Hruska’s Store & Bakery in Ellinger, Texas, has stood the test of time, serving road-tripping Texans for more than a century.
Story and photos by Courtney Runn
Before there was Texas-sized convenience store Buc-ee’s, there was Hruska’s Store & Bakery. About an hour and half outside Austin, the Czech bakery has acted as a highway lighthouse since 1912, a guiding light for weary travelers in need of gasoline, a bathroom break, a respite from the persistent backseat question, “Are we there yet?” and, most importantly, freshly baked kolaches.
The bakery has passed from generation to generation of Hruskas, morphing from a general store to a service station to its current identity as a bakery and gas station under the leadership of the great-granddaughter of founder Frank J. Hruska, Teresa James.
Now the highway stop sells burgers and sandwiches alongside its famous pastries and offers a wide variety of standard gas-station snacks, toys, apparel and souvenirs.
I grew up stopping at Hruska’s on the way to visit my grandparents in Houston, but this August, Hruska’s (pronounced “rhoosh-kuz”) was my destination. I stopped in on a steamy day with a high of 101 degrees. A constant stream of customers passed by the food counter, giddy eyes scanning the fruit-filled pastries to decide which flavor to pick. When it was my turn, I asked the woman behind the counter to choose for me. She was quick to suggest the prune kolache because she likes them old school, the way her own Czech mother used to make them. She didn’t grow up stopping at Hruska’s, but she’s worked there for two years and claims it’s the best job she’s ever had; the stress is low and the kolaches, plentiful.
Despite the constant stream of travelers, the cashiers chatted with each customer, often ending with a cheery, “Y’all have a great day!” As I nibbled on my pastries, it seemed like the state of Texas passed me by. Aggies and Longhorns alike stopped to eat, a man in a camo hat and boots came to purchase buckets and a woman in athleisure garb grabbed a protein drink. Every age and ethnicity wandered through the doors, most leaving with a kolache bag in hand.
My experience growing up matched the pace of most of the customers I witnessed: in and out and back on the road. When leaving, I would usually take a left, back onto the highway. This time, I took a right to see what lies beyond Hruska’s. Like a map created by children’s author and illustrator Richard Scarry, the town—or more accurately, the unincorporated community—of Ellinger, Texas, lines up on a neat grid with the requisite small-town buildings dotting each square.
I crisscrossed the roads looking for signs of life, but the sun directly overhead rendered the area a ghost town, so all I experienced was through a pane of glass: the St. John Lutheran Church dating back to 1859, Hobo Bar (where the “service is great and the beer is ice-cold,” according to its one Yelp review), wind chimes made of beer bottles strung up over a porch, Peters BBQ, houses painted the perfect shades of sunny yellow and bright teal, a sign promoting an annual tomato festival. As I peeked through the locked doors of the church, I hoped someone would invite me onto the porch for a glass of sweet tea and to reminisce about decades of kolaches enjoyed at Hruska’s, but I probably just listened to one too many Kacey Musgraves songs on the drive there.
While accounts differ slightly in details, Napoleonic wars veteran Joseph Ehlinger first received the land surrounding modern-day Ellinger in a grant after serving in the Battle of San Jacinto, and his family settled there after his untimely drowning. The settlement joined a wave of neighboring communities of Czech immigrants and was officially established in 1883.
Kolaches are woven into the fabric of Fayette County, from their starring roles in local bakeries to gracing many a page in local cookbooks. While recipes for this famed local delicacy differ, the ingredients don’t change: milk, flour, butter, sugar, yeast, eggs, salt. In a 1955 PTA cookbook, Mrs. F. C. Knippel of Fayette County notes the secret to good kolaches is the “right temperature,” “thorough kneading and a good hot oven.”
I drove back to Austin, my car smelling sticky sweet, after a few hours at the library in La Grange, Texas, ready to try my hand at baking my own kolaches. I could easily have spent a few more hours poring over its treasure trove of archives. As I drove under the wide, bright-blue sky, I tried to make sense of all I had seen and tasted and read that day.
I pictured myself growing up in Ellinger. Would I still be the same person if I lived in the teal house? To what degree have the cities I’ve grown up in marked my personality? I thought of the people who lived on the land before Joseph Ehlinger was even alive. Like all colonized land, the history of Texas is recorded by its conquerors and built on a bloody foundation. The demolishment of one culture gave way to another; war paved the way for the arrival of kolaches.
When Czech immigrants whisked fresh kolaches out of the oven, did the smell make them ache for their homeland, from which conflict pushed them away?
For more than a century, Hruska’s has borne witness to the rise and fall of communities and cultures. Stories of the family and its store are scattered throughout local histories and records. In 1946, the La Grange Journal dramatically recounted an attempted burglary at the store. According to the bakery’s website, the entire site burned down in 1983 and for several years during the ’90s, kolache production paused.
For many Austinites, Hruska’s is the constant. If you’re driving to Houston, there’s no question where to stop: right in the middle. And I highly recommend picking up a kolache—or six.
KOLACHES VERSUS KLOBASNEK
Kolaches feature sweet filling, most traditionally prune or poppyseed.
Klobasniky are savory and are traditionally made with sausage, though Texans have added their own twists by including meats like brisket.