In Fredericksburg, Texas, the bets are on the best deals

March 10, 1996|By Toni Stroud | Toni Stroud,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

FREDERICKSBURG, Texas -- The biggest difference between Fredericksburg's Main Street and the Las Vegas Strip is the nature of the wagers.

OK, so there's not a single slot machine in this heart-of-the-Hill-Country hamlet. But what about the clink-clink-clink at the costume-jewelry counters? No smooth green felt of blackjack tables; no trance-inducing roulette strategy. Ah, but there's the rough homespun of hand-loomed rugs, the catalepsy of deciding just which among a dozen porcelain pillboxes is the prettiest.

Sure, Fredericksburg's historic, hand-hewn limestone storefronts, many dating to the mid-1800s, seem a lot tamer than the Neon Jungle. There are pecan trees instead of palms, cattle trucks instead of limos. But let me tell you, the same lust of the deal that bankrolls Vegas also has Fredericksburg in its grasp.

It's just that here, it all works because of this female-bonding narcotic called shopping, which promises its addicts that the hand-blown decorative bottle of whole pickled carrots in tarragon-poppy seed vinegar will be found at "the very next" store.

Small bets on bread-and-butter gifts and stocking stuffers and something to bring back for the men so as not to feel guilty these pass the time between jackpots.

I mean, this is a town of 7,000 that has more than 200 bed and

breakfasts, so that it takes three or four agencies just to handle the reservations. Some go for as much as a hotel room in Vegas $120 a night is not uncommon.

Of course, none of them is in a pyramid. But what about the one that's inside a brew pub? Or the one above the hamburger joint? Some of the others are in what they call Sunday houses, an institution wholly and uniquely Fredericksburgian. These small, one-room townhouses are part of Fredericksburg's German patrimony, and were built at the turn of the century so that farm families could stay "at home" whenever they came to town to attend church and (I knew I was right about this) to "buy supplies."

See? This has been a shopper's town for a really long time. Too bad they didn't realize it even earlier, back when Fort Martin Scott, the first of the state's frontier Army posts, was in business. Fredericksburg was such a quiet tour of duty that the enlisted men had little to keep them occupied, soldiering-wise.

If the Army had really been planning ahead, it would have set the troops to doing something truly useful, like making horseshoes into picture frames (they go for $15.95 apiece at some of the stores), or making up the batches of potpourri that are required ++ stock at every gift shop in town.

But because they had time on their hands, the soldiers would from time to time get into a fracas at one of the bars. Which just goes to show that if you're going to have men hanging around in a girl-trip kind of town, they'll get bored without something to do.

Anticipating such a problem, Fredericksburg cleverly circumvented it with its own type of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" solution museums scattered the length of Main Street:

At one end is the Admiral Nimitz Museum and Historical Center. This place is named for the same Nimitz who headed the world's largest sea armada ever. (And if that's not manly, then what is?) He was born just down Main Street in one of the buildings-with-historical-markers they have so many of here. Yes, the birthplace is a bed and breakfast, too.

Guys like the museum because part of the building is shaped like a steamboat and because they can lose themselves among the indoor, outdoor, upstairs, out-back, down-the-block exhibits, centerpiece of which is a World War II time line of the war in the Pacific. The Pearl Harbor room, for example, displays a hatchway door from the USS Arizona.

In its own way, the Nimitz Museum is as hard to pull away from as the neighboring shops; that's why they'll let you return, after lunch or a night's sleep, as long as you hang onto your $3 ticket stub.

At about Main Street's halfway point is the reconstructed Vereins Kirche, which houses local memorabilia; $1 if you want to have a look. Its octagonal design has become the symbol of Fredericksburg; the original version was a church house that used to stand right in the middle of the street.

At the other end is the Pioneer Museum, part of it located in a house that's on the National Register of Historic Places. The $3 admission to the complex includes a one-room schoolhouse, displays of horse-drawn fire engines, a two-room log cabin and a Sunday house. In the main building are displayed many items brought by German immigrants from the old country almost 150 years ago: beer steins, jam jars, dolls and elaborate tobacco pipes figure among the collections.

What the museums and the shops have in common, of course, are their hours of operation count on most of them being open from 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m., which leaves the nights wide open for German food.

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