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Living Large in Small Town Texas

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Most of the cliché’s about Texas are true. Everything is bigger and the fiercely proud people are friendlier. Out of four days in Brenham and environs – midway between Houston and Austin—my friend, Judy and I encounter nary a rude, rushed person. Everyone has a ready smile and a willingness to shoot the breeze, provide directions or offer to lead us to our destination, whether it’s Washington-on-the-Brazos—the birthplace of the Republic—or the George Herbert Walker Bush Library on the Texas A&M campus.


In Washington County, there are no skyscrapers, no man-made pollution, no crowded city streets and no noise, unless you consider the nostalgic whistle of a train or the mooing of cattle that out number citizens two to one. Instead of five-star hotels, Brenham boasts more than forty unique accommodations ranging from rough and tough dude ranches to more dainty Victorian bed and breakfasts where the décor and food rival city slicker hotels. And there is plenty to do. Or time to just chill out and watch the bluebonnets bloom in spring.


Life at Texas Life Ranch
As a matter of fact, we do both at Texas Life Ranch where attorneys Taunia and John Elick roll out the welcome mat at their 1,600-acre bed & breakfast, recently named one of Frommer’s Top 10 in Texas. We’re excited about taking a novice horse back ride, but the weather doesn’t cooperate. Texas-sized raindrops keep falling on our heads that also negates the coyote and raccoon adventure.


For solace, we wangle an invitation to join a corporate group and eat our way through a Texas barbecue spread extraordinaire consisting of pulled beef, pork ribs, corn casserole, fresh greens, homemade potato salad and coleslaw—all made from homegrown ingredients. At Taunia’s urging, I save room for my first ever taste of buttermilk pie, a Texas Life Ranch specialty. Judy samples the chocolate pecan pie and we trade bites. Both are indescribably delicious.


Our accommodations in the 1869 House—one of eight restored buildings on the ranch—may have mid-1800s décor, but the Jacuzzis are very twenty-first century. Like many of the others structures, it was scheduled for demolition before Taunia rescued it from the bulldozer. She confesses to a not-so-secret addiction to saving historic homes with the same fervor other women collect Manolo Blahnik shoes. The worse condition their condition, the more appealing to Taunia. To date, she’s acquired and restored twenty-three—and counting. Most live on various properties owned by the couple.


Brenham and environs
What Washington County lacks in population—around 32,000—it makes up in charm and history, our prime focus this trip. On the second day, we head to Washington-on-the Brazos where Independence Hall, the Barrington Living History Center, and the Star of Texas Museum bring history to life. Ironically, leaders of the territory signed the Declaration of Independence from Mexico on this property while 200 greatly outnumbered Texas settlers made a final stand against the army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna at the ill-fated Alamo in San Antonio.


Feeling hunger pangs, we ask three native Texans for lunch recommendations. Like an echo, each names, R Place, known for owner Randy Roger’s famous Texas barbecue. They warn us that though the place may look a tad tacky, the food is so legendary that Houstonians happily make the 1.5-hour ride on a regular basis. “Ask Randy to tell you the drive-in story,” one advises.


We love the small weathered building with its tin roof and neon sign/glass bottle/tin can décor on sight. And Roger’s cooking lives up to its reputation. When he comes around to say hello to customers, we ask about the drive-in. He quips, “I never knew I had a drive-thru restaurant until someone up and drove right through it!” He shrugged off the bizarre accident that nearly destroyed the place good-naturedly and is pleased that it only heightened the popularity of his establishment.


Historic Burton Cotton Gin
The prospect of seeing a slice of the industrial revolution in action lures us away from R Place to the Burton Cotton Gin, the oldest operational gin of its kind in the U.S. in the state that continues to be the country’s leading cotton producer. We’re mesmerized as curator Jerry Moore demonstrates the 16-ton, 1925 Bessemer Type IV diesel oil internal combustion engine affectionately known t as “Lady B.” It supplies the power to this updated version of Eli Whitney’s ingenious 1793 invention that separated the cottonseed from the fluffy fiber and revolutionized the industry. Moore’s lively reportage brings to life the 12-minute process that transported a truck load of cotton to banded bales.


The Burton Gin is recognized as a National Historic Engineering Landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Texas Historic Landmark. Every April at the Burton Cotton Gin Festival, they rev her up to produce a half-dozen or more 500-pound bales to be sold as fund raisers or to museums.


I scream, you scream. We all scream for ice cream.
Everyone tells us that all roads in Brenham lead to Blue Bell Creameries, a 103-year old privately owned company, so the next morning we head there for a look-see. Rumor has it that Blue Bell ice cream tastes so good because the cows think Brenham is heaven. And who are we to disagree? After all, the company is currently the No. 3 best selling brand in the U.S., despite being sold in only nineteen states. One taste and we know why their motto remains, “We eat all we can and then sell the rest.”


We giggle as we don white “shower” caps required for the tour and feel self-conscious until we pass a bearded man who has a smaller version dangling from his chin. Like our experience at the Burton Cotton Gin, we find the automation process fascinating. Looking down on the plant floor through a picture windows, we see a kaleidoscope of machinery in continuous mode. One machine adds the flavors of the day to large vats of semi-soft ice cream. Another stacks half-gallon tubs which are filled from an extruding spout, immediately topped with a lid, then turned upside down so they won’t fill with air. After being inserted into sleeves, the cartons head down a conveyor belt to the Blast Freezer where they are stored at a frigid 100 degrees below zero.


By the end of the tour, we’re pining for a taste and get our wish with samples of the day’s flavors, Butter Crunch (CEO Paul Kruse’s favorite), French Vanilla and Cookies ‘n Cream. Though machines do the heavy work, Blue Bell couldn’t run without its employees who rotate jobs, not only to avoid boredom, but to cross train.


So little time, so much to see
Time is running out on our Texas holiday, so the last day, we’ve scheduled a road trip to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the sprawling Texas A & M campus. We only have time to hit the highlights—a replica of President G.H.W. Bush’s TBM Avenger plane that was shot down during WWII, a full-sized Oval Office where we pose for pictures behind the president’s former desk and a peek into his Camp David office where President and Mrs. Bush show their lighter side chatting with Dana Carvey of “Saturday Night Live” on a television screen.


Next up: the St. Clare Monastery Miniature Horse Farm where sisters from the Cloistered Contemplative Order raise the adorable beasts. Two foals so new they’ve yet to be named (one two-days old, the second born the night before we visit) remind me of my daughter’s favorite stuffed “Canny-horse,” the one she nearly loved until the poor thing was nearly bald. female, no bigger than a mid-size dog, was a true little lady and stuck her mom’s side while the frisky male scampered in circles around the grounds bringing smiles from onlookers and strong “neigh’s” from his distressed mother, whose head reached about to my elbow.


The Sisters’ endeavor into the miniature horse business began when a group of Cuban nuns immigrated to Texas and searched for a way to earn a living without leaving the cloister. While surfing the web, Sister Bernadette, head of the order, chanced upon the Flying W Farms in Ohio that sold miniature horses. Of course, they had no money to purchase a pair, but she somehow managed to raise enough money to purchase a pair plus and get eighteen more on loan. Today, the order has eighty adorable horses for sale. How much do they get? “As much as we can,” says Sister Angela, one of three remaining nuns.


All week long, we’d been searching for a sign of the famous bluebonnets said to blanket Texas fields in April. Finally, they reveal their charming periwinkle blue faces. That morning, we’d spied a scattering of blooms along the roadside, but as the day warms, bluebonnets pop out faster than Chicken Pox, blanketing one pasture after another. The phenomena is credited to Lady Bird Johnson’s 1982 wildflower initiative to beautify the land and the April outburst has become such a tourist attraction that the University of Texas updates its bluebonnet cam hourly during the blooming season.


Sad to leave the tranquil area, we head back to the freeway for the drive to Houston to catch our flight home. The bustle of city traffic on overcrowded interstates seems bone jarring after our sojourn on picturesque country roads. We plot our next Texas trip as we wait in the security line. Fredericksburg? Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park? Or the Alamo in San Antonio? Since they’re in proximity to one another in the Hill Country, we decide to do all three in one fell swoop. Fall in Texas’ Hill Country should be amazing.

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