Pending Development Imperils Luckenbach TX Name and Spirit (Updated)

photo: Hot Furnace

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a statement from Stewart Skloss of Luckenbach Road Whiskey. Please see bottom after the original article for full statement.

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It isn’t just an unincorporated community, or a tourist destination spot, or even a music venue. Luckenbach TX is a state of mind. Anyone who has ever been there, and the many artists who have played on its outdoor stage or inside the legendary dance hall over the years will vouch for that.

Luckenbach TX is one of the most authentic and revered slices of Texas culture that has remained remarkably static and unspoiled over the years, and vows to remain so for generations to come, even as development encroaches ever closer in the increasingly populated Texas Hill Country west of Austin, and north of San Antonio.

It was the song “Luckenbach TX (Back to the Basics of Love)” written by Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons, and recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1977 that became a #1 hit and had many people who had never even been to Texas learning how to pronounce the German name. Along with Jerry Jeff Walker recording his iconic live album Viva Terlingua! there in 1973, (and Viva Luckenbach! in 1994), it helped put Luckenbach TX on the map in country music and beyond.

But a new development, distillery, and whiskey brand moving into the area right outside of the Hill Country town of Fredericksburg offers the potential to threaten that peaceful state of mind Luckenbach TX has been able to preserve for over 50 years.

“All of this is so antithetical to everything Luckenbach is about,” says Kit Patterson, who is the President of Luckenbach TX Inc., and the grandson of Luckenbach founder Hondo Crouch. “I preface everything I have to say by saying that, because it’s difficult to spend the time, energy, and resources to even talk about it, because Luckenbach is a Texas state of mind, and it’s a logic free, stress free zone. But when it comes to threatening that space, we take it seriously. That is what this is about, taking it seriously, and dealing with it to protect Luckenbach.”

A general store and saloon was first opened on the property back in 1849 by Minna Engel. Like so much of the area, it was settled by German immigrants. The community was first called Grape Creek, with the name “Gap Creek” being the literal German translation of “Luckenbach.” The town was later named for Minna Engel’s husband, Carl Albert Luckenbach.

By the early 1900’s nearly 500 people lived in Luckenbach, but by the 1960s, it was virtually a ghost town. This led to Hondo Crouch purchasing the 9-acre property after answering the advertisement of “Town, pop. 3, for sale” in 1970. He purchased Luckenbach for $30,000. A folklorist and rancher by trade, Hondo Crouch was considered a mix between Will Rogers and Peter Pan, and it was his vision that led to Luckenbach becoming such a unique place. When Waylon sang about it in 1977, he’d never even been there. But Luckenbach’s reputation preceded it, thanks in part to it’s connections with country music.

“Really it’s Hondo’s spirit that prevails, and what I try to protect at Luckenbach,” says Kit Patterson.

But Luckenbach is not officially a town. Even it’s post office was decommissioned in 1971. It is a privately-owned business and property that like any other incorporated concern has trademarks and rights to protect, and concerns for what its neighbors might do, and how that might affect the doings of Luckenbach in the future. That is why the owners, operators, and patrons of Luckenbach are openly concerned about a 100+ acre development going in at the corner of Hwy. 290 and Luckenbach Rd., right where traffic from Austin turns off on their way to Luckenbach.

Luckenbach TX itself is not under the threat of being bought out or bulldozed, at least not at the moment. The concern is more about a big brand and development that is looking to co-opt the trademark-protected “Luckenbach” name for a major distillery property in a way that will take what Luckenbach means to so many people and transform it, while potentially shading out Luckenbach itself as tourists mistake the new property for the real Luckenbach.

Frontier Spirits, which is the company that created Pura Vida Tequila, has purchased the 117-acre parcel at the corner of Hwy. 290 and Luckenbach Rd., and plans to build the 28,000 square ft. Luckenbach Road Whiskey Distillery on the property, which will be the flagship for their Luckenbach Road Whiskey. Long-term plans also are rumored to include hotels, helipads, a Harley-Davidson dealership, housing developments, chain restaurants, a music venue, a recording studio, along with other retail.

Artist rendering of Luckenbach Road Whiskey Distillery via The Davies Collaborative

Traveling through the Texas Hill Country—especially on Hwy 290 from Austin to Luckenbach—the once rural area is now dotted with similar developments often incorporating winery and distillery concepts, appealing to tourists and upscale consumers from Austin’s now tech heavy and affluent population for weddings, corporate retreats, and other events.

Frontier Spirits chairman and founder Stewart Skloss initially approached Luckenbach to do a licensing deal for the Luckenbach name. According to Kit Patterson of Luckenbach, it just didn’t feel like a good fit for Luckenbach, so they declined. Incidentally, Luckenbach did pair with Balcones Whiskey in Waco, TX to make an exclusive whiskey to officially commemorate Luckenbach starting in 2021, so there is a whiskey out there bearing the Luckenbach name with permission.

When the deal between Frontier Spirits and Luckenbach didn’t materialize, the company instead decided to incorporate the term “Luckenbach Road,” trying to piggyback off the Luckenbach name, but hoping to avoid any trademark issues since their upcoming distillery complex is located on Luckenbach Road itself.

“So there’s these two Luckenbach whiskeys out there, and it’s created a lot of confusion,” says Kit Patterson. “And then there’s this development that is going on just two or three miles of us. Their whole thing is to have an entertainment venue, recording studio, distillery, hotels, mutli-housing development, and all of this is based on raising money on this thing based on the name ‘Luckenbach.’ He thought we were making a big mistake by not partnering with him. He was going to be busing people down to the Luckenbach General Store. It was just a soul-less proposal. It was just big, and nothing we were interest in.”

As for Frontier Spirits and its founder Stewart Skloss, big is certainly what they are going for. In their August 2021 announcement of the distillery property, they tout, “Frontier Spirits is working with three different architecture firms to build the facility: Kentucky-based Joseph & Joseph + Bravura Architects, Austin-based placemaking specialists The Davies Collaborative, and Napa Valley-based winery designer Loren Kroger. 

“What we’re building is what’s called a five-generation build, and it’s a build that will last 100 years,” Skloss says in the announcement.

The announcement also emphasizes the company’s ties to the region, and the efforts they will be looking to undertake to make sure the development is done in a respectful manner. “We have taken extra special attention to make sure the architecture is local architecture,” Skloss says in the press release, while also assuring they want it to be a family-friendly distillery, despite adult beverages being the centerpiece of the development.

Frontier Spirits chairman and founder Stewart Skloss will serve the same whiskey recipe created by his third-great-grandfather, Heinrich (Henry) Ochs, for the Buckhorn Saloon in Fredericksburg,” the press release states. Skloss goes on to say, “When I read what old newspapers and historical books have to say about my ancestors, it’s clear they left a profound legacy of good spirit, good cheer, good deeds and good products. I can’t think of a more compelling legacy to uphold as we prepare to open Luckenbach Road Whiskey Distillery’s doors.

Saving Country Music reached out to the Luckenbach Road Whiskey Distillery via phone and email to attempt to receive direct comment on the dispute with Luckenbach TX, but those requests were not responded to.

“The people are more important than any product you have to offer,” says Luckenbach’s Kit Patterson. “At Luckenbach, it’s less is more, it’s staying connected with people. Yes, Luckenbach is small, and damn we love it. We can make friends in a much more intimate space, and just trying to preserve that intimacy and what people love about Luckenbach in the first place.”

Luckenbach—which is little more than a General Store, dance hall, outdoor stage, and a few outbuildings—may not have much control over the encroaching growth in the area that each year is making the property a little less intimate and secluded. But they do have control over their trademarks, and have taken legal action to attempt to get Frontier Spirits to cease the use of the Luckenbach name for the company’s new distillery, development, and whiskey.

The likelihood of confusion for consumers is what Luckenbach and their legal team are out to prove. The fact that the company first attempted to gain permission before deciding to add “Road” to the name may help in Luckenbach’s cause. So might the fact that Frontier Spirits’ Pura Vida Tequila has been accused of attempting to piggy back off the popularity of another brand before.

In 2012, the Pura Vida Tequila Company LLC—which is part of Frontier Spirits—was handed an injunction by U.S. District Judge David Godbey that banned the company from importing an orange liqueur called “Controy.” The judge found in his 22-page order that the name, bottle shape, and bottle label of Controy infringed on the trademark of the famous orange liqueur called “Cointreau” that had first registered for trademark in 1935, and was the 2nd most popular orange liqueur by sales volume in the United States. Pura Vida’s “Controy” with it’s very similar looking bottle and name was trying to capitalize off of Cointreau’s popularity, the judge concluded.

A very similar concern is what prevails in the Luckenbach case. It’s plausible to believe that consumers may purchase Luckenbach Road Whiskey believing it’s licensed by Luckenbach TX, just as tourists driving from Austin may stop at the new Luckenbach Road Whiskey distillery complex believing they’ve arrived at Luckenbach TX.

“My greatest challenge is progress,” says Kit Patterson. “We’ve got to come into the 21st Century. We’ve got plumbing now. But again, less is more. People come to Luckenbach to get away from the hustle and bustle, and not to be sold something. Our position as a whole is to preserve as much of the Hill Country as we can, which is being paved over. I love it when people pull into Luckenbach and ask, ‘Is this all there is?’ and I say ‘Exactly.'”

To help spread awareness about the encroachment on the Luckenbach name and property, they’ve launched a “Long Live Luckenbach” (#longliveluckenbach) campaign via social media to help spread awareness, and make Luckenbach lovers aware that if they’re not careful, the landmark may not live forever.

Also, instead of a formal petition, Luckenbach is asking people to tell their Luckenbach stories in an online forum that can be shared in the future to show how much Luckenbach means to people.

Then there is what Kit Patterson calls the “necessary evil” of the legal effort to attempt to protect the name. A hearing is scheduled to be held on Thursday, June 9th at the Federal Court in Austin as Luckenbach attempts to obtain a temporary injunction against Frontier Spirits from using the Luckenbach name in their whiskey and upcoming distillery.

Currently, the Luckenbach Road Distillery is not under construction, but multiple temporary offices have been located to the property, and preparations are underway. Initially, plans were to open the Luckenbach Road Distillery by late 2022.

UPDATE 6-29-2022: Before originally publishing this article, Saving Country Music reached out to Luckenbach Road Whiskey for comment, but did not immediately hear back. After the publishing of this article, the owner of Luckenbach Road Whiskey, Stewart Skloss, reached out requesting the publishing of the below statement.

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Reading about the concerns raised by Mr. Kit Patterson and his business partners, his Aunt Cris Graham and Uncle John Graham, collectively known as LTI (Luckenbach Texas Incorporated) might naturally lead one to imagine this new distillery project going on in the Hill Country was driven by some soulless corporate entity, uninterested and unconcerned with the negative ways such a thing could affect the landscape and local community. The simple fact is, unlike many people you meet these days near Austin, Mr. Stewart Skloss not only represents thirteen generations of Texans, born and bred, but also happens to be a fiercely proud husband and father, who puts faith and family well before politics and profit. So, it’ll come as no surprise this unique opportunity to realize a lifelong dream intends to leave a lasting legacy honoring the very same heritage and traditions which make the Great State of Texas unlike any other place on Earth. In fact, it’s the only place you’ll hear natives say they may be American by birth, but they’re Texan by the grace of God.

Born in San Antonio, raised in Austin, and lucky enough to have worked and travelled all over the world, Stewart Skloss knows better than most just how unique and irreplaceable community treasures like Luckenbach, Texas are to the surrounding Hill Country. As many Texans often find when they venture beyond the boundaries of the Republic, the rest of the world doesn’t really see things the way Texans do. The farther out into the world you go the more you realize just how hard it is to find the shared sense of communal pride we sometimes take for granted within these borders. It may well be the exotic cultures and unfamiliar ways of life Stewart once saw so far from home played an important part in why he’s so committed to protecting the heritage and traditions here in Central Texas. Either way, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone anywhere who’d go to the lengths he has to preserve that way of life.

Kaitlyn and Stewart Skloss, with their eldest daughter Ella in Fredericksburg, TX

Look no further than the thoughtful integration of the many carefully considered elements needed to ensure an undertaking like this never fails to embody the rustic architecture, local materials, and unique way of life those who grew up around here rightly hold near and dear. All the way down to the indigenous plants and white buffalo, every little detail will give each and every person who experiences the Luckenbach Road Whiskey Distillery a newfound respect for the best of Texas, no matter where they came from, or where they may go. It’s no small task building into every square inch the kind of respect that demands far more time, and money, than most people are willing to spend. Because at the end of the day, 21 Luckenbach Road is ultimately just a glorified distillery, no matter how deep the values, attitudes, and beliefs that shaped it may run through the family roots beneath it. If building such a testament to the Texas way of life were easy, somebody else would’ve done it long ago. Fortunately, the Skloss family members working on this project are utterly committed to doing exactly that, come hell or high water. And if anyone were to even think of bulldozing Luckenbach, Texas, they’d have to go through men like Stewart Skloss to do it.

Skloss family 13th generation baptism at San Fernando Cathedral with Godparents and Father Carlos

It’s understandable Kit Patterson may be genuinely concerned some commercial development could one day threaten the small-town Texas way of life, but his fears that anyone from Luckenbach Road Whiskey would ever have any part of such a thing are completely unnecessary and totally unfounded. The Skloss family business has made every effort, at no small expense, to minimize any impact their vision could have on the livelihoods and local businesses with whom they now share the land.

There are those who might say intimidation through litigation is more the game Kit and his partners seem to play. They’ve already sued each other more than once and threatened more than a few others. Now they’re taking aim at Stewart and his family, even though he also happens to be distantly related. Clearly, he and the rest of his partners at LTI don’t like how Mr. Skloss put a whiskey distillery on Luckenbach Road and named it “Luckenbach Road Whiskey.” Forget for a minute the distillery’s address happens to be 21 Luckenbach Road, running from Luckenbach itself, up the road about 5 miles, and directly through the Luckenbach Road Whiskey Distillery property on up to highway 290. And forget for a moment that no one should be able to own the name Luckenbach. Kit and his partners seem bent on being on the war path. Not very neighborly, to say the least, but then again, what would you expect from a corporation that threatened to sue the family that’s been raising cattle in the Luckenbach community for over a hundred years, simply for calling themselves the Luckenbach Cattle Company? And they’re not the only other Luckenbach-named business to incur the wrath of LTI. Seems the Luckenbach Road Whiskey distillery is just the latest in a disappointingly long line of Kit Patterson and LTI partners’ litigious history.

According to Kit Patterson and his family—who by the way, share no blood relation to Carl Albert Luckenbach, the town’s namesake, whose actual descendants, the Engels, are also being sued by Kit and the Grahams’ corporation (more on that later)—LTI now claims they own the name “Luckenbach”, at least ever since Hondo Crouch was said to have paid thirty grand to “buy the town” in 1971. According to Kit and LTI, they’re the only ones in Luckenbach who get to decide when and where Carl Luckenbach’s name is used. To be clear, they didn’t actually buy the whole town: Hondo bought about 9 acres that included the Engel Dance Hall and a General Store, formerly the area’s US Post Office, which had been in operation for over 100 years. And of course, they didn’t name the town Luckenbach. The town got its name when Mr. Luckenbach’s then fiancé, Minna Engel, decided to name it after her fiancé Carl Luckenbach. She and her family were building the town with their bare hands over 150 years ago, but Kit likes to tell people they bought the whole town, or more often, they “saved it from the brink of extinction!”

photo: Hot Furnace

So not only is Kit Patterson and the Grahams’ corporation suing Luckenbach Road Whiskey for using “Luckenbach” in their name, but they’re also suing Paul Engel (their neighbor and Mr. Luckenbach’s own descendant, mind you), for naming their family business after the town, even though he and his family’s six generations didn’t just found Luckenbach, they still continue to live and work the land there to this very day, where they also own and operate the Luckenbach Lodge.

One of the main cabins at Luckenbach Lodge, in Luckenbach, Texas

Paul Engel’s family literally built that town from the ground up, back when making your livin’ off the land really meant something. Then along comes Kit and the Grahams’ corporation trying to deny the Engels from deriving any benefit from the name Luckenbach, even though their property sits in the middle of Luckenbach proper. Kit and the Grahams will tell anyone who’ll listen they’re busy protecting generations of Texas heritage. Meanwhile, they’re trying to paint the Skloss family as some kind of big city developers with no regard for Texas history and way of life, but unlike Kit and the Grahams, Mr. Skloss can show exactly how deep his Hill Country family roots go, all the way back to before Texas was Texas. As far as 1716 and the first chartered settlement of San Fernando de Béxar, now better known as San Antonio, to be precise, and where, believe it or not, his 4th Great Grandfather was the last messenger from the Alamo when it was under siege, served as the town’s last mayor under the Republic of Texas flag, and as their first mayor once Texas finally joined the Union. More to the point, Stewart’s 3rd great grandfather, Herman Ochs, crafted his very own pure Texas whiskey and beer from his then famous Buckhorn Saloon, nearabouts the same stretch of land where The Skloss family have revived his generations old family recipes, catering to the ever-growing numbers of folks flocking to the area.

Herman Ochs, family and friends, enjoying the original Buckhorn Brew and family recipe whiskey

So, for a man whose relative bought 9+ acres and two small buildings in a little Texas town to trademark someone else’s family name to sell branded knick-knacks and souvenirs—and then do his level best to prevent anyone else there from using the town’s name, no matter what their business or how long it’s been carrying the Luckenbach name, leaves more than just a bad taste in some folk’s mouths. Then to now claim Mr. Skloss can’t name his family’s Texas whiskey after the road that runs through his own property is hard to even wrap your head around.

It might help to know that one reason Kit and the Graham’s corporation are so concerned with the Luckenbach name being associated with the Skloss family whiskey is the fact LTI recently cut a deal with a Waco area distiller to put the Luckenbach corporate logo on a one-time, small release of whiskey themselves, in a failed attempt to beat Mr. Skloss to market and derail Mr. Skloss’ distillery. Even though the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) previously told them in person and again in writing they couldn’t put the Luckenbach logo on bottles of booze, they went and did it anyway. And apparently the TABC is now investigating that whiskey release in what’s known as a “Tied House violation”, (inappropriate relationships between bars and distillers, for example, which happens to be completely and unquestionably illegal in the state of Texas), by the way. If you’re interested in this Texas alcohol law, click this link TABC – Tied House to take a deeper dive. Otherwise, read on, there’s still plenty more you may not know about Mr. Patterson and the Grahams’ corporation, LTI.

As if all this isn’t bad enough, Kit seems to want to position himself as some kind of caretaker to the Luckenbach legacy, all the while running a lucrative business selling Luckenbach-branded T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc., the very thought of which pretty much speaks for itself. And as long as we’re on the subject of trademark infringement, have you ever seen Kit and the Grahams’ LTI corporate logo? It may look just a little bit familiar. Take a gander below and you’ll see a dead ringer for the Lone Star beer logo.

So, to set the record straight, no one outright “owns” the name Luckenbach—not the many direct descendants of the German immigrants the community is named for, and certainly not, LTI, some corporation who bought a piece of it relatively recently. No one made Kit Patterson and the Graham family the guardians of all things good in small town Texas. And would we all love to keep Texas the way it was when we were little? Of course, we would, but you can’t stop progress, nor should we when it comes to creating jobs, honoring Texas legends and lore, and enjoying a glass of whiskey while listening to the greats who made country music better than anyone thought it could be.

Luckenbach is more than just a beautiful community, deep in the heart of Texas, and much larger than the acreage Kit and his family now own, just over 20 acres today. The rich history there began long before 1971 when Hondo Crouch and some friends bought the dancehall and general store, or when the town actually got its name in 1886, and grew from the people, families, and businesses whose lives and ancestries will forever be entwined with their legends and their land. It’s high time everyone else in Texas got to hear the other side of this thing, and now at long last, at least some of the people who truly do care what happens to the spirit of Luckenbach, Texas, and know better than anyone what it always has and always will stand for, finally have the whole story.

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Editor’s Note: There will be more information on the dispute between Luckenbach Texas and Luckenback Road Whiskey in the future, including the Federal judge ruling on the temporary injunction when it is available.

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