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Birthplace of Texas
By James and Dorothy Richardson
The largest of the contiguous states in our great country began in a little tiny town
Appropriately named Washington, this small town was the seedling that grew into the Texas Republic. In March 1, 1836, a group of 59 delegates gathered in a small meeting hall to initiate what would become the first step toward independence from Mexico. The next day the delegates made that declaration. The meeting hall is recreated on its original site in Washington, Texas, as part of Washington–on–the–Brazos State Historic Site. It is one of many historic destinations in the Texas county of Washington. The county contains several other small, yet historic, towns. But the largest town in the county, Brenham, has opportunities for visitors to experience a variety of activities – not just historical.
Washington–on–the–Brazos State Historic Site is composed of a reconstructed Independence Hall and the town site. It is situated on the Brazos River near its junction with the Navasota River. An exhibit-filled visitor center is also on the grounds. Adjoining this historic site is the Star of the Republic Museum. The building is appropriately star–shaped and its purpose is to preserve and interpret the history during the Texas Republic from 1836 to1846. It is administered by Brenham’s Blinn College.
Another adjoining portion to the historic site and the museum is the Barrington Living History Farm, which was the home of Dr. Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas. Jones lived in this home from 1844 until his death in 1858. When he arrived in Texas in 1833, he practiced medicine and became interested in politics. His political offices included congressman, Minister to the U.S., senator, and secretary of state. In 1844 he was the president of the Republic of Texas until it became the 28th state in February, 1846. The farm was named after Jones’ birthplace in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Interpreters at the farm are in period dress and demonstrate life on an 1850s farm.
These three closely related historical spots – Washington-on-the-Brazos, the Star of the republic Museum, and the Barrington Living History Farm -- are located nineteen miles northeast of Brenham off State Highway 105.
Brenham has all services available that make it the logical base for explorations while in Washington County, plus there are a number of attractions for visitors. The historic Main Street and downtown area has noteworthy architecture and many specialty shops to entice stopping, like the soda and ice cream shop called Must Be Heaven, or the many antique shops. Next door to the 1915 Classic Revival Brenham Heritage Museum is an exhibit for the Brenham Fire Department featuring an 1879 Silsby steam-powered horse drawn fire wagon. Also inside the museum is a 1923 American LaFrance combination pumping, chemical, and hose vehicle nicknamed “Samanthe”. The fire truck has recently had a facelift and is the pride and joy of the Brenham Fire Department. It is one of only thirty-one such vehicles ever built.
In nearby Fireman’s Park is another attraction from the past – an early twentieth century working antique carousel. It is an example of a C. W. Parker carousel and was manufactured prior to 1910 and is one of eight remaining in Texas. It has recently undergone renovation and now operates on weekends, during the summer, and on holidays – when children can enjoy the carousel.
Probably the most popular attraction, or of special interest to visitors, is Blue Bell Creameries, where the Blue Bell ice cream is made. Tours forty-five minutes in length consisting of a film and a sample of a favorite flavor are available on weekdays of the facility that makes “the best ice cream in the country”. Founded in 1907 as the Brenham Creamery Company, it changed its name in 1930 to its current. It was named for the common wildflowers of the area – the blue bells – that light up the summer countryside. This is a popular attraction and there is also an ice cream parlor and gift shop.
Other Brenham attractions include an Antique Rose Emporium. It is located on an early settler’s homestead and features antique roses rejuvenated from local home sites and farms. The eight-acre garden has native plants and old-fashioned perennials for sale. The Monastery of St. Claire has an interesting method of obtaining funds. They raise and sell miniature horses. The Franciscan Poor Claire nuns also sell their handmade ceramics. The farm is located on SR 105 a few miles northeast of Brenham. Two wineries call Brenham home – the Windy Hill and Pleasant Hill Wineries both offer wine tasting, tours, and gift shops.
Brenham was named for a Texas army surgeon who died in Mexico during one of the conflicts for independence. Later in the 19th and early 20th centuries, cotton and railroading became important for the town’s economy. Another rarity for the area is located in nearby Burton. It is the country’s only remaining non-automated operating cotton gin – the 1914 Burton Farmers Gin – and is a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark. The gin (short for ‘engine’) has a 125 horsepower Bessemer oil engine and still is able to produce bales of cotton. It now only operates during the annual spring festival (Burton Cotton Gin Festival in mid-April). But the gin’s museum gives an overview of the importance of cotton and the ginning process. Visitors can tour the museum and gin.
Get Outside and Play
For outdoor activities there are several sites for birding and hiking. The Prairies and Piney Woods Wildlife Trail is one option. During the springtime “bluebonnet trails” is one of the most popular destinations for visitors. The county’s visitors’ guide has marked routes on maps for best viewing of blue bonnets, Indian paintbrush, and evening primrose.
Also in Washington County, Lake Somerville gives visitors opportunities for water related activities like boating, fishing, and swimming. The 11,400-acre lake is only a few miles northwest of Brenham along US 36. There is a campground with full hookups at the lake. Other campgrounds in the area include the Artesian Park RV Campground on US 290 and the Washington County Fairgrounds in Brenham. Artesian Park features fifty RV sites with full hookups and wi-fi. The fairgrounds has full hookups available also.
A trip to the area would not be complete without a visit to the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in nearby College Station (northwest of Brenham on US 6). The museum has completed a multi-million dollar remodeling which included replicas of the White House Situation Room, the White House press room, and the Oval Office. The library is on the campus of Texas A & M University.
Annual events in Washington County include the Texas Independence Day Celebration (March 1-2) at the Washington-on-the-Brazos National Historic Site, the Official Bluebonnet Festival of Texas (mid-April) in Chappell Hill, the Burton Cotton Gin Festival (Mid-April) in Burton, the Brenham Maifest (early May), the International Festival-Institute at Round Top (June and July), and the Washington County Fair (mid-September) at the fairgrounds in Brenham.
Obtain a visitor guide for Washington County and Brenham for driving tours and information on attractions. It also contains tidbits on camping and outdoor recreation.
Brenham is located along US 290 less than seventy miles west of Houston and ninety miles east of Austin. Beside Brenham, Washington County contains several historic towns like Chappell Hill, Independence, Burton, Round Top, Industry, and of course, Washington, which is appropriately named since it is the birthplace of Texas.
For More Information:
Brenham/Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau
314 S. Austin Street
Brenham, TX 77833
Burton Cotton Gin & Museum
307 N. Main
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
1000 George Bush Drive W
College Station, Texas
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site
Star of the Republic Museum
936/878-2461 Ext 234
Blue Bell Creameries
P. O. Box 1807
Brenham, Texas 77834