In the 1870s, a group of German expats built an athletic club in the Texas Hill Country. In the current century, the property is home to Camp Comfort — a relaxed, rustic, and rural boutique hotel that’s ideal for the current moment.
It’s all too easy to see Texas as a monolith, a vast chunk of the American South, with Austin the oft-noted cultural exception. But nearly a hundred miles west of the capital, the tiny, unincorporated town of Comfort stands out just as much, itself set in a Hill Country region beloved for unexpected features like high-quality wineries and — in a phrase that could shock you if your Lone Star vision is all cowboy hats and cattle — rolling hills “evocative of Tuscany or the south of France.”
But in the 3,000-strong town of Comfort, it’s the German history that pops the most. If you really want to understand this place, you need to go back to the early 1840s — in Germany — when a society of nobles sought to create no less than a “new Germany on Texas soil.” Needless to say, there is no German state in Texas. And yet, over the next decade more than 7,000 Germans did arrive, seeking the promise of two concepts still associated with Texas: “great personal liberty” and “plentiful productive land.” Many settled in the Hill Country, and the strong German community that ensued has made this region, and Comfort in particular, an extremely distinct vintage of Texas.
At Camp Comfort, one of our favorite boutique hotels in the entire state, the connection to this history is in its very foundation. Dating to 1870, it’s on the site — and in the buildings — of a former turn verein. In essence, a German athletic club.
The first German settlers of Comfort wasted no time organizing their prized club. Founded just a handful of years after the town itself, they needed it not just to “fulfill a need for physical fitness,” as Camp Comfort owner Lisa Kelleher explains, but, crucially, for a sense of community among new immigrants in a strange land.
If you think that Austin stands out politically from the rest of Texas today, consider Comfort in the 1860s. The town, founded by German freethinkers, freemasons, political activists, and liberals, became a bloody flashpoint for Union sympathizers in a state deep within the Confederacy. Go today and you’ll find the oldest Civil War Monument in Texas, honoring some 40 locals who perished at the hands of the rebels as they rushed through enemy territory to join Union forces.
Fittingly, the Turn Verein Movement was not without a hint of these associated politics. While each turn verein served as a center for gymnastics and athletics, the American Turners — as a society — also “espoused a variety of controversial causes such as abolition and socialism.” Visit today and it’s with all this context in mind that you can imagine a group of Union-supporting Germans, deep in the aftermath of the Confederacy, defiantly building their clubhouse.
Lisa Kelleher and her husband, Mike, took over the property in 2018. But they weren’t the first hoteliers it seduced. Years earlier, another Lisa — Lisa Jenkins — and her husband, Phil, bought the space. Although they first operated it as a bar, they soon sensed the location’s perfect fit for an outdoorsy, campus-like bed and breakfast. They set about transforming it by hand. As the current owners will happily confess, much of the style at Camp Comfort today owes itself to the “creative genius” of Lisa Jenkins and her “master craftsman” husband.
“She has incredible vision,” Phil told a local Austin magazine about his wife. “All I do is try to build what she sees.” What she often saw was a stylish take on a camping experience, with chandeliers made from “wire and glass bottles, an homage to shuttlecocks and camp sports” and, as another reviewer gushed, metal reading lights that bring to mind something “you’d find at a 1940s campground.” Fire pits that pepper the courtyard, and a swimming hole provided by the adjacent Cyprus Creek, only complete the summer-camp-fantasy aesthetic.
The campus today consists of two historic buildings along with several cabins, an Airstream, and a fully furnished house next door that sleeps eight. Everywhere, as Kelleher describes, the style aims for “very rustic on the outside and surprisingly chic on the inside,” filled as rooms are with colorful modern furniture and luxuries, like air-jet tubs, that put the Comfort in the name. As for the historical buildings, one is the original turn verein — a large space that serves as the social hall, popular for weddings and private events but open too for guests to sit and, well, be social. The other is the former two-lane bowling alley, an addition to the original turn verein dating to 1910.
Indeed, in addition to bringing then-controversial concepts to Texas like abolition, the Turn Verein Movement also gifted more whimsical ones. Among them: nine-pin bowling. When the Jenkins finished their renovations, king beds and kitchens sat within four comfortable and appropriately-named “Alley Suites.”
The German legacy is everywhere to be found in Comfort, not least in the residents themselves — many of whom are the founders’ original descendants. Nearly a hundred historical buildings pepper the area, and the town center, some four blocks of gorgeous limestone structures, hosts several buildings preserved in the National Register of Historic Places.
Meanwhile, the three wineries in Comfort (and the must-visit Comfort Pizza) represent the less-historical developments in modern Hill Country. In fact, you can consider Comfort today something like the perfect distillation of everything on offer in the Hill Country around it, a region known not just for the history and the wine, but for the blooming landscape, bustling music scene, and plentiful opportunities for gorgeous vistas and hidden swimming holes.
In its current historical moment, Camp Comfort sees a particular influx of road-trippers from the many Texas cities in driving distance, pointing to its outdoor space and large property as ways to accommodate social distance. “The beautiful thing about Camp Comfort is how it is spaced out so our guests can interact within their family bubble,” general manager Randall Goldman told Tablet.
In other words, Camp Comfort’s not so unlike the original turn verein. “Our guests come here because they want to get away and spend quality time together.”
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When it’s time again to travel, if you’re considering a trip to Texas, be sure to consider staying at Camp Comfort, located in the Hill Country outside of Austin and San Antonio.