August 19, 2013

“The Effort Has Been Contagious": Restoring Independence, Texas

  • By: Lauren Walser
Independence, Texas, was founded in 1835, and was the original site of Baylor University. Credit: The Texas Collection, Baylor University
Independence, Texas, was founded in 1835, and was the original site of Baylor University.

For the past 40 years, David and Mary Wolff have spent long weekends leaving their home in Houston, Texas, and driving 83 miles northwest, crossing the Brazos River and watching as hay bales replace skyscrapers, until they pulled into the driveway of their ranch home in Independence, Texas.

An unincorporated village in Texas’ Washington County, Independence was founded in 1835 and 10 years later was the chosen site of Baylor University. Sam Houston once called Independence home, as did a number of European immigrants, and during the 1850s, the village was the wealthiest community in the state.

But after the Civil War, Independence’s economy changed. The railroad bypassed the town, and Baylor relocated to Waco. The farmland remained active, though, and the town carried on.

When the Wolffs bought their Independence ranch in 1973, they didn’t know much about the village, beyond its unparalleled natural beauty.

Then in 1977, local residents Melvin and Christine Bentke purchased the village’s general store, reviving the property and expanding its offerings, selling sandwiches for lunch and creating a popular place to watch a football game. (The store is currently owned and operated by Brenda Bentke Meadows and her husband, Mike.)

Independence, Texas General Store. Credit: Ellen Beasley
Independence, Texas General Store

“We became conscious that there was a community there,” says David Wolff, chairman and president of Houston-based land development and investment company Wolff Companies.

They noticed the other historic buildings throughout town, like an old Baptist church.

“It was sort of just hanging in there,” Wolff says. “And that was sort of typical of the community.”

Wolff says he worried that he’d return one weekend to find the vacant properties throughout town replaced with a car repair shop or other developments that would mar the region’s character. So the couple purchased a few more properties, restoring and infusing new life in them.

And for their 25th wedding anniversary, Mary gave David 25 live oak trees, which they planted along Highway 50.

“We got a lot of positive reactions from the people in town who were appreciative that somebody was putting money and energy into Independence,” Wolff says.

A view toward Old Baylor Park in Independence, Texas, near the intersection of Highways 50 and 390. Credit: Jim Dunlap
A view toward Old Baylor Park in Independence, Texas, near the intersection of Highways 50 and 390.

In time, a movement was started. In 1999, the Wolffs formed the Independence Preservation Trust, the success of which, Wolff says, is due to the collaborative efforts of many interested parties such as Ellen Beasley, a nationally recognized historic preservation consultant who researched Independence’s history and leant her expertise to a number of preservation projects.

“The amazing thing is all the people who have joined with us in this effort since we started it 14 years ago,” Wolff says, noting the community-wide projects have included restoring buildings, cemeteries, parks, and landscapes.

Baylor University, for instance, has been especially active in the community’s preservation efforts. The university reconnected to its Independence roots, and school officials worked with the Wolffs and other community members to turn part of its original campus into a park.

Baylor Park on Windmill Hill was dedicated in 2006, while the four iconic 19th-century columns in what is now Old Baylor Park were recently repointed and stabilized. Wolff credits the vision of Harold Cunningham, former chair of the Board of Regents, and Vice President for Information Technology and Dean of University Libraries Pattie Orr for the partnership.

Old Baylor Park in Independence, Texas. Credit: Ellen Beasley
Old Baylor Park

The historic cemeteries in Independence have also received attention, with community workdays to clean and restore the grounds. Baylor University researchers used GPS equipment to map the gravesites.

Other structures that have undergone restoration include:

  • The Robertson House, purchased in 1846 by physician Jerome Bonaparte Robertson, who was active in the Texas Independence movement. The house was renovated in 2003-2004 and is now a private home.
  • The Seward Plantation, still owned by descendents of Samuel Seward, who moved to Independence in 1833, remains one of the most remarkably preserved pre-Civil War plantations in the state.
  • Liberty Baptist Church, the historically African-American church, was restored and now boasts a state historic marker.

Independence Baptist Church. Credit: Scott Hill, Brenham Portrait Gallery
Independence Baptist Church

In addition to bricks and mortar preservation work, the Independence Preservation Trust has also established a number of walking, driving, and biking tours, highlighting the historic sites throughout the village. Several historic churches in the area now feature architectural lighting at night, thanks to the cooperative efforts of the churches and numerous donors. More live oak trees have been planted as well. And the Wolffs’ daughter, Elizabeth Wolff Rogers, created the village’s website.

Keeping the historic character of Independence intact, Wolff says, is an ongoing effort, and he and other community members don’t plan on stopping their work anytime soon.

“Coming from Houston, [we’ve seen the city] get overrun by billboards, and people are now trying to peel that back. But once that happens, it’s much harder to remove them than it is to keep them from happening,” Wolff says. “And so we’re working with the people in Washington County to show just how special the county is. And the beauty of Independence, of course, is its mixing of agriculture and history and natural beauty.”

He adds, “The effort has been contagious.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

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