Where Texas Was Born
Destination - Washington County
By Larry D. Hodge
Travel time from:
- Amarillo - 10 hours /
- Austin - 1.5 hours /
- Brownsville - 9 hours /
- Dallas - 5 hours /
- El Paso - 11 hours /
- Houston - 1.5 hours /
- San Antonio - 3 hours
Settlers passed this way, I think, as I travel along the hills and curves of FM 390 in Washington County.
Maybe even Stephen F. Austin. Maybe Sam Houston, on his way to the Convention of 1836, which declared Texas' independence from Mexico. This scenic rural highway follows the path of La Bahía Road, a route known as early as 1690. The first Anglo settlers came to this area in 1821.
I know Washington County to be one of the most historically significant places in Texas, and that the county seat - Brenham - is the home of Blue Bell ice cream. I also know that in the spring, the rolling hills are drenched in blue, compliments of the state flower. What other Texas treasures does Washington County hold, I wonder?
FM 390 leads me to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. On a frigid March day 166 years ago, with the Alamo under siege in San Antonio, 59 men gathered at this spot on the Brazos River in an unfinished building to declare Texas' independence from Mexico. The park's new visitor services complex is an excellent place to begin a visit. The spacious limestone building presents interactive exhibits and a timeline of the Texas Revolution, providing an orientation to the park putting this site in context.
After an hour or so in the visitor services complex, I stroll toward Independence Hall. The building where delegates signed the declaration is gone now, as are all the buildings of the once-thriving townsite of Washington-on-the-Brazos. This replica, built at what would be the corner of Main and Ferry streets, gives visitors a sense of what the original building must have been like. I sit at a long wooden table and remember the words Sam Houston spoke here on March 2, 1836: "Let the citizens of the East march to the combat. The enemy must be driven from our soil or ruin and desolation will accompany their march upon us."
Leaving Independence Hall I follow the Washington Townsite Trail down Ferry Street. Displays along the trail recreate 19th century life in Washington-on-the-Brazos, which was a major political and commercial center. In 1856 the town's population reached 750, but population began to decline in the 1860s and the last historic structures burned in 1912. I reach a bluff overlooking the Brazos River, and remember the Runaway Scrape, when settlers fled eastward across the river in March 1836 following the fall of the Alamo.
My next stop is Barrington Living History Farm, which was added to the park complex in 2000. This was the home of Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas, and he named his farm after his birthplace of Great Barrington, Mass. Park employees dressed in 19th-century clothing operate a Republic-era cotton farm complete with livestock and crops. Buildings on the farm include Jones' dogtrot cabin, built in 1844, and replicas of a log kitchen, barn and slave quarters. I wander the rolling grounds, stopping occasionally to talk to one of the costumed interpreters and getting a feel for what life might have been like in the waning days of the Republic of Texas.
My last stop of the day is the Star of the Republic Museum, down the road from the visitor center. The newly renovated museum features a delightful array of exhibits including life-size animals early Texans would have encountered - bears, deer, turkeys - as well as some structures from the days of the Republic and a model of a riverboat that would have traveled down the Brazos.
I spend the night in Brenham, 19 miles down SH 105 from Washington-on-the-Brazos. The folks in Brenham are fond of saying the town is like a hub, with spokes pointing out to various attractions in the county. So the next morning I head out another one of those spokes, FM 50, toward Independence and the Antique Rose Emporium.
Texas history lives on here in the roses that are direct descendants of roses planted during the days of the Republic of Texas and earlier. The eight-acre site contains hundreds of rose bushes mixed with perennials and native plants. Blooms are scarce on this early spring morning; in another month the landscape will explode into color.
Owner Mike Shoup became interested in old roses when he was working as a landscaper with native plants. In his travels across Texas, he spotted roses growing alongside native plants at abandoned homes, cemeteries and fencerows. He discovered that many of these roses were introduced 100 to 200 years ago and, because they have gone through natural selection, are hardy and drought-resistant. He tells me that these roses would be perfect for a xeriscape garden.
I spend a pleasant morning strolling the scenic paths and admiring the various structures that add to the charm. A 19th-century stone kitchen and a corncrib were built on this site and have been restored. A Victorian home with a wide, wrap-around porch was brought here from Brenham. A diminutive salt box house contains the gift shop.
In the afternoon I drive out to the Monastery of St. Claire miniature horse farm, covering 98 rolling and wooded acres northeast of Brenham. Sister Angela, a cherubic-faced nun wearing a brown habit and sandals, shows me around. She tells me that the order of Franciscan Poor Clare nuns here in Washington County started out in Cuba. They fled that country in 1960 and stayed at a New Orleans convent for a while, then moved to Corpus Christi to build their monastery. To generate income they raised birds, then cats, for sale to pet stores nationwide. When a pet store in Florida bought every last cat, the sisters needed a new source of income. With the donation of two miniature horses in 1982, the monastery got into the horse-raising business. In 1986, the nuns, the monastery - and the miniature horses - moved to Washington County. They sell the little horses to private breeders as well as families.
The nuns got into the tourism business quite by accident. The miniature horses are so appealing that people flocked to the pasture, trying to get a look. Finally the sisters decided to open to the public from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Christmas and Holy Week.
The horses are indeed tiny, looking as if they stepped right out of a cartoon. To be classified as a miniature, a horse must be shorter than 34 inches; the monastery has some as short as 26 inches. I see a variety of colors, and Sister Angela says it's because they evolved from many different breeds. Most seem to be playful. I reach out toward an adorable brown-and-white horse, and it readily submits to having its head and ears scratched. Sister Angela goes inside a barn and, to the delight of the visitors, emerges cradling a newborn foal.
Back in Brenham for the night I discover that, unlike many small towns, there is indeed something to do after dark. Located amidst the antique shops and historic buildings downtown is a building with a sign that says Unity Theater. It was founded in 1995 to bring professional theater several times a year to this town of 13,000 people. This new theater, opened in February 2002 in a renovated, 23,000-square-foot warehouse, is of a caliber more often seen in much larger cities. Although there is not a play on the evening I'm there, I get to watch a few minutes of rehearsal for "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
On my last day in Washington County, I head toward Chappell Hill to Lonesome Pine Ranch, one of three ranches that make up a nature tourism operation called Texas Ranch Life. I turn off the highway onto a bumpy gravel road, and soon a red barn and green pasture come into view.
Taunia Elick greets me warmly and introduces me to her husband, John. Owners and operators of the ranch, both are also practicing attorneys. John goes back to work cattle in the corral with a ranch hand while Taunia shows me around. The Elicks have five restored and elegantly furnished homes scattered across the ranch and available for guests.
The Elicks' three ranches - Lonesome Pine, Eagle Roost and Prairie Place - comprise Texas Ranch Life, and John and Tauna offer packages that include fishing, dove and quail hunting, horseback riding and cattle work. Bald eagles spend the winter at Eagle Roost Ranch, and from November through May visitors may take a guided horseback tour to see the majestic birds.
The rolling ranchland is a combination of grassland prairies, woodlands and pecan bottoms. As she drives, Taunia tells me that some of Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred settled near the springs on this property. We visit the Lake House, a German-style farmhouse built in the 1880s; the Confederate House, built in the 1850s; the 1869 House; the Lodge and a bungalow-style cabin. All except the cabin were moved to the ranch from nearby Austin County, and each is decorated and furnished to represent the era in which it was built. Many feature original paint and stenciling; furnishings include antiques, oriental rugs and traditional Texas pieces of furniture.
Back at the corral, John Elick tells me about their efforts on behalf of the Attwater's prairie chicken. The Elicks and seven other ranchers in the area are restoring the native prairie habitat the endangered birds require. The rancher would love to see the Attwater's back on his land someday.
John and Taunia Elick personify the best of Texas: they're friendly, sincere and hospitable. They care deeply about Texas, its history, wildlife and ranching, and they enjoy sharing these things with their guests. Were Stephen F. Austin or Sam Houston to visit the area today they would be astonished at the changes to the landscape since frontier times but also heartened, no doubt, that the soul and spirit of Texas survive.
For More Information
- Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site hosts a Texas Independence Day celebration every year on March 2, as well as events throughout the year. Call (936) 878-2214 or go to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site.
- Antique Rose Emporium: (800) 441-0002, www.weareroses.com
- Monastery Miniature Horses: (979) 836-9652, www.monasteryminiaturehorses.com
- Texas Ranch Life: (866) TEXASRL, www.texasranchlife.com
- Unity Theatre: (979) 830-8358, www.unitybrenham.org
- Lodging, dining and wildflower information: (888) BRENHAM, www.brenhamtexas.com