May 27, 2016

The Rebirth of Stringfellow Orchards

As I was driving on Highway 6 in Hitchcock, Texas, in May 2004, I noticed a Texas Historical Commission subject marker marking Stringfellow Orchards. I stopped to read it and was immediately drawn to the story. Henry Martyn Stringfellow was a world-renowned horticulturalist who started his business in Galveston after the Civil War and eventually moved it 12 miles inland to Hitchcock in the 1880s.

I drove down the overgrown driveway to take a closer look at the property. Sitting in the center of the almost 9.5-acre estate was a 1.5-story, wood-framed folk Victorian residence with Queen Anne form. The house was in terrible shape and had been hidden from the public by the overgrown vegetation. The house, barn, and other structures seemed to have been swallowed by dense foliage.

The interior of the Stringfellow home was used to display the Juneteenth Art Exhibit by artist Ted Ellis.| Credit: Ted Ellis

Re-Animating the Orchards

As I stood there looking over the property, I thought to myself, “What an amazing place! It would be great to own a place like this and to restore it.” I had been bitten by the preservation bug, and I began researching the property.

On December 15, 2005, I closed on the historic property, and the rebirth of Stringfellow Orchards began. I immediately cleared the grounds and prepared for a community celebration. I hired contractors to repair the foundation of the house, replace its roof, replace rotten wood around its exterior, and paint it. My wife Doris and I hosted our first Juneteenth event at the site in 2006.

With over 500 people in attendance, the celebration was a great success. We thought this would lead to tours of the site and wedding rentals and planned to use the proceeds to help offset the cost of the restoration. Over the next few years, many events were indeed held at the site, but given the discounted rental fees that attracted business and the money spent on advertising, we were unable to generate enough revenue to cover even their cost, let alone the restoration.

The National Association of Black Scuba Divers youth group stopped to take a photo in front of the historic barn while touring the Stringfellow Orchard property in 2014 . | Credit: Sam Collins III

The Challenges of Stewardship

Then in 2008 we were hit with Hurricane Ike and the financial market collapse, and our dream turned into a nightmare. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. When we bought the property in 2005, the house was filled with furniture, and the barn and sheds contained old farm equipment. During the economic downturn we sold much of that furniture and equipment. We were forced to sell it cheap, but it helped us make it through. We also continued to host events and share the amazing story of Stringfellow Orchards. Like many others suffering through 2009 and 2010, we exhausted our savings and most of our retirement accounts.

We eventually listed the property for sale, but did not receive any serious offers. We had invested so much of our time, talent, and treasure that we could not just give the property away to a low bidder.

Photo of the Stringfellow home taken in June 2006 following restoration. | Credit: Sam Collins III

Success Through Shared Use

In 2011 I began planning my next career move. I had always wanted to work for myself and decided that 2012 would be the year I made the leap of faith. On April 20, 2012, I resigned from my job at a large brokerage firm and opened my own investment services company at our historic site. The first eight months of the transitioning were difficult, but by the end of 2012 things had begun to turn around.

Housing a business built on trust in a historic structure was a perfect fit. Sitting across the table from a client in my office or on the porch feels very different from being in the corporate climate of a downtown building. Clients have even remarked that the setting reminds them of visiting grandparents in the country. It has helped me build personal understanding with clients and shown them that working with me is about more than numbers.

Also in 2012 I applied to have Stringfellow Orchards listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On February 27, 2013, it became the first and only nationally registered property in Hitchcock. Thanks to the new business, my revenues hit an all-time high in 2013, and beat that record in 2015, which is also the year I was named Galveston County citizen of the year by the Galveston County Daily News for my work in the community and in historic preservation. Our historic site, which had once been a negative cashflow item on our balance sheet, has now become an asset.

The Texas Historical Commission marker at Stringfellow Orchards. | Credit: Sam Collins III

A Vision for the Future

But the impact of the project is measured in much more than dollars and cents—it is our goal to help grow people as they visit the site. What was once an eyesore for the city is a vibrant part of the downtown area that even draws local photographers and artists. The property has been featured on HGTV, Texas Country Reporter, PBS with Lidia Bastianich, and as part of a documentary about the Stringfellows, as well as in several magazines, including national publications This Old House and Black Enterprise.

For us, this decade has been on-the-job training. We entered this project with no experience in preservation, so we did not even know the right questions to ask to get help. We just believed that, if we continued to do what we felt was right and give back to our community, everything would work out. Sometimes it felt as though our work was in vain, but all of the sacrifice is paying off.

As we move into the second decade of stewardship of Stringfellow Orchards, there is still much work to do. For example we hope to open the Stringfellow Learning Center at the site to teach children and adults about history, art, and economics. With a steady income stream, a renewed purpose, and a vision for the future, we are doing our part to “save the past and enrich the future.”

Sam Collins III is a financial consultant and owner of SLC Investment Services, and an advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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By: Samuel Collins III

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