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The Texas Independence Trail, Part I

Take in a little history on a road trip through Texas.

The five attractive middle-aged ladies finished their early breakfast at the Best Western in Brenham, paid their bill and stopped by my table on their way out. Two, with whom I had spoken in the hotel lobby the previous evening, wanted to explain their costumes, which were downright peculiar. "We're cooking for the Texas Army today, you know, recreating the Battle of San Jacinto and everything, and we have to dress the part."

The battle took place in 1836, so the ladies were clad in white bonnets, several layers of crinoline, boots and checkered aprons. When I admired their dress, one asked, "Do you want to see my bloomers?" and with two of her companions, pulled up their voluminous skirts to about knee level, showing off bright red knickers. My new friend proudly proclaimed, "They call me the Indecent Docent of (name of museum deleted)," mentioning a place I would be visiting two days later.

A good sense of humor seems to be standard along the Independence Trail, which celebrates Texas' fight for freedom from Mexico back in the 1830s. But my inspection of the route indicates a healthy respect for travelers' budgetary concerns as well. With little fuss or feathers, I was able to locate lodgings where a double room cost as little as $65 (in a Round Top Gasthaus), and places to eat where breakfast runs as little as $2.25 (at the Guacamole Restaurant in Brenham), lunch $2.50 (at Royers Cafe in Round Top) and dinner $5.99 (again at the Guacamole). In short, you could drive the Trail for as little as $44 a day per person staying in a double room, not counting gas and snacks. And if you're lucky, you'll be driving this route during the period when blue bonnet flowers are in bloom everywhere, it seems, from mid March to early May.

The Trail from Houston to La Grange

You have a lot driving options. You could head straight west from Houston for the major sites on this part of the Trail using US 290, but you'd miss several of the route's best sites, including one in Houston itself. The Sam Houston Historical Park is full of old buildings (including homes) from the period of 1820 through 1900, and just west of it is Freedman's Town Historic District, a 40-block residential area laid out in 1867 for freed slaves, itself of serious interest.

Leaving Houston on US 59, head west and you will soon begin to see evidence of the huge influx of German and Czech immigrants into the area, dating back to as early as 1844, when Germans established their only successful colony in North America here. At Frydek and Wallis, you can visit some simple, but beautiful, churches built by the Czechs in the middle of the rich farmland they cultivated so successfully.

Turning north along State 36, you soon reach San Felipe, where Stephen F. Austin and the first colonists obtained deeds to 4,000 acres of land from the Mexican government in 1823, making the town Texas' first "Anglo-American" capital. The main sites here are a replica of Austin's cabin, a store from the 1840s and a few other buildings from that era.


From San Felipe, continue on State 36 to Brenham, the biggest town around, then take State 105 northeast to FM 1155 (plenty of signs) and south a bit to Washington-on-the-Brazos. This tiny town, now a state historical park, ranks dearest in the hearts of true Texans along with San Jacinto, the former being the spot where independence from Mexico was declared, the latter where freedom was won in a bloody battle. Only 50 days lay between the two events.

Here, on March 2, 1836, the leaders of the Texas revolt against Mexican rule (including Sam Houston) met to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence, also drafting a Constitution while they were at it. Although the delegates passed the resolution to form a new country on March 2, they actually signed the final draft on March 3. (Just three days later, the Alamo fell.)

The highlight of the park is a replica of Independence Hall, which you can visit, and where you can sit at (replica) tables in the open-windowed (no glass panes) room where these historic deeds were done in rainy, 33-degree weather. Nearby is the 1848 home of Anson Jones, last president of the Republic of Texas, which became part of the United States in 1846, just ten years from its birth in 1836. The best souvenir shop along the trail, in my opinion, can be found at the Star of the Republic Museum, which includes a good permanent collection of exhibits about that ten-year period on its ground floor. The Star of the Republic Museum's Web site is Admission is $4 for adults, but see note on combo tickets below.

If you had the foresight to buy food and drink at a market along the route, this is a fine place to have a picnic, in a shaded area overlooking the Brazos River. On March 1 to 3 yearly, volunteers reenact the events surrounding the signing of the Declaration, with "Texas Army" tents erected on the rounds, and demonstrations of 19th-century iron-mongery, weaving and other crafts given throughout the daytime hours. There is also a restaurant near the Visitor Center, and short walking trails to burn off the calories if you wish. (A park spokesperson volunteered that one reason the park is so clean and neat is that state prisoners are often brought in to help out.)

Admission to the park is $4 for adults, but if you want to visit all its parts (including the museum and a farm), there is a combination ticket for $6 for adults, $3 for children, or a $15 family ticket allowing two adults and up to five children to enter.


The largest town on this part of the Trail, Brenham boasts several hotels and restaurants (see below), as well as a significant handful of good antique shops and a pretty town square. The annual Maifest, this year May 11-13, celebrates the town's German traditions with dancing, food, and a market. On the first Saturday of May, admission is free for the Ice Cream Festival, another fete. More information at 888/BRENHAM or on their Web site,

Burton and Round Top

Just a few miles to the west of Brenham on US 290 is Burton, home to a famous gin and a marvelous French-owned restaurant (for the latter, see listings below). The gin is for cotton, but is the only restored and operating machine of its kind in Texas, having also been declared a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark. If you want to see part of how the South made so much money out of its cotton plantations, take a look at this contraption plugging away. (The major part of the South's cotton fortune, of course, came from the backbreaking labor of its enslaved men, women, and children.)

At Round Top, a few miles south of Burton on State 237, you'll find two unique sights, one cultural, one more commercial. The International Festival Institute, five miles north of town on State Road 237, is the scene of many concerts and musical workshops in the summer. Founded by the concert pianist James Dick, this amazing complex is home to much music, several study programs and tours of the beautiful grounds and herb garden. The auditorium itself is worth the visit, finely crafted woods having been formed into a semi-Gothic mishmash of aspects both pleasing and ugly. The place is still under construction, but it's usable for major musical events, which this year run from June 9 through July 14. There are chamber music concerts on Fridays at 8 PM and Saturdays at 3. The Texas Festival Orchestra performs on Saturdays at 8 PM. From August to April, they also have monthly concerts. Tickets start at $10. You can have dinner for $40 after the concerts, or stay over (see Lodgings, below). Note that you MUST phone ahead to arrange a visit of any kind. You can reach them at 979/249-3129, e-mail:, Web site:

In the town itself, you'll find Henkel Square, a kind of Disneyfied village with structures dating from the 1820-1870. Several buildings of both Anglo (as immigrants from the USA were called) and German influences line the streets here. I liked most the Apothecary and the Weaver's House, where you can get a good idea of the craftsmanship involved in early days. There's an Arts Festival on the square each fall (November 3 & 4, 2001), with over 100 pre-vetted artists meeting to discuss and sell their work.

If you see signs denoting a lodge of The Sons of Hermann here and there along the Trail, don't be mystified (as I was until researching the group). It's a social order (the "oldest fraternal benefit society in the nation," since 1840) along the lines of the Elks, and yes, there was a legendary Hermann back there in the beginning, in the time of the Roman occupation of Germany (9 AD), in fact. Check out its Web site, The town's Web site is

South of Round Top on 237 is the Sterling McCall Old Car Museum with vehicles dating from 1908 through 1960. Admission $5 adults, children $2.75, under 12 free. Phone them at 979/249-5089, Web site:

Take State 159 southwest from Round Top, and you will soon find the Monument Hill State Historical Park, commemorating victims of the Meier Expedition, who tried to revenge Santa Anna's incursions with a disastrous raid on Mexico. After being captured, the men were forced to draw beans, white ones meaning imprisonment, a black one signifying death. There's a 48-foot memorial shaft rising about the park, overlooking La Grange and the Colorado River. (Note that this is not the same Colorado that flows through the Grand Canyon and to the Pacific Ocean via the Gulf of Baja California.) On the same grounds is the attractive old Kreische House, built by a German brewer in the 1860s. Hiking trails and picnicking are also available here. Admission $2, less for students, under 12 free. Visit the park's Web site for me information.

South of Monument Hill are the farms and churches of the Fayette Prairie, settled in the 1800s by immigrants from Germany and what is now the Czech Republic. The churches at Dubina and Praha are exceptionally fine, the latter with painted ceilings in the Old World manner, and cemeteries where the graves are decorated throughout the year, not just on Memorial Day or other special occasions. The Praha church, St. Ann's, has an uninspiring stone exterior, but is gorgeous inside and is open all the time, throughout the year. Note the ceiling and wall paintings, done with buttermilk and herbs mixed into the paint. At Dubina's Saints Cyril & Methodius Church, which has the finest exterior of any I've seen in that area, though the interior is more subdued. Furthermore, you can only go as far as the foyer, where an iron gate permits you to look in, but not enter, the main body of the church.

Belle, the Singing Cow

La Grange itself has an impressive town square with a ditto courthouse (1891), the charming little Faison House (1841, owned by the local garden club) and one of the nicest restaurants along the entire trail (see below). Not to be missed here is The Jersey Barnyard, home of Belle, the Singing Cow. Located on State 159 and 237 northeast of La Grange a few miles, the Barnyard says you "can have fun 'til the cows come home" here, feeding and/or petting their goats, chickens, fish, calves, cows, pigs, donkey, duck and bunnies. You can also take a hayride and try to milk a cow. There is a guided tour costing $5.50 for adults, $4.50 for children 12 and under, phone 409/249-3406, open daily. There's a store where you can buy Blue Bell ice cream (famous in this part of Texas) and locally made cheese.

(Note to animal lovers, Belle only "sings" when she feels like it and is not coaxed or forced to do so, say the owners. That's a big difference from the late and lamented Ralph the Swimming Pig, from a different part of the state, who, I was told when I tried to interview him, was simply thrown into the tank (with a glass wall for viewers) and had to get out somehow, which is the way he learned to swim.)

You can tour the Blue Bell Creameries from March through August, at a cost of $2.50 for adults, $2 for seniors and kids under 15, free under 6. There's the usual dairy machinery, the cows, and a shop (open March through December), of course. Phone 979/836-7977, Web site:


In Round Top, several houses are part of the GasteHaus B&B group, operated by the Texas Pioneer Arts Foundation, which supports Texas-German Culture. You can stay in the Knutzen Haus, the Graf Haus, the Log Cabin, the Bybee Farmhouse or the Nechanitz Haus. Rooms range from $65 per night up to $175 for suites. For reservations, phone 409/249-3308, fax 249-5781 or e-mail

In Burton, you could try the historic Knittel Homestead Inn B&B, with double rooms (including breakfast, often across the street at the historic Burton cafe, same owners) costing $80 weekdays, $90 weekends. There are only three bedrooms in this lovely old house, each with its own private bath featuring claw foot tubs. Phone 979/289-5102, Steve and Cindy Millers, owners.

If you feel like splurging a bit, try the Mariposa Ranch, 8904 Mariposa Lane, in Brenham. Just a few miles northwest of town on State 36 then FM 390, the ranch is owned and operated by Charles & Johnna Chamberlain, a doctor and businesswomen, respectively (and he's a director of the Texas Ranger Foundation). A two-story, handsome 1870 plantation home is one of the six buildings where rooms are provided. Others are in an 1825 log cabin, a charming cottage, an 1836 Greek Revival style home, a 1900 farmhouse and even a ranch hand's bunkhouse. Rates start at $85 weekdays ($105 weekends) for the Travis Room (for two persons), a sumptuous breakfast included, but other rooms cost more ($125 and up). Giant oaks surround the buildings, which sit on a totally peaceful and quiet plain. The main home's walls are lined with fully stocked bookshelves and prints, many of them antique. Phone 979/836-4737, fax 836-4712, e-mail:, Web site:


For cheap eats in Brenham, try Guacamole's Mexican Restaurant at 201 S. Market, phone 979/836-8288. Breakfast tacos cost only 99 cents, two-egg dishes $2.25, quesadillas $1.25, sandwiches $2.50 and house specialties mostly $5.99.

Tim's Cafe on the Square in La Grange is one of the prettiest dining places along the Trail. Spacious and multi-windowed, it's bright and cheerful, not to mention cheap. Burgers start at $3.75, other sandwiches at $4.95, and several dishes (including chicken, meatloaf, pasta or sausages with sauerkraut) cost only $7.95. A Sunday brunch (salad and dessert buffet and choice of entree) costs only $9.95, less for children. Phone 979/968-9665.

In Round Top, try the Royers Cafe, with a soup/bread deal for only $2.50 (e.g., corn chowder and jalapeno sourdough), or a hamburger at $5.95. Bud and Karen Royer mix Texan cooking with modern bistro cuisine, and have pies to die for. On Henkel Square, phone 888/881-7437 to order the pies.

The Brazos Belle, on North Main Street in Burton, is a pleasant discovery, being a French-chef-owned spot with Texan-influenced Old World cuisine. It's housed in an old general store (with some of the items still on the shelves). The chef is Andre Delacroix, who tries to cook dishes "from my childhood," including Scampi Provencale, Chicken Nicoise or cassoulet. Entrees range from $9.95 upwards to $18.95. Phone 979/289-2677.

More Information

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (usually known as just TPW) has put out a fine and voluminous bunch of pamphlets, maps and brochures on the 119 State Historical and Recreational Parks, which you can obtain by phoning toll free 866/488-5500 or 512/389-4800, fax 389-4450. You can also visit their informative Web site, Note that there are admission charges to the parks, ranging from $1 to $5 for adults, nothing for children 12 and under.