden “Stick style.”
One takes a narrow, winding stretch of U.S. 77 up to Monument Hill, which verges on a quiet neighborhood. A relatively small parking lot leads to a handy A-frame ranger station. A whole four bucks is required for adult admission, plus I had to purchase the $22 Monument Hill T-shirt. What Texas history buff wouldn’t?
Once in the well-tended park, most people head straight to the polychromatic tower, under which lies a stone crypt with a lot of history.
In 1848, the site was selected as a cemetery for the Texans who died in the Dawson Massacre (1842), along with the dead of the Texan Santa Fe (1841) and Mier (1842) expeditions, and those captured during Gen. Adrián Woll’s raid on San Antonio (1842). All of these conflicts between Mexico and Texas would take separate “Think, Texas” columns to explain in full.
During the Mexican-American War (1846-48), Texans had recovered their remains from prisons, execution sites and battlegrounds. The Handbook of Texas tell us: “A small tomb was built overlooking the river, and on Sept. 18, 1848, the remains were buried there with full military honors ...”
A year later, a German immigrant, Heinrich Kreische, purchased the acreage on the hill that included the gravesite. In 1860, he built a three-level commercial brewery, one of the first of its kind in Texas. Kreische died in 1882, and the business subsequently fell apart.
The tomb attracted vandalism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but eventually the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and, later, the Texas Historical Commission came to the rescue.
Munching on my sandwich among the well-spaced picnic tables, I was struck by how long the struggle between Mexican and Texan partisans actually lasted — by one loose calculation, more than two centuries.
Many people, when they wonder at all about it, think the primary conflict was confined to the period between Oct. 2, 1835, and the Battle of Gonzales and then it ended April 21, 1836, when Gen. Sam Houston defeated Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. Houston forced the Mexican leader to sign a treaty that granted Texas independence, but the deal was never really accepted in Mexico City, and blood continued to flow.
In truth, Tejanos and Texians, along with Native Americans and other allies, had rebelled against central Mexican authorities — sometimes honorably, sometimes not — going back for decades before this short war. In fact, the deadliest battle on Texas soil was the Battle of Medina on Aug. 18, 1813, when royalists and republicans duked it out while the land was still under Spanish rule, long before the Texas Revolutionary War.
After the revolution, the conflict continued intermittently, with both sides making forays across the border, followed by recriminations and mistreatment of prisoners. These conflicts culminated after statehood in the Mexican-American War, during which American troops drove deep into Mexico, defeated its forces and thereby demanded the northern third of that country in recompense.
It was far from over. Tensions on the border led to many more raids and skirmishes, especially during the Civil War (1861-65) and the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), to name just two of the bloodiest periods. One could argue that the subsequent tension and violence associated with immigration and drug trafficking have brought the now-centuries-old conflict right up to today.
Yet on this peaceful sandstone hill, the visitor could imagine a time when these old neighbors could find a way to live side by side, justly and forever.