Texas Road Trip – Independence, The Birthplace of Baylor
Between the Bluebell Ice Cream Factory and the George Bush Library and Museum lies a long lost, forgotten little country town. The town is missed by most people who are just passing through from Brenham to College Station. What most people don’t realize about this forgotten little town is that it holds a secret.
I did my research, as I always do, and discovered that this little country town, Independence, holds a ton of Texas history. Now, Charlie is a native Texan and darned proud of it, so I asked him, “Have you ever heard of Independence?” and he said he had not. That got me thinking that if Charlie didn’t know about this little town, then I’m sure many others didn’t. That was reason enough for a road trip and discovery.
Independence is located along FM 390, where it intersects with FM 50. If you’re not familiar with that term, FM means Farm to Market. Back in the day, these were dirt roads where wagons would transport crops or livestock from the farms to the market hence Farm to Market. They are still used for that today, but, of course, transportation is truck and trailer, and most of the roads are paved.
From the west, the first sign that Independence holds a lot of Texas history is Windmill Hill. Windmill Hill is the site of what once was the men’s campus of Baylor University. I bet you thought Baylor started where it sits today, didn’t you? Me too, imagine my surprise when I learned it started in this sleepy little town.
Windmill Hill is now a lovely little park that I’m sure, in the spring and summer months, is blooming with beautiful flowers.
There are still stones in place from where the foundations of the old buildings once stood. Standing there, looking at the outlines of those old buildings, I could almost see the building there before me, filled with students just yearning for knowledge.
The windmill that at one time turned to pump water from the old well still stands tall. Although parts of it are no longer there, it still took us back to a time when gathering water was so much more than turning on a faucet.
In the beginning, Baylor opened its co-educational studies in Independence with 24 students at a temporary site on Academy Hill and had planned to build the University’s permanent home on Windmill Hill.
Those plans were changed by Rufus Burleson in 1851 when he became president of Baylor. If you’re from Texas, you’ll recognize the name Burleson which is now a city outside Dallas. He separated the sexes, moved the boys to Windmill Hill, which became the Male Campus and primary facility. The girls remained at Academy Hill, which is now the location of the Old Baylor Park.
Our next stop was to what is considered the center of town. The town square consists of a group of buildings and remnants of buildings from the town’s historical past. From the old general store to the home of Sam Houston and his wife, it’s like walking through a ghost town of Texas history. Historical Markers dot the landscape throughout this sleepy Texas town, reminding us of what once was and giving us an education in Texas history.
As we walked, we met a resident of Independence who has been working for years to preserve and protect one of the historic homes. She shared with us that some of the historic homes are being lived in by locals, and others, such as Mrs. Sam Houston’s home, are being restored or maintained for future generations. There is even the Independence Preservation Trust that is working on preserving and restoring the history of the town.
Across the street sits the Independence School. Although it has been updated with a metal roof, it still holds the original wood siding and windows from its construction in 1939. The original school, built in 1889, was destroyed by fire and replaced with the current building.
Walking around the school grounds and through the grove of old oaks, I imagined how many children must have played on the grounds, learned in the classrooms, and climbed the trees.
After we walked around, took in all the rich history of the town square and visited with some of the locals, we headed to Old Baylor Park or what was previously known as Academy Hill. If you remember from earlier in the story, Academy Hill was the site of the Baylor Women’s Campus.
Sitting at the end of Spur 390 stands the remnants of what once was a stately building for education. The Baylor Women’s Education building was completed in 1857 after three years of construction. The support columns for what was the roof rise towards the Texas sky and look a little like smoke pipes instead of roof supports. Either way, to construct such a large building back then in the Texas heat must have been a monumental task.
Standing there, reading the plaque, and touching the bricks, I couldn’t help but imagine all the students walking through the archway towards their classes. What were they wearing? What did their conversations sound like hundreds of years ago? I’m pretty confident that at no point did any of them say, “Did you see Instagram?”.
Just a few yards before the end of the park sits the John P. Cole cabin. This beautiful cabin was moved from its original location years ago to protect it and ensure the public has access to enjoy it. Looking at the cabin, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like back in the 1800s to live in Texas without A/C, modern plumbing, or any of the conveniences we take for granted.
Next door to the cabin is what is called a Texas dog-trot home, which is typical of prairie Texas. Made of hand-cut logs and stacked one at a time, it stands as a reminder of just what it took to build a home, hundreds of years ago, and how our ancestors lived.
There are several buildings and remnants of buildings at the Old Baylor Park on Academy Hill. Some, like the cabin, were moved to help protect them and allow public access, and some were constructed there and have given way to time. I looked at the stacked stones imagining what efforts it must have taken to quarry them, move them, and then stack them. All with nothing more than horse and wagon. Every time I see old homes like this, I think of how we often take so much for granted and still complain and how our ancestors did so much with so little.
I invite you to visit the Independence, Texas website at www.independencetexas.com and read about this quaint town and the efforts that are being made to restore and preserve it. There is also an excellent map with the location of each historical landmark that makes it super easy to locate them. You can also take what they call a Lighted Church Tour of all the historic churches in the area.
This is the kind of experience you won’t get from reading textbooks or looking online. To experience the history, be able to see and touch the buildings and read about each one, that’s what road tripping is all about. It’s towns like these that I love to find and share and keep alive for generations to come.