The rolling countryside of Washington County, Texas, is tranquil and pastoral. The county seat, Brenham, is the only population center; Burton, Chappell Hill, and Independence are tiny communities organized around rural crossroads. But this quiet part of the Lone Star State is also its most historic.
A single monumental event took place in 1836, when 59 men gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos and, under the direction of Sam Houston, signed a Declaration of Independence that gave birth to the Republic of Texas. Until it became the 28th state of the Union in 1846, Texas spent ten years as an independent country, a fact that has never faded from proud local memory. Today, Lone Star State lore lives in a reproduction of the original Independence Hall, where a copy of the tattered and stained Declaration is on display. Nearby is the pioneer house of Anson Jones, who came to Texas from Massachusetts in 1833. As the Republic’s last president, he retired upon annexation. Named after his home in the Berkshires, Barrington Living History Farm has a dog-trot house that’s now part of the complex.
At the Burton Cotton Gin and Museum, the staff fires up the 100-year-old Bessemer engine that drives operations in the National Register-listed site. Another opportunity for a hands-on heritage experience is at Texas Ranch Life, where guests are welcome to participate in cattle roundups, cutting, roping, team penning, and other traditional cowboy activities.
The Antique Rose Emporium preserves a less vigorous but fragrant and authentic aspect of Texas history. Owner G. Michael Shoup began to collect “old” roses in the late 1970s, after he found everblooming roses surviving without apparent care at abandoned farmsteads and gravesites. These sturdy, pest-resistant varieties form the backbone of the 8-acre display garden in Brenham and a nationwide mail-order business.
Lavender is the traditional counterpoint to roses; at the Chappell Hill Lavender Farm, sweet and Provence lavender thrive on 23 rolling acres. In the rustic gift shop, browse among sachets and culinary lavender. Ellison’s Greenhouses raise vast numbers of poinsettias; their Christmas display draws visitors from far and wide.
Several local wineries provide tours and tastings: the Windy Hill Winery and the Pleasant Hill Winery, both in Brenham, grow and bottle increasingly respected vintages. A very different outdoor experience awaits at the Monastery of Saint Clare Miniature Horse Farm. A community of Poor Clare nuns, 1960s refugees from Cuba, raise and sell the diminutive horses to support their spiritual work.
No tour is complete without a delicious visit to Blue Bell Creameries, where great ice cream has been made for 103 years. Sweet!