By Kathie Farnell
Photos by Jack M. Purser
Deep in the heart of Texas—and just an hour from the Houston airport—Washington County offers down-home fun via lively small towns, quirky attractions and a chance to channel your inner buckaroo.
Texas Ranch Life, a complex of working ranches in the vicinity of Chappell Hill, provides everything from trail rides to chuckwagon meals to a chance to participate in a longhorn cattle drive. Its Lonesome Pine Ranch, 1600 acres of scenic rolling hills, is home to seven authentically restored historic Texas homes dating back to the 1850s. The houses, furnished luxuriously with antiques, feature original paint, split-rail fences lined with roses, and in the case of the Confederate House, occasional nocturnal appearances by its late occupant. Owners John and Taunia Elick welcome guests at Texas Ranch Life with old-fashioned hospitality and a chance to experience life on a working ranch. A covered arena with viewing stands allows visitors to watch John put one of his prize cutting horses through its paces before saddling up for a trail ride through the rolling hills. In addition to vacations, guests come here for conferences, photo shoots and even weddings—someone, hearing of Taunia’s interest in rescuing historic Texas buildings from demolition, gave her a church.
A few miles up the road, Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site gives another view of Texas history, through replicas of the site of Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico in 1836. The park offers guided tours as well as hiking trails, and the nearby Star of the Republic Museum depicts the history of the Republic of Texas before it became a state in 1846. The Barrington Living History Farm allows visitors to experience Texas plantation life of 150 years ago through costumed interpreters who demonstrate everyday life on the farm of Anson Jones, last president of the Republic of Texas.
Weekends, stop by R Place, an old country store reborn as a cafe, open Friday through Sunday and featuring barbecue and homemade cobbler.
For a literal taste of modern Texas, head for the Blue Bell Creameries just outside Brenham, where visitors can get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of everybody’s favorite ice cream. Opened in 1907, Blue Bell stocks from 40-50 flavors of ice cream at any one time. Employees—who get all the free ice cream they can eat—are invited to submit ideas for new flavors, though Homemade Vanilla is still the biggest seller. Once in a while somebody comes up with a loser, such as the short-lived Dill Pickle.
Brenham, the county seat since 1844, is a scenic little place whose revitalized downtown hosts a number of shops and restaurants. Ingleside Bed and Breakfast, a circa-1923 home within easy walking distance of downtown, is a convenient and plush headquarters for exploring the area. The gourmet breakfasts here include decadent entrees like the Bananas Foster Omelet—which sounds startling, but resembles very rich French toast—as well as muffins and fresh fruit. In the heart of downtown, the Ant Street Inn features rooms with high ceilings furnished in nineteenth century antiques. Downtown offers a number of interesting choices for food, too. A full day’s eating here might include the Brenham Olde Towne Bakery’s pastries with locally-roasted Independence Coffee, the retro-diner Must Be Heaven Sandwich Shoppe’s dozen different pies, salads and sandwiches at the art-filled Funky Art Café, and down-home chicken fried steak and great guacamole at K-Bob’s Steakhouse.
Side trips from Brenham feature plenty of opportunities to keep in touch with nature. The Antique Rose Emporium, a popular mail order nursery, rescues heirloom roses from old cemeteries and other forgotten locales. The roses, along with native wildflowers, bloom in profusion in the garden which is also home to Ginger, the resident rose-sniffing dog. Chappell Hill Lavender Farm welcomes visitors with thousands of fragrant plants and a chance to sip lavender lemonade in the gazebo.
Nearby, the Monastery of St. Clare Miniature Horse Farm, home to a group of Franciscan Poor Clare nuns, raises and sells tiny horses. Sister Angela says that the horse-breeding operation, which began in 1981 when the monastery got a pair of the little horses as pets, has grown to become a tourist attraction; during Spring Break, more than 800 visitors per day came through to admire the horses and visit the gift shop.
Whatever your interest—history, food, or the unexpected—a visit to Washington County will introduce you to some of the best of what Texas has to offer.
Brenham, Texas, is located about 70 miles west of Houston. The area is served by daily flights into Houston Intercontinental Airport and Houston-Hobby Airport. For more information, check the website at www.BrenhamTexas.com or call the Washington County Chamber of Commerce/CVB at 1-888-BRENHAM.