Once its treasures are uncovered, it is easy to see the wealth of opportunities that awaits visitors to Washington County, Texas. The Brenham, Chappell Hill or Washington-on-the-Brazos area is one of the most beloved locations in Texas, where people flock in the springtime to embrace the splendor of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and lavender fields.
Now add to the mix several distinct wineries amid gently rolling landscapes. But there is more to this lush countryside than meets the eye, or the taste buds!
Soon after our arrival, we realized that this is the land of not only wildflowers, longhorns, horses, cotton and corn, but amazing niches steeped in Texas history. After all, it is the birthplace of Texas.
Relaxing in restored 1800s accommodations, or savoring the best of the best Texas barbecue, this is a chance to live the Texas life, either on a ranch or in Victorian settings in town or in the country. It’s a tough decision, but either way you can’t lose.
Arriving in Washington County late in the day gave us just enough time to visit with the folks at Texas Ranch Life.
If you want to be a cowboy, you have to eat, sleep, work and play the role. This is easily achieved at Texas Ranch Life, which is an 1,800-acre, working cattle ranch near Chappell Hill. Visiting one of the refurbished farm houses is all one needs to feel steeped in early Texas life.
We were amazed by the various farm houses and historic buildings that dotted the ranch as gracious accommodations for vacationers. Here visitors find as few or as msny dude ranch opportunities or cowboy experiences as they want to grasp. From horseback riding on the open range to chowing down on open-pit cowboy dinners, not to mention roping, cattle driving, fishing, tomahawk throwing – well, this is ranch life at its finest.
Texas Ranch Life owners John and Taunia Elick give visitors many options to broaden their cowboy horizons, such as learning gun handling and safety with professional shootist Bryon Potter, experiencing cutting horse demonstrations, enjoying horseback rides on the open range or just relaxing in their own little piece of country-quiet heaven. texasranchlife.com
Visit Washington-on-the Brazos State Historic Site and Independence Hall to step back in time to witness the date when Texians declared independence from Mexico in 1836. Yes, at one time citizens were called Texians. For 10 years, this enormous pioneer land was known as the Republic of Texas, and to this day, the building that once housed the Republic of Texas foreign embassy still stands in Paris, France.
At the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, we toured a replica of the original building known as Independence Hall, where visitors are welcomed to the tiny town of Washington-on-the-Brazos, once the thriving capital of Texas.
Park ranger and historical interpreter Adam Arnold related the events of that era from the time the hall was built in 1835, to 1850, when it was torn down. The replica is the exact footprint of the original building. It is made of white oak construction, as was the original. Texas applied for statehood and became a part of the United States on Dec. 29, 1845.
A wealth of information can be found at the Star of the Republic Museum, where the rich history of the Republic of Texas abounds, along with an excellent “wall of events” - key dates that have taken place in Texas.
Barrington Living History Farm is another opportunity to place oneself in early Texas life, by stepping into the 1850s and into the shoes of a Texian dignitary who once resided at this Washington-on-the-Brazos historic site. The dog-run white farm house was the home of Dr. Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas, for more than 10 years as the Jones family built a successful cotton farm.
Interpreters in 1850s period costumes go about the business of daily chores on this working historic farm with gardens, barns, farm animals, a separate working kitchen with a fireplace to cook on, two slave cabins and scenic views from every direction. Using Jones’ written accounts, they follow the seasons for planting, cultivating and harvesting.
Taking a lunch break at Nathan’s BBQ was a savory treat, which included a tour of the barbecue ovens. I can still smell the aroma.
Back in Brenham, I relaxed in one of the charming Victorian-style rooms at the Ant Street Inn, owned by Suzy and Keith Hankins, which is as delightful as the antique stores and boutiques within walking distance. Ant Street Inn is a small boutique hotel with 15 distinct guest rooms, and is housed in a two-story, historic building that was once a feed store. It is complete with an old grain elevator that still greets guests in the Memphis Room. With tall ceilings and huge windows, the elegant rooms are inviting. I made myself at home in my Victorian, antique bed and enjoyed the upstairs balcony, complete with rocking chairs. antstreetinn.com
Must Be Heaven Cafe is also on the next corner, where the specialty of the day is pie – all kinds of pie! It’s one of my favorites in the area.
The in-house restaurant at Ant Street Inn is the Brenham Grill, - open for breakfast for guests, where I enjoyed my delicioso migas – priceless. We visited the Back Lot Gallery, where new Texas artists are featured, and sampled delectable sweets from Bliss Candy Company and Park Street Bakery.
Antique shops and wineries could be the only reason you need to visit Washington County. This is serious antique-shopping-country, and with four local wineries ready to help all wine seekers find a perfect match for their pallet, what could be a better reason?
The winery we checked out on the first day was Texas Star Winery in Chappell Hill. Known as a country winery, the Texas Star specializes in fruit wines, with favorites including prickly pear, plum, hibiscus and wild mustang grape.
With the smells of lavender still lingering following our visit to the Chappell Hill Lavender Farm, owned by Jim and Debbie McDowell, we headed to our next destination, with lavender soap and various other lavender sundries in tow. Another trip to see fields of lavender will have to wait until spring. Our next day was spent touring the historic Cotton Gin Museum, Saddlehorn Winery, the gloriously restored Simon Theater, the Windy Winery and the Antique Rose Emporium. Each of the last two tours represented distinct and beautiful wedding venues: the Simon Theater, with its grand ballroom upstairs, and the Antique Rose Emporium, with an outdoor wedding setting that is picture perfect. For me, the Rose Emporium is a smorgasbord for the senses and the soul, while the Simon Grand Ballroom is elegant and emanates grandeur.
A special note about the Windy Winery: It is one of the only wineries in Texas using only Texas grapes, making it 100 percent Texan.
The Saddlehorn Winery, which is actually located in Burton, Texas, offers tastings from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. I love the name, and also enjoyed their products.
Believe it or not, a trip to the George Bush Presidential Library in Bryan-College Station is only about an hour’s drive away. The life of our 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush, is tastefully displayed, including a replica of the Oval Office. With 21,000 square feet, and an $8.3 million renovation to the main exhibit, this museum and library do not disappoint.z
A tour at Pleasant Hill Winery gave us the opportunity to enjoy a taste of the Zaffiro and Macedonio families’ delectable wines. Afterward, we shopped in the local boutiques and antique shops in Brenham, including Ranch Interiors, Hermann Furniture/Antique Mall, Book Nook and Bluebird off the Square.
Brenham is the county seat of Washington County, and is a National Main Street City, with magnificent historic buildings. Downtown Brenham has revolved around the Courthouse Square since 1844. Chappell Hill is filled with National Register historical sites and charming antique and gift shops for treasure hunting. Here you’ll find the Chappell Hill Historical Museum, which documents the area’s history of plantation cotton farming and Polish-immigrant settlers.
Many places claim to be the “heart of Texas,” while Washington County, most certainly, is at the top of the list, and is second to none!