I was in Germany when the television show Dallas was at its zenith; to the Germans, the fact I was Texan meant I must be a conniving oilman. Austin is our capital, famous for its western-hipster vibe and a place where J.R. might not be too comfortable. San Antonio was my first Texas hometown, blending the best of the Americas into a Tex-Mex combo platter. Houston is a rollicking port city with a perpetually open door. To the West, there are still huge tracts where horseback is the most efficient mode of transportation. The point being that the term “Texan” enjoys an endless number of shaded meanings. To get a firmer grip on our Texanness, Mrs. Nester and I went to the source: Washington County, where Texas became Texas.
Brenham holds the Washington County seat and was the perfect rally point for our adventures. Brenham sits just north of US 290, almost exactly halfway between Houston and Austin, about an hour and 20 minutes from the downtown of either city; add an hour if you depart from San Antonio. Coming from Dallas, the direct trip should take a little more than three hours. Of course the Nesters never travel directly anywhere.
Instead, we stopped for a visit in College Station. I had heard that Bryan-College Station had forsaken us in favor of all that SEC cash, but was relieved to find the Lone Star Flag still flying at many establishments. Spending a day in College Station confirmed that Aggieness is unique form of schizophrenia. You cannot find a group of people nicer to visitors who, at the same time, are convinced that those same (unenrolled) visitors are by definition an inferior race. This superiority complex is basically incurable. Last year I happened to be in the stands as the Crimson Tide went mid-evil on the Ags, inflicting a 59-0 embarrassment that was, believe me, not nearly as close as the score indicated. The general consensus of the Ags around me was that the fact that they could lose a conference game so badly validated their decision to bolt the Big 12 and grab a seat at the grown-up table. I guess if someone is going to abuse you, it might as well be the very best abuser around.
Anyway, the object of our College Station visit was the George H. W. Bush Library, on the A & M campus. After about two and one-half hours of touring, the library had served its purpose, which is to demonstrate that 41 was very likely the most decent man to ever run the Oval Office. College athlete and Yale Phi Beta Kappa in 2 1/2 years. War hero, independent oilman who played a big part in the off-shore drilling revolution, a fair-housing proponent well before it was cool, super spy as leader of the CIA, Reagan confidant and overseer of the collapse of the Communist empire. Father of one, maybe two presidents. Skydiver at age 90. And the overwhelming feeling you get is “gee, what a nice guy.” No, what an amazing guy. If you get the chance, visit the library and pay your respects.
From College Station, we investigated Bryan, the Brazos County seat. Our immediate goal was renowned barbecue joint Fargo’s. Fargo’s was closed for a two-week holiday. Damn. So we spent a couple of hours kicking around downtown Bryan. Our take was that the buildings (other than a lame courthouse) are great, particularly the Carnegie Public Library, the LaSalle Hotel and the Palace Theater. The shopping and eateries, sadly, are pedestrian.
From Bryan it was a short drive to Brenham, where the shopping, activities and eating are decidedly not pedestrian. Before we dive in, we need to clear the air. When a Texan says Brenham, every other Texan hears Bluebell. And Bluebell is fighting for its life as evidenced by the “We Proudly Support Blue Bell Ice Cream” signs plastered in every window in Brenham. Two points are relevant here. First, there is a just and fair God who loves me; ergo Bluebell will survive, prosper and be the ala mode to my cobbler for the rest of my natural-born life and in the hereafter. Second, Brenham is much, much more than Bluebell.
Start on the square at the visitor’s center housed in the restored Simon theater. For a town of 15,000, Brenham has an extraordinary number of cultural activities and events. The weekend we were in town ended the “Hot Nights, Cool Tunes” summer series with a concert and car show. Most of the town made it out for an enjoyable evening of food and music under the stars. Shops and restaurants fill the square, we featured as many as we could in the Facebook album, but a couple are not to be missed.
We loved the Hermann Family stores. The Hermann family has been running a furniture store since 1876. That is 139 years for those of you without access to a calculator or common core skills. It is easy to see why. The multi-floor location is expansive and filled with understated pieces equally suitable for farm, ranch or penthouse. If you are decorating a place anywhere from Houston to Austin, you owe yourself a visit. Next to the furniture store is Hermann’s General Store, a prime example of its species if there ever was one. For our peanut butter loving daughter we purchased a jar of cinnamon-flavored peanut butter; PB & J may never be the same. There is a host of other food stuffs and gifts not to be found elsewhere; a trip in early December will mean well-stuffed stockings for everyone.
Across the street was the Book Nook, a quirky used book store with all sorts of finds. In the day of the Kindle, it is nice to hold an actual book every now and then. At the Book Nook you can find one or many for extremely reasonable prices. For fashion, Mrs. Nester favored (heavily favored) Bar B Boutique, a place with clothes that just make you happy. Of course, sprinkled throughout the square were a variety of antique and vintage stores that even a causal treasure hunter could get lost in for hours. If the mood hits you, The Funky Art Cafe, Smitty’s Bakery, Must Be Heaven, Yumm and the BT Longhorn Saloon all offer inspired re-fueling stops. Speaking of re-fueling stops, we heard repeatedly that the best burger in town was at the Southern Flyer Diner at the airport. Folks will fly their Cessna from not so close to get a meal; we did not make it out there, but plan to next time.
For the really Texas-style spectacular, make your way to the south side of the square, which is mostly taken up by Ant Street Inn. The building, which houses a hotel and restaurant, is a late 19th century work of art. Owners Suzy and Keith Hankins are big city refugees with welcoming smiles for guests and visitors. We met them in their art gallery, right behind the Inn, the cleverly named Back Lot Gallery. The gallery features emerging artists; the current show starred Leiann Klein, a multi-dimensional talent whose work will not stay on the back lot for long. The Hankins have shows lined up through next March, their gallery is easily missed if you are not staying in the Inn–make a point to stop by. Immediately across from the gallery is a great Farmers Market and bar. Winning!
From the square we made it to the Far View Bed and Breakfast, which I had picked by throwing a dart at the multitude of B & B’s in the area. Bullseye, as the Far View was the perfect combination of vintage charm and modern amenities. Steve, the proprietor and a Canadian transplant, made a fantastic breakfast that more than met the second requirement for a B & B; had we wanted to we could have spent a perfectly enjoyable day poolside.
Back to the breakfast. The fact that the Nesters could eat breakfast was remarkable, given our adventure the night before. We noticed we were not far from Fayetteville, home to Joe’s Place, a Texas Monthly Best Small Town Cafe. To say that the drive over was “worth it” is like saying that in Rome one should see the Vatican. First of all, the drive was great. Two-lane country road at dusk, through rolling hills, oak trees, stock ponds and picket fences. The houses were amazing and the views even better. I seriously need to win the lottery and buy both a country estate and a convertible. Sometimes, travelling around Texas you wonder “why would anyone live here?” The thought driving from Brenham to Faytteville was “why doesn’t everybody live here?”
Fayetteville turns out to have 241 residents and, pound for pound, is the coolest little town in Texas. We were too late for the stores on the square, but it is an obviously thriving artist colony. We were welcomed into a gallery housed in an old Red & White grocery store. I am no art critic so I will just give it my highest grade by saying it was cool. The highlight, though, was Joe’s Place. The great atmosphere derived equally from the place and the service. A long, well-used bar dominates the room, high ceilings with wood floors and furnishings that are country without shouting about it. Big smiles and honest opinions about the food; quick wit and laughs are complimentary. And why shouldn’t everyone be happy? Joe’s food was out of this world. Mrs. Nester had the best chipotle pork chop ever and my catfish was not far behind.
So, close to a caloric catastrophe following Joe’s and the Far View breakfast, on Saturday we set out to walk it off. From Brenham we drove to Washington-on-the-Brazos state park. For the uninitiated, Texas became a nation on March 2, 1836 when the delegates to a hastily-called convention declared themselves independent from Mexico. The written declaration the delegates signed was provided by George Childress, who had been in Texas all of four months by that point. The document was a bit of formality as the war was already ongoing, but there was confusion as to what the Texans were fighting for–total independence or to force the Mexicans to adhere to early agreements. Many of the delegates were, like Childress, late arrivals who would find no benefit in those earlier agreements. So total independence became the goal and the result.
Santa Anna did not see it quite that way. Our founders spent a few weeks trying to get themselves organized, but soon the news of Mexicans rampaging through the countryside and coming to get them sent them scrambling. Should have built a wall. This chapter of the story is known as the “Runaway Scrape,” the mass exodus of everyone living anywhere between Washington and San Antonio. People, our leaders included, literally just threw down and ran to get out of the Mexicans’ way. It turns out Santa Anna never intended to make it to Washington-on-the-Brazos, he was headed for San Jacinto. I am sure that the Mexican general later regretted that decision when he had the chance to meet Sam Houston in person; the politicians were probably easier pickings than an army that was really, really peeved about the whole Alamo thing.
These are all things that Mrs. Wittles, my seventh-grade social studies teacher, told me a long time ago. The state park and related museums do a great job of reminding us of the story, but unfortunately not much remains of Washington-on-the-Brazos. Which might be just as well. The setting is bucolic and sometimes it is best to just close your eyes and imagine what it was like.
From Washington it is just 14 miles to Independence. That short trip took us about two and 1/2 hours because leaving the park we turned right instead of left on FM 1155. The “problem” was not a directional error; instead FM 1155 took us to R Place (formerly the H.A. Stolz Grocery Store) and Randy Rogers. Not the country western singer, but maybe a character from one of his songs. This Randy is a fairly recent transplant from the Woodlands. He has transformed the Store into a combination roadside diner/bar/art gallery that was a highlight of the trip. The food was great, the beer was ice cold and the conversation was even better. Randy does a Saturday night price fixe meal that we would have loved to indulge in, but our other plans meant we had to settle for some excellent brisket and the assurance of other customers that the chicken salad sandwich was even better.
Although we could have spent all afternoon at R Place, we did pull ourselves away and make it to Independence. There are three reasons to stop in Independence. If you are a gardener, the Antique Rose Emporium is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to one-up your gardening rivals. The town is bathed in history, including the burial site for Sam Houston’s family and the oldest Baptist Church in Texas. But the irresistible force that pulled Mrs. Nester and me to Independence was that the Texas’ oldest and greatest university got its start there. When Judge R.E. Baylor realized his dream in 1845, the school enjoyed a gorgeous hilltop setting. All that is left now is an entrance way and some markers at the boy’s dorm across town. It seems Baptists have been keeping men and women separate while at the same time complaining about homosexuality for at least 170 years. I am not sure about that strategy, but for all its foibles and faults, we love the school with our whole hearts and were happy to have been to the home place.
From Independence we made the somewhat longer drive to Round Top, reputedly the antique capitol of Texas. Again, I emphasize we were wandering rather than aiming for efficiency. And again, the drive was gorgeous and relaxing. Round Top, however, fizzled. Pretty much where the Stepford wives go to decorate, there was not a store that would have been out of place as a Bed, Bath and Beyond display. Two caveats to this critique: (1) we were not there “in season” when road vendors fill every nook and cranny with the real stuff and (2) Royer’s Cafe, a world famous eatery, was closed during the afternoon. A lunch-time visit during a “show week” might lead to a different result.
We realized our time would have been better spent in Bellville; Brenham’s kissing cousin, the Austin County seat and a short drive from Brenham south on Hwy. 36. While not nearly as large or varied as Brenhman, the Bellville square has all the authenticity that Round Top lacked. The early-evening hour reduced us to window shopping in several stores, but our visits to Buck Fergeson Originals and Amy’s Unique Boutique convinced us to come back when everyone was open. As an added bonus, we stopped in for a good burger and fried chicken at the Kenney Store and dance hall. If we had not been headed back to Brenham for the town square concert, we might have danced the night away there.
In the end, we did as much running around as the participants in the Runaway Scrape. We learned a few things, though. Texans have always been a strange bunch; many of them blowing into town with grandiose dreams and not much else. We have a unique capacity to run plays drawn up in the sand and an affinity for road trips. Cows and horsepower are important. So are music, art and beer. Mrs. Wittles did a good job, although she left out the beer part, but I was glad for the refresher course.
The summary: Find yourself a Brenham Bed and Breakfast or stay at Ant Inn; Fayetteville is a worthy excursion from almost anywhere and contemplating the greatness of Texas over a cold one at the other Randy Rogers’ place, yards from where it all began, is one of life’s purer pleasures. Get out there, Nesters!