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The Birthplace of Texas

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Story and photos by Bobby L. Hickman

If you’ve ever wanted to get in touch with your inner cowboy or cowgirl, there’s no better place than Washington County, Texas. Picture yourself sitting around a blazing campfire under a full moon, savoring the aroma of a sizzling steak and swapping tall tales with your friends as coyotes howl in the distance. You won’t find a better spot to relive those thrilling days of yesterday,

But there’s also plenty of the unexpected here – from the George Bush Presidential Library to freshly made Blue Bell ice cream to first-class plays at the Unity Theater to the funky art at – well, the Funky Art Café.

Located midway between Houston and Austin, Washington County is known as the “Birthplace of Texas.” That’s because Texans met in the small community of Washington on the Brazos River in 1836 to declare their independence from Mexico. The area where the Republic of Texas began is preserved at the Washington-on-the-Brazos Historic site. The park includes a replica of Independence Hall, where delegates held their convention; the Star of the Republic Museum, which traces the history of Texas as an independent nation; and Barrington Living History Farm, a working pioneer homestead that brings the 1850s to life.

A docent takes a team of oxen through their paces at the Barrington Living History Farm at the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. A docent takes a team of oxen through their paces at the Barrington Living History Farm at the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site.
A trail ride at Texas Ranch Life, a 1,800-acre working guest ranch near Chappell Hill, Texas. A trail ride at Texas Ranch Life, a 1,800-acre working guest ranch near Chappell Hill, Texas.

If Washington-on-the-Brazos leaves you hankering for a more personal experience of living on the range, the Texas Life Ranch in Chappell Hill is just the place. This 1,800-acre ranch is home to American bison and one of the nation’s largest herds of Texas longhorns. This is no dude ranch: guests can learn to ride American quarter horses and round up cattle. Or relax by riding horses across the open range, hunting doves or going fishing. You can overnight in one of eight historic buildings dating back to the 1850s that owners John and Taunia Elick have restored. Each is lavishly appointed with antiques, Oriental rugs and items that reflect the state’s vast cultural heritage. You can also opt for the classic Spanish elegance of the hacienda. Either way, you’re likely to fall asleep to the occasional music of a coyote in the distance – and waken to livestock grazing outside your window.

Washington County offers a variety of accommodations, ranging from small bed and breakfasts in rural settings to larger B&Bs and traditional hotels in the county seat of Brenham. My favorite is the Ant Street Inn, a 15-room historic hotel just a few steps from the downtown hub. The former turn-of-the-century warehouse contains 15 rooms with 12-foot ceilings, exposed brick walls, polished wood floors and 19th Century antiques. I stayed in the Galveston, a corner room with a canopied bed and oversized windows offering a panoramic view of downtown Brenham. There’s also a poker table, playing cards, chips and leather chairs that gives the suite a real Mississippi riverboat gambler feel. Each room has its own unique décor and personality.

A room at the Ant Street Inn in downtown Brenham, TX. A room at the Ant Street Inn in downtown Brenham.

The cuisine in Washington County is mostly Texas classics — steaks, barbeque and home cooking – although many B&Bs lean towards more cosmopolitan dishes. Brenham Olde Towne Bakery offers enormous cinnamon rolls, kolaches (a tasty European pastry stuffed with meat) and specialty coffees from local roaster Independence Coffee. The locals flock to Must Be Heaven Sandwich Shoppe, where the lunch fare of soups and salads are overshadowed by an amazing variety of homemade pies. If you’re visiting Washington-on-the-Brazos, drop by R Place, a former grocery store with sandwiches, BBQ, down home dishes and attentive staff. Back in Brenham, K-Bob’s Steakhouse provides choice steaks and seafood, complemented by its famous “salad wagon”. The Funky Art Café provides a diverse lunch menu of soup, salads and wraps, all set within a colorful collection of contemporary art and eclectic gifts.

A horse-drawn fire truck at the Antique Fire Museum in Brenham.
A horse-drawn fire truck at the Antique Fire Museum in Brenham.

When your hunger is quenched, there’s plenty to see and do in Brenham to work up an appetite for your next meal. Take in a play at the Unity Theater, which hosts performances by professional actors from Houston and Austin in the 125-seat theater. Ride the Flying Horses Antique Carousel, a restored pre-1910 amusement that is one of the few remaining carousels built for a traveling carnival. Examine the city’s collection of antique fire trucks. Tour Ellison’s Greenhouses and check out their six-foot-tall “Texas-sized poinsettias”. Or take a walking tour of the historic downtown district for sightseeing and shopping.

Quarts of Blue Bell Ice Cream roll along the assembly line at the Blue Bell Creameries in Brehnam, TXQuarts of Blue Bell Ice Cream roll along the assembly line at the Blue Bell Creameries.

But the main attraction that draws tourists to Brenham is Blue Bell Creameries. Founded it 1907, Blue Bell has grown from a small Texas dairy into the third largest ice cream producer in the US, with distribution in 18 states. They invented the “cookies and cream” flavor and create more than 250 products. Some 100,000 visitors tour the factory, savor fresh hand-dipped ice cream in the parlor and shop for memorabilia in the Blue Bell Country Store.

The countryside throughout Washington County also has plenty of attractions. Visit the Round Top Festival Institute, a 210-acre campus that includes cultural performance facilities, historic houses and unique landscaping. The Burton Cotton Gin & Museum is a working gin that harks back to the area’s importance as a cotton-producing region. Soak in the fragrances at the Chappell Hill Lavender Farm, where more than 3,000 lavender plants grow on rolling hillsides. Another colorful site is the Antique Rose Emporium, which grows hundreds of acres of older roses prevalent during pioneer times and ships them around the world.

One of the most unique venues is the Monastery of St. Clare Miniature Horse Farm, where a group of Franciscan Poor Clare nuns support themselves by selling crafts and raising horses. The Brenham area is also a major part of Texas wine growing country, with tours available at Windy Winery, Pleasant Hill Winery and other vineyards that grow and press local grapes.

Horses leap over the Berlin Wall in a sculpture at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.Horses leap over the Berlin Wall in a sculpture at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.

No visit to the area would be complete without a side trip to the nearby George Bush Presidential Library on the Texas A&M campus in College Station. The world-class museum offers exhibits and interactive experiences tracing the life and times of the country’s 41st president. Objects and exhibits trace Bush’s steps from a “flyboy” during World War II; his political life as a U.S. congressman, CIA director, UN ambassador, vice president and president; and his charitable work including the still-popular “Thousand Points of Light” program. The library also has a “Situation Room” where visitors can react to global crises and an Oval Office replica where you can sit behind the president’s desk. Our visit happened to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – which occurred during the early days of Bush’s presidency, so the fragment of the wall on display and other exhibits were particularly timely.

No matter where you spend your days – at historic exhibits or cultural events or browsing antique stores – you’re likely to find the best part of your visit is simply relaxing while the sun sets over the Texas plains and stars rise in the clear evening sky. Even if you didn’t come here yearning to be a cowpoke, you’ll feel like one by the time you saddle up and mosey home.

If You Go

Where2Stay

Ant Street Inn
107 West Commerce Street
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 800.481.1951
www.antstreetinn.com

Brazos Bed & Breakfast
20251 Pickens Road
Washington, TX 77880
Phone: 936.878.2230
www.brazosbedandbreakfast.com

Brenham House
705 Clinton Street
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.251.9947
www.thebrenhamhouse.com

Country Place Cottage B&B
10500 FM 1935
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.6429
www.countryplacebnb.com

Cottages at Hackberry Hills
9880 Lost Lane
Chappell Hill, TX 77426
Phone: 979.481.0843
www.hackberryhillcottages.com

Ingleside Bed and Breakfast
409 East Main Street
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.251.7707
www.inglesidebb.com

Knittel Homestead Inn
520 North Main Street
Burton, TX 77835
Phone: 979.289.5102
www.knittelhomestead.com

Murski Homestead
1662 Old Independence Road
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 877.690.0676 (toll free)
www.murskihomesteadbb.com

Texas Ranch Life
10848 Cactus Lane
Chappell Hill, TX 77426
Phone: 979.865.3649
www.texasranchlife.com

Wakefield Farms
601 Pulawski School Lane
Chappell Hill, TX 77426
Phone: 979.251.1459
www.wakefieldfarms.com

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Where2Eat

Brenham’s Olde Towne Bakery
301 South Charles
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.2253

Funky Art Café
202 West Commerce Street
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.5220
www.funkyartcafe.com

Independence Coffee Company
9107 Highway 105
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.3322
www.independencecoffee.com

K-Bobs Steakhouse
2120 Highway 290 West
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.7990
www.kbobsbrenham.com

Must Be Heaven
107 West Alamo
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.830.8536
www.mustbeheaven.com

R Place
23254 FM 1155 E
Washington, TX 77880
Phone: 936.878.1925

What2Do

Antique Rose Emporium
9300 Lueckemeyer Road
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 800.441.0002
www.antiqueroseemporium.com

Barrington Living History Farm
P.O. Box 305
Washington, TX 77880
Phone: 936.878.2213
www.birthplaceoftexas.com

Blue Bell Creameries
1101 South Blue Bell Road
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.830.2180
www.bluebell.com

Burton Cotton Gin and Museum
307 North Main Street
Burton, TX 77835
Phone: 979.289.3378
www.cottonginmuseum.org

Chappell Hill Historical Museum
9220 Poplar Street
Chappell Hill, TX 77426
Phone: 979.836.6033
www.chappellhillmuseum.org

Chappell Hill Lavender Farm
2250 Dillard Road
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.251.8114
www.chappellhilllavender.com

Ellison’s Greenhouses
2107 East Stone Street
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.6011
www.ellisonsgreenhouses.com

George Bush Presidential Library
1000 George Bush Drive West
College Station, TX 77845
Phone: 979.691.4000
http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu

Giddings Stone Mansion
2203 Century Circle
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.1690
www.giddingsstonemansion.com

Monastery of St. Clare Miniature Horse Farm
9300 Highway 105
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.9652
www.monasteryminiaturehorses.com

Pleasant Hill Winery
1441 Salem Road
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.830.8463
www.pleasanthillwinery.com

Round Top Festival Institute
248 Jaster Road
Round Top, TX 78954
Phone: 979.249.3149
www.festivalhill.org

Simon Theater
109 West Main Street
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.337.7469
www.saveoursimon.org

Star of the Republic Museum
23200 Park Road 12
Washington, TX 77880
Phone: 936.878.2461
www.starmuseum.org

Unity Theater
300 Church Street
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.830.1460
www.unitybrenham.org

Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site
P.O. Box 305
Washington, TX 77880
Phone: 936.878.2214
www.birthplaceoftexas.com

Windy Winery
4232 Clover Road
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.3252
www.windywinery.com

4MoreInfo

City of Brenham
200 West Vulcan
Brenham, TX 77834
Phone: 979.451.0128
www.cityofbrenham.org

Texas Tourism
P.O. Box 12728
Austin, TX 78711-2728
Phone: 800.8888TEX (839)
www.traveltexas.com

Washington County CVB
314 South Austin Street
Brenham, TX 77833
Phone: 979.836.3695
www.brenhamtexas.com

Top photo: The tack room at Texas Ranch Life.

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