INTRODUCTION TO BRENHAM, TEXAS
By John Ronan Broderick
BRENHAM’S FOUNDING MOTHER
In the dozen or so previous articles I have had the privilege to write about Texas cities and towns, it seems that the story invariably begins with some man or group of men who were responsible for the founding of the settlement—Founding Fathers, as it were. None of my research thus far has uncovered the roles that women played in such endeavors. It is therefore my great honor and pleasure to tell the story of a tough-as-nails pioneering woman and the role she played in the founding of Brenham, Texas.
As it so happens, the lady in question was the great-grandmother (x4) of a lifelong friend of mine, Ronnie Avery, with whom I went to high school in Pasadena, Texas, in the mid-1960s. Ronnie was kind enough to share with me an unpublished family history document co-authored by his mother, Joy Eileen Green Avery. She was a descendant, on her father’s side, of this intrepid, twice-widowed, middle-aged woman who was hell-bent on moving her family to Texas, circa 1824, ostensibly with the intention of becoming part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colonists, known as “The Old Three Hundred.” Though her name is not listed among those 297 on the master list, she endured the same hardships as the others, and she did it alone, in her mid-forties, perhaps mid-fifties, without the aid of a husband.
I knew Mrs. Avery and her husband Dr, Avery, a prominent Pasadena physician, fairly well, since I was a frequent visitor in their home. She was a proud member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, as well as the Daughters of the Confederacy. Had she gone to the trouble to do so, she could also have qualified for the Daughters of the American Revolution. This lady had some kind of lineage! The document she co- authored with Joyce Martin Murray is a testimony to her thoroughness in research, even utilizing old family Bibles to establish the facts of the yarn, which she wrote and passed on to her grandchildren in the form of a letter.
Please allow me to relate to you the story of Arabella Jemima Gray Deaver Harrington, as recounted by Mrs. Avery and Mrs. Murray in a document dated June 29, 1986, which you may accept for the most part as accurate. For Mrs. Avery would not have been comfortable bending the truth of her family history. Her document is supplemented by my own independent research, which dug up a few very minor discrepancies, but also some supplemental details. Her research was of course done prior to the advent of the Internet, while mine was done some 34 years later (after Al Gore had invented it).
Both Arabella’s father and her first husband were North Carolinian soldiers in the Colonial Army during the American Revolution. Her father was killed in 1780 at the Battle of King’s Mountain, when she was either twelve or two years old. She later married her first husband, Nathaniel Deaver, to whom she bore four children. After the Revolution, the Deavers migrated westward to Illinois, where Nathaniel died in 1810. From there, family tradition says that Arabella and her children moved south to Missouri, just in time to experience the Great Earthquake of 1811.
According to Mrs. Avery’s history, co-authored by Mrs. Murray, it is uncertain when and where Arabella met and married her second husband, John William Harrington, to whom she bore three children. Harrington allegedly died in Arkansas as the family wended its way to Texas as part of the colonists hoping to be included in Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300.” Austin had received his grant from the Mexican government in 1823, and Arabella and her young Harrington brood arrived, circa 1824, following in the footsteps of her eldest son, William Harvey Deaver, who had settled in Washington County in 1821.
Arabella spent the next several years “securing land, registering her cattle brand, doing some small farming,” until receiving her land grant on New Year’s Creek from the Mexican government on March 22, 1831. She was then either 53 or 63 years old. It was a league of land, 4,428.4 acres, on a site she prudently chose on the upland prairie, known thereafter as the “Arabella Harrington League.” This industrious, no-nonsense, pioneering woman was probably the individual who named a section of her land “Hickory Grove,” as it was known in 1843, the year before she sold that particular 100-acre parcel to Jesse Farral and James Hurt. It was a site she reportedly recommended to them as the most suitable for the new town they intended to establish.
Farral and Hunt were eager to have the Washington County seat located near their own homes and so donated this 100-acre parcel of land, which later became downtown Brenham, toward that purpose. The name of the new settlement was changed from Hickory Grove to Brenham, in honor of Dr. Richard Fox Brenham, who had practiced medicine in the Hickory Grove area before taking part in the Mier Expedition, which led to his death in Mexico in 1843. He was then, and is now, considered a hero of the Republic of Texas. Many viewed him as a martyr, thus was he accorded this singular honor.
Arabella’s oldest son, William Harvey Deaver, as well as her youngest, John Walton Harrington, both served in the Texas Revolutionary Army. Deaver, according to Ronnie Avery, fought at the Battle of San Jacinto, presumably manning one of the famous cannons known as the “Twin Sisters.” The younger son, who joined the Texas Army, post-San Jacinto, was a “boy-soldier of 14 years (not unusual at the time). He was also subsequently a Texas Ranger for a number of years.”
Though unrecorded in Mrs. Avery’s family history, Ronnie Avery tells me that Arabella’s elder Deaver son knocked Sam Houston to the ground one day when Houston insulted Deaver’s horse. I reckon that must have been a grievous offense back in those days. Ronnie tells me he read that story in a history book around 1988 and that he believes it was published by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. The anecdote, he recalls, was related by a pastor, which leant it credibility in his mind.
Arabella Jemima Gray Deaver Harrington, this “Founding Mother” of Brenham, Texas, died in 1860, at approximately age 82 or 92 and is buried in Hatchett Cemetery just east of Brenham, along with her son William and some of his family. Her final resting place is designated with a Citizens of the Republic of Texas Grave Marker. She had been a charter member of Brenham Methodist Church, founded in 1844, and had sold those 100 acres to Farral and Hunt for the sole purpose of contributing the ideal location for the townsite of Brenham, Texas. She had practiced midwifery, tended the sick, and served meals in her home to travelers as ways of supporting her family. She built her home, a small cabin, on a hill south of Brenham. No doubt she now occupies a mansion in the sky.
As with any aspect of history dealing with folks who are not exactly household names, there are usually discrepancies that crop up, and so it was with Mrs. Avery’s document. Her son Ronnie was unsure who the co-author, Joyce Martin Murray, may have been. And as I pondered the dates of birth of Arabella’s youngest children, it seemed improbable that a woman born in 1768 (as Mrs. Avery’s document states) would still be bearing children at age 54 (her youngest, John Walton Harrington, was born in 1822).
I consulted one of my closest friends, one of Houston’s preeminent OB/GYNs, and he opined that it would have been “extremely unlikely” that she bore children at that advanced age. It seems that the only evidence supporting Arabella’s 1768 year of birth (no month or day indicated) is her tombstone, for I could uncover no baptismal record or birth certificate, which is not surprising for that era.
This led me to the supposition that Arabella’s likely birth year was 1778, which would have made her last child born at age 44, a more reasonable, likely age. The 1768 year was most likely established by her son William Deaver, in whose cemetery plot she is buried. Where he came up with that year is anybody’s guess. Its uncertainty is augmented by the absence of a precise date of birth. It could even be attributable to an error by the tombstone’s engraver.
One source states that Arabella married Harrington in North Carolina in 1812, three years before the birth of their first child, Lydia. A different source says they were married in Missouri, where Lydia was born. When researching Arabella on the findagrave.com website, it states her birth year as 1768 (repeating the tombstone date) and her marriage to first husband Deaver occurring in 1791, when she supposedly would have been 23 years old, so all that seemed to correlate, at least on the surface. But then the Deavers waited another 12 years before having their first child? That seemed somewhat incongruous for that day and age.
But if she were born in 1778, as I conjecture, and then married in 1791, that would mean she was only 13 years old when she married Deaver. According to two credible sources on the internet, women of the Colonial period in America were “often married at age 13 or 14.” Mrs. Avery’s account states that Deaver died in 1810, which then allows for a decent period of mourning before her marriage to Harrington in 1812.
Now here’s where things get interesting. When I further researched Arabella, I came up with an undated article about her published on the Texas State Historical Association website. The author was none other than Joyce Martin Murray, the same lady who co-authored Mrs. Avery’s family history in 1986. Hmm . . , the thick plottens.
In this article for the TSHA, Mrs. Murray contradicts herself from the document she co-authored with Mrs. Avery, stating that Arabella was born in 1790, not 1768, and that she married Nathaniel Deaver in the early 1800s instead of 1791. The only thing wrong with this claim is that Arabella’s father was killed in the Revolutionary War at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780, which I confirmed independently, so she could not have been born a decade after her father’s death.
Mrs. Murray’s article does, however, substantiate Mrs. Avery’s claims that first husband Deaver died in 1810, that she returned home to North Carolina with her four children, where she left her three oldest daughters with an uncle there before returning to Missouri. This would accord with her meeting Harrington in North Carolina and marrying him there in 1812, as findagrave.com asserts.
It may well have been that Harrington was willing to take on the son, but not the three daughters, of Arabella’s children and thus prevailed upon her to leave them in North Carolina when he and Arabella struck out west–first to Missouri, then to Arkansas, where he allegedly died in a sawmill accident. This was not an express train they were on, more like a work-your-way-across-America mule train. For it took about a dozen years for Arabella to get to Texas, circa 1824, from North Carolina in 1812. Her youngest son, John Walton Harrington, recalled that they came to Texas on horseback, he as a toddler sharing the horse with his mother.
Arabella never saw her three Deaver daughters again. There is however a surviving letter that she penned to two of them dated October 28, 1842, in which she is responding to a letter from them. The opening paragraph is quoted here. It demonstrates an articulate, God-fearing woman:
“Your affectionate letter of the 4th, July, 1842, was duly received and thankfully reciprocated, and remembered and by the helping hand of a kind providence, found us enjoying gratefully its munificent blessings, in good health with a tolerable share of this world’s goods, except money which has become as scarce as angels visits, few and far between. I trust that through the mercies of the same bountiful dispenser of both temporal and spiritual blessings, these lines may reach you enjoying to full fruition the height of earthly prosperity and celestial comforts.”
I am grateful to my lifelong friend. Stephen Driscoll, who is Ronnie Avery’s and my mutual best friend, for uncovering this letter through his own independent research and forwarding it to me. This missive was written the year before Arabella sold 100 acres of Hickory Grove, the site of present downtown Brenham, to Messrs. Farral and Hunt. In the body of the letter she remarks that “through the invasion of our country [Republic of Texas] this fall by Mexicans I am at present, left alone, John having been drafted into the army . . . . I am unable, at my age, without company, to come to you.” This sounds like her response to an invitation to return home to her daughters. Her age then would have been either 64 or 74.
She goes on to describe her efforts to obtain a power of attorney “when, I trust, we shall be able to realize some remuneration for our long suffering and patient delay in claiming our own from the hands of griping avaricious and unfeeling kindred.” My interpretation of this is that she was unable to sell her own land at that time without a power of attorney due to some interference by relatives. But which ones, who can say?
The only adult kinfolk she had in Texas were her Deaver and Harrington sons and two Harrington daughters and their spouses. Could it be that she had already been approached by Farral and Hunt to sell her land but was prevented from doing so without the aforesaid power of attorney? Sounds logical to me. Oftentimes, in situations like this, one must read between the lines. Selling those 100 acres would have put much needed money in her hands.
Arabella also refers to her “advanced age . . . infirmities . . . [and] rheumatism, [that] disqualify me for taking long journeys on horseback, or I should be tempted to visit you in that way.” In 1842, age 64 would have been considered “advanced” given the average life expectancy of that era. Nor do I think a woman of 74 would have even considered a journey by horseback halfway across the country, from Texas to North Carolina, with or without “infirmities.”
Whether Arabella Jemima Gray Deaver Harrington was born in 1768, as her tombstone states, or (more logically) in 1778, as I surmise, it makes no difference in the final outcome of the establishment of Brenham, Texas, on land she sold with that specific purpose in her mind. The 12-year span of time that elapsed between her marriage in 1791 and the birth of her first child in 1803 is more easily explained by a child bride’s reluctance, or inability, to bear children at such a tender age, or perhaps several miscarriages or still-births during those dozen years. We will probably never know.
It seems rather obvious to me that Mrs. Avery employed Murray to co-author the document with her, relying on Mrs. Murray’s expertise as a researcher and an accomplished author of several books on county deed abstracts in Texas, Tennessee, and Kentucky–one of the books on Washington County, Texas. The fact that Murray’s name precedes Mrs. Avery’s at the bottom of the document lends credence to this supposition.
Mrs. Avery was a very hands-on type individual, who would not have been content to sit idly by while someone else did all the heavy lifting on a project so near and dear to her heart, that of a legacy for her grandchildren. The true history of Texas and the South was the blood in her veins; it was in her DNA. Her truth, to the best of her knowledge, was unvarnished. If she did not know something to be a fact, she said so. I knew of the lady’s uncompromising integrity, so I can personally vouch for this document’s veracity based on the information available to her at the time she penned it.
Joy Avery’s family legacy for her grandchildren has now become a legacy for the citizens of the City of Brenham, Washington County, and the State of Texas. Perhaps the current city fathers of Brenham will someday honor this gutsy, pioneering woman by, say, naming a street after her. Maybe something in the price range of Arabella Avenue, Deaver Drive or, better yet, Harrington Highway. I’m just sayin’ . . .
WASHINGTON COUNTY, TEXAS—“BIRTHPLACE OF TEXAS”
On March 2, 1836, 59 Texian delegates met at Washington-on-the-Brazos to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico. This event occurred just five years after Arabella Harrington had received her league of land from the Mexican government. It was also only four days before over 180 men valiantly gave their lives at the Alamo in order to buy the precious time for these delegates to assemble for this purpose and to enable General Sam Houston to begin raising an all-volunteer army to fight the invading Mexican Army.
Once the original county seat of Washington County, Washington-on-the-Brazos [River] is virtually nonexistent as a town anymore, having gone into rapid decline after the railroad bypassed it in the late 1860s and ‘70s. It is located 19 miles from Brenham on 293 acres of unincorporated land and exists as a Texas State Historic Site on the Texas Independence Trail. A replica of the building where the Declaration was signed has been erected on the site. The town was also briefly the capital of the infant republic, from 1842 until 1845, when Texas was annexed by the United States and the capital moved permanently to Austin.
When the Republic of Texas legislature convened in 1836, Washington County was formed but did not organize until late 1837. The county seat was moved to Mount Vernon in 1841, but then an election was held in 1844 between Brenham and Independence to determine a new county seat due to great population growth in the county as a result of European immigration to the area. Brenham won by a mere three votes and has remained the county seat ever since. Of the 40 sites to visit on the Texas Independence Trail, Brenham is listed as number five, Washington-on-the-Brazos as number six.
SUBSEQUENT 19TH CENTURY GROWTH OF BRENHAM
After Brenham was recognized by the legislature as the new Washington County Seat, it did not experience the immediate growth that Farral and Hurt had hoped for. The town was surveyed and lots were assigned, followed by an auction in which the top value corner lots sold for only $15 or $17 and good ones could be had for as little as $3. Agribusiness—cotton, corn, and cattle—was the primary industry for the fledgling community.
The first public building erected was the Washington County Courthouse in 1844, a small, two-story cedar structure located on the site of the present courthouse. In late 1844, Brenham consisted of six houses and a log schoolhouse known as Hickory Grove School or Academy. The Brenham post office was established in 1846. By 1852 the first courthouse had proven inadequate and a new one was constructed of Brenham-manufactured brick. The foregoing facts and much of what follows can be confirmed in Mrs. R. E. Pennington’s thoroughly detailed 1918 book, History of Brenham and Washington County, Texas, and in the February 1990 National Register of Historic Places, prepared by the Texas Historical Commission.
The first major hurdle to be overcome was getting their farm produce to market. Rather than wait on the railroads to come to them, the citizens of Brenham, under the leadership of local attorney J.D. Giddings, took the bull by the horns and in 1856 received a charter for their own Washington County Railroad, which was completed in 1861, connecting them to the Houston and Galveston markets via a linkup with the Houston and Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad in Hempstead.
The railroad made Brenham the agricultural and commercial hub of the county and many people from nearby towns, realizing this, sold their homes and moved to Brenham. The population was also augmented by many Lowland South Anglo-Americans and their slaves, as well as the ever-increasing German, Czech, and Polish immigrants. These recent arrivals from the Lowland South who owned slaves were economically better off, many of them living in grander homes, some even on plantations, as they had in the states they hailed from. Cotton, of course, was king. By the late 1850s, Brenham was a firmly established and burgeoning community. It incorporated as a municipality in 1858.
1861 and the Civil War brought a screeching halt to these grandiose lifestyles of the few, and in 1866, when immigration resumed, it is recorded that more than 10,000 acres of land, formerly worked by slaves, were sold to 90 German immigrants over a six-month period. As Bob Dylan would sing a century later, “The Times, They Are A-Changing.” The brief building boom of permanent commercial masonry structures that had begun in the late 1850s likewise suffered the adverse effects of economic and political stagnation that the Civil War inflicted on the community.
Then came the so-called Reconstruction years, from 1865 to 1870, which accomplished little in the way of economic reconstruction of Brenham’s fortunes but did much to fan the flames of racial tension in the community with the garrisoning of Federal troops outside the city limits of Brenham at a post locally referred to as “Camptown.”
In September 1866, an incident occurred between Yankee soldiers and two Brenham men that resulted in two soldiers being shot but only slightly wounded. The Federal troops retaliated by burning an entire city block of downtown commercial buildings. Despite formal complaints resulting in an indictment of the soldiers’ commanding officer, all charges were eventually dismissed by an army general. Not even a slap on the wrist was administered to the troops. This incident is documented in the 2012 book, The Burning of Brenham, by local author Sharon Brass.
And as if things were not bad enough already, a Yellow Fever epidemic broke out in 1867, killing some 500 residents of Brenham, at the time a large percentage of its population. Many Federal troops perished from the outbreak of the disease as well. The bodies of the Yellow Fever victims were buried in a mass grave in a local cemetery.
Despite the garrison of troops still stationed there in late 1867 amid U.S. President Andrew Johnson’s draconian Reconstruction policies, new construction of commercial buildings on the courthouse square began in earnest again, as did new residential building, though mostly on a more modest scale. The transfer of the Federal troops to Waco in May 1870, was a welcome relief to all. Brenham was beginning to make a comeback.
By the 1870s, Brenham’s black citizenry was beginning to reap the benefits of their new-found status as free men and women, albeit on a segregated basis. Their primary social activities developed around their churches. Though the Freedman’s Bureau’s first attempt to establish a free, tax-supported school for blacks on the heels of the Civil War was unsuccessful, in 1875, they finally triumphed. It was presumably the first free high school for African Americans opened in Texas, part of the new Brenham public school system.
Just as Brenham was getting on its feet, disaster struck again, however, in the form of another big fire in 1873, destroying many of the remaining wooden commercial buildings. And then yet another destructive fire hit four years later. Neither could storms nor droughts deliver a knockout punch to these Brenhamites. They were a resilient lot; seemingly nothing could keep them down.
With the arrival of the Gulf Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad in August 1880, Brenham now had intersecting railroads that resulted in the city becoming the hub for transportation, mercantile, and banking activities for not only Washington County but the region as a whole. According to the February 1990, National Register of Historic Places report:
“The presence of two major railroads . . . brought large shipments of goods into the area and sent even larger shipments out . . . . This transportation activity stimulated commercial and banking activities and prompted industrial and agricultural processing businesses that depend on rail service to establish bases in Brenham. The intersection of the railroads southwest of the central business district made an additional impact by changing the town form and creating segregated areas of special [industrial] land uses.”
German immigration to Brenham peaked in the early 1880s. They brought with them new, advanced methods of precision machine work, financial discipline and business acumen, innovative techniques gleaned from the industrial revolution sweeping Europe, deep-seated religious beliefs, a work ethic second to none, expertise in baking and tailoring, and advancements in education techniques that added value to the community via modernized school systems.
Blinn Community College was undoubtedly the most significant overall contribution that the Germans made to Brenham’s educational system. Though founded in 1883 by the Southern German Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, subsequent attempts to relocate it by that denomination were resisted by the citizens of Brenham as a whole, and it remains a Brenham institution to this day. It is also a partner with Texas A & M University, to which many of its graduates matriculate. The main campus in Brenham has grown to include satellite campuses in the surrounding cities of Schulenberg, Sealy, and Bryan, where more than 65% of Blinn’s students are enrolled. It is the second largest employer in Brenham.
German social clubs, a German-language newspaper, churches, and mandatory German language classes in schools were common in this era, up until the advent of World War I, which predictably had a backlash on all things German. The reemergence of the infamous Ku Klux Klan, sadly, had a deleterious effect on Brenham’s German community, as it did on all American cities where it had a foothold. I am reminded of one of the most famous sayings of the early 19th century German-Jewish writer and political philosopher, Karl Ludwig Borne: “Every hour devoted to hatred is an eternity taken away from love.”
“WE EAT ALL WE CAN AND SELL THE REST”
I cannot tell a lie. I am an unabashed connoisseur of Blue Bell Ice Cream, so this portion of my article is going to be the most prejudiced aspect of this piece. My personal relationship with Blue Bell goes back to the late 1950s, when I used to accompany my father on his sales calls to Blue Bell, where he sold them ice cream cartons by the train carload. Dad was known as a “manufacturer’s representative,” which was fancy parlance in those days for a traveling salesman, a “drummer.”
I lived with my father in Dallas—just the two of us—and so was pretty much as a little boy forced to go with him on his sales trips around the South, particularly in the summer, when school was out. I always dreaded these trips, except on those occasions when he would announce, with a gleam in those twinkling Irish blue eyes, “We’re going to Brenham, Johnny.” Man, I couldn’t get packed fast enough! Because I knew that when we got to Blue Bell, it was going to be my pot of gold at the end of my own Irish rainbow.
After I took my seat in the corner of Mr. Kruse’s office with my stack of comic books in my lap, he would eventually but invariably turn to me and say, “Johnny, would you like to take a tour of the creamery while your father and I tend to business? We’ve got a new flavor I’d like to get your opinion on.” Geez, talk about an offer you can’t refuse! I knew all of my dad’s customers and Mr. Kruse was my favorite, not just because I got to eat all the ice cream I wanted but also because Mr. Kruse was genuinely nice to me, paid attention to me, didn’t treat me like I was a nuisance, as some of Dad’s other customers did. My favorite flavors back in those days were Chocolate Ribbon and Neapolitan.
Last night, as I was pondering how I would structure this portion of my article on Brenham, I was eating a bowl of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla and I was struck with the realization that the reason it tasted homemade was because you could literally taste the ice, the chill, of homemade ice cream in it. How do they do that? I wondered. Then I remembered, “Oh yeah, it’s their most closely guarded secret.” No wonder it’s their perennially best-selling flavor.
I don’t think I ever eat a bowl of Blue Bell, which is almost every night, that I don’t think fondly of my father and Mr. Kruse, going over the details of my father’s latest sales pitch, and Mr. Kruse with his shirt sleeves rolled up—a true working man–smiling kindly at me and making that offer I couldn’t refuse. These days I am partial to the flavors, Peppermint and Peaches and Cream, though I do occasionally pick up a half-gallon of Homemade Vanilla. I often lament the fact that my three grandsons live in faraway California, where there are plenty of fruits and nuts but no Blue Bell.
That “little creamery in Brenham,” was just a local concern back in the mid-to late 1950s, when I was a kid. It is now, according to statista.com, based on 2019 figures, in a virtual dead heat for the #2 position in America in terms annual sales of ice cream, to the tune of $567.8 MILLION! By comparison, Blue Bell reached the then-milestone of $1 million in sales in 1963. Where did this incredible success come from?
As I mentioned previously in my description of the German immigration to Brenham of the early 1880s, that nationality—and I think I’m on safe ground stating that the Kruse family is of German heritage—brought with them “financial discipline and business acumen, innovative techniques . . . ,deep-seated religious beliefs, [and] a work ethic second to none.” A more apt description of the three generations of the Kruse family and their chosen successor at Blue Bell, Ricky Dickson, could not be found, I do not believe. Dickson was named CEO and President of Blue Bell after 36 years with the company, when Paul Kruse retired in 2017
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. When I contacted Blue Bell’s public relations department for some background details, I was e-mailed a host of documents and photos by Mrs. Courtney Ginn, an extremely nice and helpful young lady who bent over backwards to assist me, as did her capable associate, Ms. Shelby Smith, who clarified several things for me later on. Among the photos sent me was one that is quite telling. It shows the fleet of Blue Bell delivery trucks all lined up in a row with their drivers standing beside each. In the foreground are three men in suits standing by their automobiles—mid-1950s, two-door sedans, basic model Chevrolets.
Two of these executives I recognized as the Kruse brothers, the third I did not know. What was significant to me is that the top-paid men in the company were driving company cars of the least expensive model automobile that General Motors manufactured in that day and age. No fancy Buick Roadmasters for these frugal Germans! For they were plowing Blue Bell’s profits back into the company. It immediately brought to mind one of my father’s favorite sayings: “If you watch the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.” (My family has about half as much German blood as we do Irish.)
The Brenham Creamery Company was founded in 1907 (their phone number then was “98”), with its sole purpose being the purchase of local dairy farmers’ excess cream that could then be churned into sour cream and butter and then sold back to the local population. In 1911, under the leadership of then-president of the company, H.F. Hohlt, the creamery produced ice cream for the first time, a maximum daily production of two gallons of the hand-cranked product.
The years during World War I were tough on the little creamery in Brenham, and there was talk of shutting it down. But in February 1919, Mr. Hohlt persuaded E.F. Kruse, a highly regarded local businessman to take over management of the company and in short order he had it back in the black.
In 1930 Mr. Kruse changed the name of the company to Blue Bell Creameries, Inc. And in 1941 he brought his two sons—Ed, age 13, and Howard, age 11—on as part-time workers at the rate of 10 cents per hour. After both boys had graduated from Texas A & M University with degrees in dairy science, they soon came into the family business.
Ed came on board in 1951 as a sales supervisor and later that year their when father died, Ed ascended to the positions of manager and secretary/treasurer. Howard, after military service in the Korean War, joined the company in 1954; he was appointed assistant manager two years later. In the 1950s they were competing against 25 other creameries for essentially the same market areas. In the early 1950s, the two brothers developed “Blue Bell Supreme” (now commonly known as Blue Bell Ice Cream), which was quickly recognized in the industry as a superior product line.
Though the company had continued making butter for half a century, they discontinued its production in 1958, to focus solely on ice cream and frozen snacks. This was about the time I became acquainted with these two fine gentlemen, as an impressionable boy of 9 or 10.
In 1960, under the guidance of John Barnhill, who, like the Kruse brothers, had worked there as a youngster, Blue Bell opened its first branch, in Houston, the closest metropolitan market. And this was a game-changer. They knew they couldn’t outspend their Goliath-like competition–Borden’s, Oak Farms, Carnation—so they decided to outwork them. That good old German work ethic again!
Unlike their competition, Blue Bell Ice Cream is delivered solely by Blue Bell driver/sales people who are responsible for everything—regulating temperatures, uncompromising quality of service, ensuring that the grocers’ freezer cases are freshly stocked and the displays always tidy, spotless, aesthetically pleasing to the eye. For it is, in the eyes of each driver/salesman, his or her own fiefdom, over which he or she is 100% responsible. This corporate attitude promotes pride in the employees like few other corporate cultures of any business in America.
In the coming years things really started busting loose for the little creamery in Brenham: 1970—a new 100,000 square-foot plant was constructed to vastly increase production; 1977—the now iconic logo of the little girl leading the cow was introduced and it is still, 43 years later, the company’s symbol; 1978—they opened up a branch in Dallas; 1989—a facility in Oklahoma City, their first outside Texas, was built. Today the end result—or is it the end?—is that Blue Bell is selling their ice cream in 22 states, from the East Coast to Arizona in the west, from Texas as far north as Wyoming. They have 52 distribution centers to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for their more than 250 products.
In addition to the regular line of ice cream, Blue Bell now offers “light” and “no sugar added” versions , as well as sherbert and frozen yogurt. They maintain a rotating menu of 45 different flavors and introduce brand new flavors each year. This company does not rest on its laurels. Thank God that some genius at Blue Bell came up with the Banana Pudding flavor about 40 years ago!
Perhaps the last Kruse family member to sit at the helm of Blue Bell, Paul Kruse, summed up their success best with these words: “People values, integrity, character, a good education, common sense, a strong work ethic, and the will to succeed.” More than 100,000 visitors tour the Blue Bell plant in Brenham annually–not too shabby a tourist attraction, that!
I observed that, when I was researching this article and used the 8 or 10 different browsers I utilize in my work, on virtually every list of the top 10, 15, or 20 things to do in Brenham, the Blue Bell Creamery was shown as the #1 recommended tourist attraction. I know I’m going back pretty soon so I can buy a couple of Blue Bell T-shirts for my collection, probably one for each of my three grandsons, too. I hope Blue Bell gets to California PDQ. Those kids don’t know what they’re missing. Blue Bell Ice Cream is a rite of passage in childhood, or at least it should be. We senior citizens are pretty crazy about it, too.
Of the 67 properties and districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places for Washington County, Texas, 38 of them are located in Brenham, thus making it a mecca for architectural history buffs like myself. And of these 38, 20 are also on the Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks roster; the vast majority are also designated as Historic and Architectural Resources Brenham MPS.
It is not within the scope of this article to attempt a listing of all 38 properties, so I will limit my list to those that share both the National and Texas designations, plus three others of significance. Like the National Register, which I obtained from Wikipedia, I shall arrange the list in alphabetical order, starting with the date of construction, where known.
1822: Allcorn-Kokemoor Farmstead; the Allcorns were part of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300,” the original settlers of Brenham.
1876: Bassett and Bassett Banking House—part of the Brenham Downtown Historic District (BDHD).
1884: Blinn College, described above.
1935–1940: Blue Bell Creameries Complex—Historic and Architectural Resources of Brenham. I saw the photo of the front façade of this building and knew it at once as the place where my father and I used to call on Mr. Kruse in the late 1950s. Such a flood of pleasant memories!
1861—1939: Brenham Downtown Historic District—comprised of over 100 buildings that are representative of relatively untouched commercial architecture during this era.
c. 1840: Brenham School is located in Hickory Grove, on Arabella Harrington’s original 100-acre parcel she recommended and sold to accommodate the founders of Brenham in 1843.
1875—1940: East Brenham Historic District is comprised of nine city blocks on 58 acres. It is primarily a residential area with 79 contributing resources, though there are a few commercial buildings in the mix, as well as one church. Architecturally, it is representative of both the American Movements and Revivals of the late 19th and early 20th century. I took note that the primary architect mentioned was Moses Ginn, and I wondered if he was related to my new friend at Blue Bell, Courtney Ginn.
1870: Giddings—Stone Mansion
1843: Giddings—Wilkins House and Museum. Incidentally, both of these Giddings homes were owned by J.D. Giddings, the attorney responsible for spearheading the founding of the Washington County Railroad in 1861.
1853: Hatfield Plantation
1883: Main Building, Blinn College
1845: Pampell—Day House
Unable to determine: Reue—Eikenhorst House
1925: Santa Fe Railway Company Freight Depot
1914: Fritz Paul and Emma Schroeder House
1895: F.W. Schuerenberg House
c. 1880: W.E. Seelhorst House
c. 1920: Southern Pacific Railroad Freight Depot
1893: Synagogue B’nai Abraham
1914—1916: U.S. Post Office—Federal Building Brenham
1824: James Walker Log House
1939: Washington County Courthouse, built in the Art-Deco style of that period, it is the fourth courthouse in the county.
1897: Wood—Hughes House
According to the World Population Review website, Brenham is located in East-Central Texas, approximately 70 miles northwest of Houston and 90 miles east of Austin. Its size is 13 square miles and it has a population density of 1,352 people per square mile. According to 2020 U.S. Census estimates, Brenham’s population is 17,442, an increase of 10.98% since the 2010 census. The average household income is $58,875, with a poverty rate of 18.58%. The median rental costs are $819 per month and the median house value is $157,200. The median age is 32.3 years; and for every 100 females there are 90.7 males.
Based on the most recent ACS (American Community) Survey, there are 12,715 adults, of whom 2,997, or 23.6%, are senior citizens. The rate of home ownership is 62.3%, and the average family size is 3.51. Females comprise 8,798, or 52.44%, of the population, while males number 7,980, or 47.56%.
High school graduates 33.71% Female 1,881 Male 1,446
Associates degrees 6.52% Female 359 Male 285
Bachelors degrees 14.37% Female 868 Male 550
Graduate degrees 7.87% Female 473 Male 304
The highest rate of high school graduates was among multiple race people, at 100%, whereas whites ranked highest in Bachelors degrees with 31.36%.
The average overall earnings was reported at $30,742, and of those, males earned an average of $39,804, while females earned $24,026.
In the language category, 80.24% spoke English only; Spanish was the primary language of 16.36%; and the remaining 3.4% spoke other languages.
Veterans: According to the ACS 2018 5-year survey table, there were a total of 1,149, of whom 1,085 were male and 64 were female. They served in the following wars in these numbers:
Vietnam 408 35.51%
Second Gulf 379 32.99%
Korea 142 12.36%
First Gulf 87 7.57%
World War II 65 5.66%
Based on racial composition, 845 Whites served, Blacks numbered 252, Hispanics accounted for 124, and two or more races comprised 52 of those who fought and bled for their country.
Places of birth
19.21% American-born outside Texas
9.39% Foreign born, most in Latin America
SHOP TILL YOU DROP!
There are a myriad of locally owned and operated retail specialty stores and boutiques in Brenham, the vast majority located in the Downtown Historic District, which is a must-see for every visitor to this intriguing and charming Texas town. I cannot begin to list all of them, but among those that come highly recommended for a unique shopping experience are the following: The Barnhill House Toys and Books (any kin to Blue Bell’s John Barnhill?); Leftovers Antiques; South Texas Tack, purveyor of true cowboy gear; Hermann General Store (a throwback to the time before that entity known as a department store?); Bliss Candy Store (the name says it all); Downtown Art Gallery; Jr.’s Antiques and Collectibles; Book Nook; Today and Yesterday; and Hermann Furniture. This is by no means all that is available in those 100+ historic buildings in the downtown area, but rather just a sampling to whet your appetite.
FOOD AND DRINK
And speaking of appetites, you are sure to work one up after your shopping and sightseeing excursions around Brenham. Thank goodness there are an abundance of such places to choose from. As with the retail merchants, I tend to avoid the mention of fast-food chains and nationally known brands, instead sticking with the locally owned establishments.
As with most small Texas towns, there seem to be more barbeque joints and Tex-Mex establishments than any other type of food offerings. That’s alright with me, ‘cause I’m a Texas boy born and raised just a few miles down the road, and that’s my preferred type foods anyway. In most instances, the name of the restaurant gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. Get your highlighter out so you can choose a few from among the many, which are arranged in no particular order.
Nathan’s BBQ; Funky Art Café; Volare Italian Restaurant; Los Cabos Mexican Grill and Steakhouse; BT Longhorn Saloon and Steakhouse; Smitty’s Café and Bakery; Must Be Heaven; 96 West; Mobius Coffeehouse; Las Americas Latin Cuisine; LJ’s BBQ; Southern Flyer Diner; Capital Grille; Kay’s Cuisine for the Soul; Sealand Seafood and Steaks; Dairy Bar; Pizzaiolo’s; Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant; Golden Imperial (Chinese and Japanese); On Deck Restaurant (crawfish a specialty); Andrea’s Taco Shop; Truth BBQ; Texas Seafood and Steakhouse; and my personal favorite fast-food restaurant, Whataburger. Naturally, most of these establishments can quench your thirst with your favorite alcoholic beverage, but if imbibing is your primary goal on a warm day, then might I suggest: Shooters Saloon; Carol’s Ice House; Legends Billiards and Grill; Mundy’s Hideout; Lone Wolf Tavern; and The Boys Club and Saloon? Don’t the names of some of these places sound like something straight out of a Louis L’Amour novel, complete with desperadoes?
Numero uno on just about every list I consulted was—you guessed it—the Blue Bell Creamery tour, hospitality room, and gift shop. I would be sure to take a tour of the historic homes and commercial buildings I listed up above under the topic of “Heritage Tourism,” too. In a similar vein you’ve got several museums: Brenham Heritage Museum; Giddings Wilkins House and Museum; Texas Baptist Historical Museum; Toubin Park (historic cisterns); Brenham Fire Company #1 Fire Museum; and the Heritage Society of Washington County.
But that’s not all, folks. There are the following specialty venues such as: Antique Rose Emporium; Home Sweet Farm Market, featuring the finest Texas craft beers; Brazos Valley Brewery; Pleasant Hill Winery; Windy Winery: Giddings-Stone Mansion; Chappell Hill Lavender Farm; Unity Theatre and the 1925 Simon Theatre, which feature live plays, musicals, and concerts; Tegg Art Studio; Michael Hodnett Art Gallery; Horseshoe Junction; the Blue Bell Aquatic Center, featuring three swimming pools; and three parks—Fireman’s, Henderson, and Hohlt.
INNS AND HOTELS
Naturally, once you get through with all this sight-seeing, shopping, eating, and drinking, you’re going to need a night or three’s accommodations to rest up for the next day’s round. I came up with 14 such lodgings, though I’m sure there are several others. For instance, there are, in no particular order: Super 8 by Wyndham Brennan; Best Western Inn of Brenham; Main Street House; Coach Light Inn Brenham; Inn at Indian Creek; Holiday Inn Express and Suites Brenham South; Art Street Inn; Far View Bed and Breakfast Estate; Hampton Inn and Suites Brenham; Motel 6 Brenham; Comfort Suites; Knights Inn Brenham; Baymont Inn and suites Brenham; and America’s Best Value Inn Brenham.
CHURCHES AND HOSPITALS
This town of 17,000+ is liable to give you a workout of both body and soul. In that eventuality, there are more than adequate alternatives to refresh both aspects of your inner and outer beings. Since the churches vastly outnumber the watering holes in town, I am not going to attempt the gargantuan task of listing each and every church. I will make this observation: it is little wonder that the Baptists have their own museum, for they seem to outnumber any other denomination’s number of locations for worship.
Though there is one Jewish synagogue shown on the National Register of Historic Places, I’m unsure if it is still open. There is no Muslim mosque in Brenham. Everything seems to be of one Christian denomination or another: the aforementioned Baptists; United Methodists; Independent Bible churches; Missionary Baptist; A.M.E.; Church of God; Lutheran; Catholic; Presbyterian; Assembly of God; Episcopal; Christian; Brethren; Jehovah’s Witness.
On the outside chance that you may need some expert medical attention during your stay in Brenham, they’ve got you covered there, too: Baylor Scott and White Medical Center and a Clinic with the same name, as well as the Scott and White Hospital Brenham. Then there is the CHI St. Joseph Health Primary Care and its affiliated Express Care facility.
AN APPROPRIATE CLOSING
Texas history buff that I am, I was fascinated by the little book I discovered during my research that was written in 1915 by Mrs. R.E. Pennington, The History of Brenham and Washington County,and I would like to cite a short piece of her superb prose from page 31 of it here in my closing:
“Nearly seventy-two years ago, in the glorious springtime, when Texas was a republic, life began for Brenham in a beautiful post oak grove, where native song birds sang wonderful melodies to fragrant flowers that bloomed on the surrounding prairies, and where quail, wild turkeys, prairie chickens and deer scurried away, frightened at the approach of the settlers. The grove was a princely gift, and good women honored a hero where they gave the town the name of Brenham. People with inherent love of liberty, the Christian religion, education and progress came and built homes and were blessed with health, happiness and prosperity.” Certainly, one of the “good women” Mrs. Pennington makes reference to here was Arabella Jemima Gray Deaver Harrington, who she mentions elsewhere in her book as one of the original settlers of Brenham. Let us pay homage to these stout-hearted pioneer women, as represented by Arabella.