Texas history: Land, location, rails and roads promoted Brenham
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BRENHAM — Many casual travelers confuse the character of this historic Texas town with the commercial complex that now booms along a stretch of U.S. 290 that was supposed to “bypass” the place. As so often has happened in our state, instead, many businesses simply moved out to the new freeway, while regional and national chains took advantage of the open land and access to smooth highways to plant their flags along the access roads.
That is not Brenham’s whole story, yet it is a natural extension of a history that includes a prime location between the state’s larger cities on rich cropland and pastureland above the Brazos River as well as successful pushes by civic leaders to acquire early rail lines and later highway links.
All this came to mind as I strolled at dusk through Brenham’s ample historic downtown, located about 2 miles north of U.S. 290. Nearby one also finds some beautiful, tree-lined residential neighborhoods and, key to this particular column, railroad tracks.
I had chosen this town as a launching point in order to visit Washington-on-the-Brazos, the birthplace of Texas independence, which is situated on the confluence of the Brazos and Navasota rivers about 30 minutes’ drive from here.
Brenham was once one of the largest settlements in Texas. In 1870, just 10 years after it attracted its first all-important rail line, Brenham was larger than Fort Worth, El Paso, Corpus Christi or Laredo. As my newsroom colleague Ken Herman has documented assiduously, it even hosted a synagogue, an 1898 beauty of a building that now can be seen on the Dell Jewish Community Campus in Austin.
Although considerably outstripped by the state’s larger cities and suburbs, even today Brenham is no small town. Demographers would term it a “micropolitan area” with more than 15,000 residents, thriving industrial and retail sectors beyond the famous Blue Bell Creameries — back in the news because its former CEO Paul Kruse faces federal charges connected to the 2015 listeria outbreak — as well as the dignified campus of Blinn College. (Brenham has long been an educational center, with a large freedmen’s school after Emancipation and the first tax-supported school system in Texas.)
That evening, across from the art deco — and a bit out-of-place — Washington County Courthouse, I dined outside at 96 West, an excellent and up-to-date eatery that serves what is often labeled “modern American cuisine.” I raised a martini glass to actor Sean Connery, who had died earlier that day, and ordered a nice-size barbecue pulled pork flatbread. The square turned dreamy at dusk, marred somewhat by the spotty practice of wearing protective masks.
Brenham’s charming downtown, which extends for two or more blocks from the square on each side, hosts lots of murals, shops, eateries and drinkeries, almost all housed in thankfully preserved buildings, mostly brick.
I could happily spend more than a long weekend here, and I wondered why I haven’t done so before now.
Also, Brenham claims as its own tourist attraction Washington-on-the-Brazos, the Washington County site of the March 2, 1836, Declaration of Texas Independence and later, briefly, the capital of the Republic of Texas. In doing so, Brenham has adopted the tourist slogan “Birthplace of Texas.”
Not so fast. There was a place called Texas long before a wave of Anglo-Americans and African Americans arrived in the 1820s, or the Texas Revolutionary War in the 1830s. It won’t fit neatly on a T-shirt, but perhaps a more accurate slogan should be “Birthplace of Texas Independence” or “Birthplace of Independent Texas.”
Originally called Hickory Grove and then renamed 1843 in honor of Dr. Richard Fox Brenham, it became the leading town in this former cotton-growing district. Why not Washington, which came with two advantages: It was the most inland spot for steamships to safely navigate the Brazos on a regular basis during the 19th century, and it also offered a ferry on the critical land route between La Bahia and East Texas?
Short answer: railroads. The Washington County Railroad was built in the 1860s with Brenham as its terminus and thus the distribution point for the state’s interior, according to the Handbook of Texas. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, which arrived in 1880, amplified Brenham’s significance as a market town.
Like Jefferson in East Texas, another riverport, Washington eschewed the coming of the railroads in the 1860s. Because of that, despite some scattered ranches nearby, Old Washington no longer exists as a town. Brenham chased the railroads and thrived. In fact, one of the loveliest spots in downtown Brenham is a brick barbecue-and-beer joint, Pioneer Mercantile and Pioneer Smokehouse, decorated with signs, including “Train Depot” and “Washington Co. R.R. 1869.” (I’m still trying to verify its history, but it looks alluringly authentic. The date might even be 1860.)
Early the next morning, I set out over backroads — passing through the ideally adapted village of Chapel Hill — to arrive at the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site for some hiking and birding, since the grounds open at 8 a.m. and the Visitors Center not until 10 a.m. You must purchase tickets at the center, however, to gain entrance into the Star of Texas Museum and the Barrington Plantation, both within walking distance of the center.
Birding? Really mostly counting crows, jays and black vultures, along with some phoebes, titmice and chickadees that flitted through the brush. Located at the union of the Brazos and Navasota rivers, the old town of Washington was laid out on very rich soil. Immense oaks, pecans and magnolias line up on the abandoned townsite, while the riverside is thick with bois d’arc, yaupon, hackberry and grape.
Pandemicwise, the first Sunday in November turned out to be a great time to reacquaint myself safely with the park. I spotted only two families during my early hikes, then later followed behind just two other guests at the museum.
I had the farm to myself. More about that in a later Think, Texas column.