Life’s lessons learned in Winedale
By LONN TAYLOR
Last week I made a trip to Winedale, Texas. If you don’t know where Winedale is I’m not surprised. It is an unincorporated community on FM 2714 in Fayette County, four miles from the incorporated town of Round Top, which has a population of seventy and is on SH 237 between La Grange and Brenham. On a larger scale, Winedale is almost exactly halfway between Austin and Houston.
In 1940 Winedale had two stores, a filling station, a tinsmith shop, and a cotton gin. All of those businesses were run by members of the Wagner family, who lived in a big two-story frame house behind one of the stores. By the time I moved there in 1970 the community was down to one store and a filling station, and the Wagner house, which was built in the 1840s, had become part of a University of Texas historic site and conference center, of which I was the curator. Today there is nothing there but the historic site and conference center, and the historic site is open only by appointment.
I learned the most important lesson of my life at Winedale. I was a city boy, raised by parents who were college graduates and followed professional careers. I thought that all smart people had gone to college and lived in cities. At Winedale all of my neighbors were German farmers and most of them had only gone to school through the seventh grade, because until the 1950s if you wanted to go to high school you had to go to Brenham or La Grange and arrange to board with a family there during the week. Emil Bunjes, who lived down the road, had finished the seventh grade and drove a bulldozer for the county. He collected antique clocks, had an extensive library on clocks, and went to a clock collectors’ convention in Europe every year. Kermit Noak finished the seventh grade at the one-room Haw Creek School and could build anything that could be built out of wood. He taught me how a carpenter’s square can be used to calculate the angle of rafters, using the Pythagorean Theorem. Rosalie Hinze finished the seventh grade at the Winedale School. She had a library that included German editions of Goethe and Schiller, which she could quote from at length.
I learned a lot of things at the Winedale store, too. Beer was sold there, and on Friday and Saturday nights the local farmers and their wives would gather to play dominoes and gossip. Sometimes the older men would play a complicated German card game called skat, in which the rules depended on what cards various players held. One of the regulars was a schoolteacher named Wayne Nuetzler, who liked to propose puzzles for the other customers to solve. One night I came in to find everyone gathered around a table at which Wayne was sticking toothpicks into an arched strip of cardboard to prove that it did not take more fence posts to build a fence over a hill than it did to build one the same length over level ground. Another evening I arrived to find a crowd standing around an old balance scale on the front porch with a live fish in a bucket of water sitting on it because the topic of the evening had been whether a fish weighed more in the water or out of the water. Everyone had a bottle of beer in one hand and no one could figure out how to weigh the water.
There was a whole cycle of country store stories that got told at the Winedale store. My favorite was about the days when feed and flour were put up in sacks that were printed with patterns and could be used to make dresses from when they were empty. The customer always wanted the sack on the bottom of the stack because that one was his wife’s dress pattern.
Barbara White, who now manages the historic site for the University of Texas, told me a variant on that story when I was there last week. Her father owned a feed store on the outskirts of Houston when she was a little girl, and he was perplexed by the fact that the customer always wanted the sack on the bottom. However, he found a solution. He learned that the sacks were made by the Bemis Bag Company in Neenah, Wisconsin, and he ordered a pallet load of them at five cents a sack. When they arrived, he put six-year old Barbara in the store window to spread them out so that all of the patterns were visible, and they sold like hotcakes at ten cents a sack. Customers could then buy a sack of feed and, for an extra dime, their wives could get their dress patterns without having to wait for the sack to be emptied.
White tells me that among her duties at Winedale is fielding requests for directions to Leon Hale’s home. The popular Houston Chronicle columnist has a farm near Winedale and frequently mentions Winedale in his columns. White says that at least once a week someone will drive up to the historic site office and ask how to get to Hale’s farm . She is protective of the columnist’s privacy and always says something like, “I know it’s around here but I have never been there myself and I’m afraid I can’t tell you how to find it.” She says that satisfies most people, but not long ago an insistent inquirer told her that he had an appointment with Hale, and when she could not provide directions asked her for his phone number. She thought it odd that he would have an appointment but not know the phone number, and when she questioned him he admitted that he did not really have an appointment. But, he said, “Leon sounds so open and friendly in his column I know he’d be happy just to sit on his porch and visit with me.”
White withheld the phone number, but when she told Hale about the visit he said, “Why, he should have looked in the phone book. I’d have been happy to see him.”
Hale turned 90 last year and his wife, Babette, threw a birthday party for him in Round Top. Six hundred people showed up. I wish I had been there. He is one of my heroes. By the way, my 90th birthday will be January 22, 2030. I hope my readers will keep that date in mind.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk