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Texas history: Spelling out life on an 1800s plantation

By Michael Barnes / Austin American-Statesman
Chandler Wahrmund and Nathan Giles work the garden on the Barrington Plantation at Washington-on-the-Brazos. They wear period costumes but don’t stay “in character” as 19th-century people, more third-person than first-person interpretation.
Michael Barnes

WASHINGTON-ON-THE-BRAZOS — The highlight of my overnight Texas history trip to Washington-on-the Brazos and nearby Brenham was a “living history farm,” the Barrington Plantation at Washington, which taught me a good deal about how people, including enslaved persons, lived during the middle of the 19th century.

Four staff members, dressed in period costumes but not in period character, answered my questions on farming, cooking, trading, travel and other topics related to a half-dozen or more structures, one of them the renovated home of Anson Jones, last president of the Republic of Texas, the rest of them replicas of outer buildings spread out over the Brazos River bottomlands.

As distinct from reenactors, who assume the personas of historical figures for guests at a historical site or museum, “third-person interpreters” like these strive for historical accuracy and might employ appropriate costumes and tools but fully acknowledge their parts as modern museum or park guides.

“That’s a trend in our field,” said Nathan Giles, a guide who was working in costume in the Barrington Plantation slave garden. “More third person and less first person. That way we can explain things in a modern context. Also, if someone asks, ‘When did Anson Jones die?’ we don’t have to pretend, ‘What? No! Dr. Jones died?’”

The most famous spot at the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site has to be the 1969 replica of Texas Independence Hall. A look inside indicates just how raw and uncomfortable life was during the Republic. Several times on visits to this park, I’ve tried to imagine all the bigger-than-life Texas personalities crammed into a lightly clad wooden hall on an icy March day to decide the fate of the land and people around them.

The site’s modern-era museum, designed in the shape of a two-story star, attempts to tell the whole story of Texas up until statehood. Updated some two decades ago, the exhibits are often three-dimensional and packed with printed information. I particularly liked a simple map of the mighty Brazos with the names and dates of shipwrecked steamers. Never thought about that phenomenon before, but of course there had to be groundings and wrecks steaming to and from the riverport of Washington, about as far inland as these ships could reach on a regular basis.

Fortunate in its early years, Washington also sat on the spot where Robertson’s Ferry extended the Bahia Trail on its way from South Texas to Louisiana. Like another riverport, Jefferson in East Texas, however, Washington rested on its laurels while other towns such as Brenham chased railroad connections as early as the 1850s. Jefferson at least kept many of its most striking buildings, while old Washington just blew away once the rails passed them by. (The park is good about helping you visualize what was here.)

The museum, however, is now dated. It shows African Americans working, especially in the critical cotton farming, but tells almost no stories about them as individuals, doubly problematic because approximately half of Washington’s population were enslaved people. Mentions of Native Americans are confined mostly to one niche at the start of the chronological section. Tejanos receive more attention, but I’d like to see a more explicit account of their interactions with the other groups that lived in Texas.

Slightly disappointed by this, I headed down to the Barrington Plantation, more of a farm than a plantation, really, too small to support a slave owner of the “planter class.” Jones was a medical doctor, the only one in the district, but 10 of his family members and five to eight slaves also lived directly off the land in this fertile glen.

After crossing into the farm proper, I first headed to the right. I wanted to see the rough-hewn timber barn, two slave cabins, as well as livestock pens that held living animals, some of which would be bred, others eaten. Rounding the bend, I saw two young men dressed in waistcoats working in a garden. One wore a period hat. I asked what they were planting for the winter. Greens and root vegetables, it turns out.

Nathan Giles and Chandler Wahrmund pointed me to the slave cabins, which mutely testified to the dark, harsh and restricted lives spent in one room next to a fireplace. I wanted more historical background from the guides and so returned to the garden.

“It’s hard work,” Giles said. “But rewarding for me. I’ve lost 20 pounds. Yesterday I probably lost more because that cornfield behind you, I cut all that down with a scythe.”

Giles and Wahrmund, both white, explained in a matter-of-fact manner more about tough realities of slavery. They explained, for instance, that the slave garden was one of the few places on the plantation where enslaved people could make choices, in this case, what they planted and when they harvested it.

This kind of account is part of their job as interpreters. I told them that I was pleased they did not act as if it were still the 19th century, a practice that I find a bit creepy.

We chatted about the deficiencies of the Star of Texas Museum. I told them how the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin had amended and modernized the first floor of its permanent exhibit, especially its now more nuanced portrayal of Native Americans. The three of us agreed that all museums, but especially historical ones, should be updated every 20 years or so.

After thanking Giles and Wahrmund, I briefly inspected the two-story Jones family house built around a broad dog run or breezeway. Comparisons with the slave cabins were pronounced: sawn wood rather than roughly hewn logs, formal rooms, not overly large but set with refined furniture, glass and cultivated decor. We’d consider it a small house for 11 people, yet there was enough room for some privacy and comfort.

I next visited with Barb King and Laura Fisher, two more costumed staff members, who worked in a separate kitchen structure, making baked scalloped oysters — steamships would have brought them up from the gulf on a regular basis in Jones’ day — and mincemeat out of pork rather than beef. The previous day, it was yeast bread, what our country grandparents might have called “light bread” in contrast to the daily fare of heavier cornbread.

They don’t make enough food to feed visitors, but King and Fisher implied that my diligent questions might be rewarded with a bite of yesterday’s apple pie.

One last image: In a room much like this one, dominated by a large fireplace, a solitary slave likely cooked every meal every single day for the entire Jones household, as well as daytime meals for the field hands across the way.