“Washington County is in the Blackland Prairies region of southeast central Texas. The center of the county is at 30°14′ north latitude and 96°24′ west longitude. Brenham, the seat of government, is near the county’s center and seventy-five air miles east of Austin. The county was named for George Washington, the first president of the United States.”
“Washington County encompasses 611 square miles of gently rolling land with elevations ranging between 200 to 500 feet above sea level. Sloping generally southeasterly, the area drains into the Brazos River, which runs along the eastern border.”
“Frenchmen led by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, were likely the first Europeans to cross the area of present Washington County. In reaction to French incursions into territory claimed by Spain, the Spanish established the earliest Texas presidio in East Texas near Nacogdoches. Later, after the relocation of the La Bahía mission to Goliad, the Spanish constructed a road through what is now Washington County to connect these two settlements. The area remained unsettled by Europeans until 1821, when settlers recruited by Stephen F. Austin moved into the region.”
“Many, though not all, of [Stephen F. Austin's] Old Three Hundred colonists settled in what is now Washington County.”
“A ferry began operation across the Brazos River near its confluence with the Navasota in 1822, and in 1825 a cotton gin was established in the area. Washington (usually known as Washington-on-the-Brazos), the county’s first community, arose at the site of the ferry. By the mid-1830s the town had grown to become a commercial center for the area.”
“Following the establishment of the district of Brazos by the legislature of Coahuila and Texas in 1834, the citizens of Washington-on-the-Brazos petitioned the political chief at San Felipe de Austin, James B. Miller, to grant the community municipal status. Their request was approved, and in July of 1835 voters selected Josa Handley as alcalde, Jesse Grimes and Asa Mitchell as regidores, A. C. Reynolds as sindico procurador, and John W. Hall as sheriff.”
“In late 1835 and early 1836, after the Texas Revolution had begun to unfold, Washington-on-the-Brazos became a center of political and military activities connected with the rebellion. In December 1835 the Texan army commanded by Gen. Sam Houston established its headquarters there; the following March the town was the site of the Convention of 1836, which issued the Texas Declaration of Independence and established the ad interim government.”
“Fearing retribution from Mexican forces, the delegates and local population then evacuated the area, leaving the town temporarily abandoned. After the revolution the town was suggested as a possible site for the capital of the new republic, but an election held on the question in November 1836 placed the government in Houston instead.”
“Washington County was formally established by the legislature of the Republic of Texas in 1836 and was organized in 1837. Washington-on-the-Brazos became the county seat. Immigration into the area increased significantly in the years after the establishment of the republic, and the rise in population led to the division of the county, which was originally one of the largest in Texas.”
“In February 1840 all of Washington County west of the Brazos River and north of Yegua Creek was annexed to Milam County (some of this land later formed parts of Lee and Burleson counties), and in 1841 Washington County lost more land when Navasota County (now Brazos County) was established. It also lost territory to Walker County (1846) and Madison County (1853). Later, in 1874, the county was reduced one last time when Lee County was formed.”
“As new immigrants poured into the area the county rapidly developed a thriving agricultural economy and the accoutrements of a settled society. By the early 1840s a number of small communities, including Gay Hill, Tiger Point, Mustang, Mount Vernon, and Independence, had been established in the area.”
“The growth of the county led to the county seat being moved, first to Mount Vernon in 1841 and then to Brenham in 1844. Meanwhile, Washington-on-the-Brazos became the capital city of Texas in 1842; the Texas government remained there until 1845, when Texas was annexed by the United States and the capital was moved to Austin. Washington County’s development accelerated during the mid-1840s, as steamboat traffic on the Brazos River helped to open the area to immigration and linked local farmers to national markets. By the late 1840s as many as a dozen steamboats regularly visited the area, carrying passengers and goods back and forth from Velasco and Quintana.”
“Washington-on-the-Brazos flourished until the mid-1850s and had a population of 1,500 by that time. River traffic was seriously disrupted after a flood in 1854, however; and in 1858 the citizens refused to pay an $11,000 “bonus” to the Houston and Texas Central Railway, which was building into the area at that time. In refusing, the townspeople had hoped to protect their river trade. But after the railroad was rerouted through Navasota, and then the new Washington County Railroad built into Brenham in 1860, the significance of the mistake became clear. Though a bridge across the Brazos to Navasota was constructed, Washington-on-the-Brazos declined.”
“In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, over 95 percent of the electorate supported secession. Numerous Washington County residents volunteered for service in the Confederacy. Two companies from Washington County, Company E of Brenham and Company F of Longpoint, served in the Fifth Texas Cavalry; the “Dixie Blues” of Hood’s Texas Brigade were also raised.”
“Union troops entered Brenham in 1865, and after the spring of 1866 the town was occupied by two companies of federal troops. Because of the area’s large population of ex-slaves, an agency of the Freedmen’s Bureau was also established there.”
“The local economy was disrupted and altered by the Civil War and the subsequent emancipation of the many slaves. In the years after the war most of the large plantations were broken into small tracts and sold to arriving immigrants or rented to tenant farmers or sharecroppers; by 1880 about two-thirds of the farmers labored on rented land. The economy was stimulated, however, by the thousands of immigrants, many of them from Germany, who moved into Washington County during the late 1860s and the 1870s.”
“The census counted 23,104 people in 1870, and by 1880 the population had grown to 27,565. That year further development was encouraged when the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway extended its tracks into Brenham. Partly because of rising cotton production and new immigrants from Poland and other European nations, the economy and population continued to grow, though more slowly, during the rest of the nineteenth century.”
“Though cotton acreage rose somewhat during the 1910s, actual production remained low. By 1920 more than 98,000 acres were devoted to cotton, and the number of farms had increased to 4,158, but production had dropped to only 11,014 bales. Farmers diversified their crops and increasingly planted grain, hay, and grass crops to support high grades of livestock and dairy cows, and some ranchers began to expand their flocks of sheep.”
“The area suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as thousands of acres of cotton land were taken out of production; according to one historian, the area was “overrun with unemployed people” during these hard times. Cropland harvested dropped from 136,571 acres in 1930 to 118,477 acres in 1940, and the number of farms declined to 3,912. Federal New Deal programs provided some relief. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp, established at Brenham, employed some of the county’s young men, and a National Youth Administration training center, placed at Blinn College in Brenham, trained young women in radio transmission work and other skills.”
“The population declined significantly during the 1940s and 1950s as farms mechanized and consolidated. The number of sharecroppers dropped from 2,281 in 1940 to just 1,007 by 1950. The number of farms dropped by more than 30 percent during the same period, and by 1950 there were only 2,929 farms left. Meanwhile, the total population declined to 20,542 by 1950 and to 19,145 by 1960; the number of African Americans dropped by more than 35 percent during this period.”
“In the 1980s agribusiness still dominated the economy, although other industries, including the oil and gas industry, construction, weaving mills, furniture production, and tourism also contributed. In 1982 about 87 percent of the land was in farms and ranches; 90 percent of the agricultural receipts were from livestock and livestock products, especially cattle, milk, and hogs.”
“The county was probably best known by people in Texas and elsewhere for the Blue Bell ice cream produced in Brenham. In 1992 Blue Bell Creameries was the second-largest ice cream manufacturer in the nation; over 117,000 people toured the company’s plant that year.”
“In 2015 the census bureau estimated 34,765 people living in Washington County. About 64.3 percent were Anglo, 17.9 percent were African American, 15.5 percent were Hispanic of any race, and 1.9 percent were Asian.”
“Communities in the county include Brenham (population: 16,212), the seat of government and largest town; Burton (305); Chappell Hill (750); Wesley; Muellersville; and Phillipsburg. Washington (100) is the site of a Texas Independence Day celebration in March, and an Octoberfest is held there each year. Brenham hosts a Maifest each May, and the Washington County Fair is held there in September.”
- Handbook of Texas Online, James L. Hailey and John Leffler, “Washington County“
I was the guest of Brenham and Washington County on October 13, 2013, and again on October 13, 2014.
Washington County Courthouses – 1836, 1841, 1844
The first courthouse used in Washington County was in the area’s first seat, the provincial capital of the Republic of Texas: Washington-on-the-Brazos. It was simply a log cabin, built well before the area was Washington County, and even well before the area was Texas. It’s my assumption that this courthouse was the same cabin in which the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed on March 2, 1836.
Information about the following courthouses is as follows:
(Photo Courtesy: Terry Jeanson)
Washington County Courthouse – 1855
(Photo Courtesy: Terry Jeanson)
The architectural trio of Joe Tom, Joe Miller, and Hugh Sherrald designed and this two-story, Brenham-manufactured brick, square planned, Greek Revival-style courthouse. Contractor John Stamps added his talents to the project, and Washington County commissioners were served with a final bill of $8,700.
It was in this courthouse that Washington County held a meeting to discuss the issue of secession from the United States. On that day, December 17, 1860, attendees voted to leave America immediately.
Washington County Courthouse – 1884
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
(Photo Courtesy: Terry Jeanson)
The bricks of this courthouse were shipped in from Houston, perhaps indicative of a decline in the local building supply manufacturing trade by the mid-1880s. However, nearby Sandy Creek provided sand for the mortar used in the courthouse’s construction.
J.N. Preston and Son designed this large building with both Italianate and Renaissance Revival aspects and Washington County paid a total of $65,000 for its construction.
In 1900, the great Galveston Hurricane swept over the coastal plains and managed to wreak some havoc on the courthouse roof. It was repaired and served until the building’s last days in 1939.
By that time, modernization had prompted the county to demolish the 1884 courthouse and seek something far more sleek and new.
Washington County Courthouse – 1939
(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)
Travis Broesche was selected to design a Moderne courthouse just before the end of the 1930s, and his work was financed with funds from the Public Works Administration.
“Constructed during the tenure of County Judge Sam Low, the massive white limestone courthouse was designed in the art moderne style. Details of that style include the light fixtures and cast aluminum eagles at the entries. The building stands as a symbol of Washington County government.” - Washington County Courthouse Historical Marker
The Washington County Courthouse’s main façade, facing north on Main Street
The northwest corner
The western façade, on Park Street
The southern façade faces Alamo Street.A local yarn project was set up on the square while I was in Brenham.
The view of Baylor Street from the eastern entrance
On the northeast corner
On Park Street
Historic Downtown BrenhamCommerce Street
Blue Bell – A Brenham Original
Blue Bell Creameries on Blue Bell Road, Brenham, Texas
Cinnamon Blue Bell – exclusively found at the Brenham plant
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