History of Brenham
Brenham was established in 1844, in a beautiful post oak grove, and named for Mier Expedition hero and martyr Dr. Richard Fox Brenham. Although originally seated in Old Washington, and then Mount Vernon, growth in the county led to an election between Independence and Brenham to determine the new county seat, and Brenham won the election by only three votes.
The first building to be erected in the original town-site was the courthouse. It was a small, two-story wooden structure situated on the site of the current courthouse. The next courthouse, built in 1885, is pictured below.
As told in the History of Brenham and Washington County Texas, by Mrs. R. E Pennington, new citizens arrived, new houses were constructed, and the small town became a thriving business center.
High-quality cotton, corn, and cattle were being raised in the area, and factories were producing many items that were in high demand, but it could take weeks, or even months, to deliver products to waiting markets.
This dilemma was solved when locals took the matter into their own hands. Led by local attorney and community leader J.D. Giddings, the Washington County Railroad was established and completed in 1861. The railroad connected to the Houston and Texas Central (H&TC) in Hempstead, giving local products access to faraway markets through Galveston.
The Civil War halted construction in Brenham (though it would soon be constructed through to Austin) and during that time, the city became a Wild West Boomtown. The fascinating story of our community during this period and the years soon thereafter is told in The Burning of Brenham, by Sharon Brass.
By 1883, the peak of immigration from central Europe was reached, and brought families with greatly needed, industrial skills for which Brenham would gratefully begin to realize the conveniences of the Industrial Age. Machine shops, iron works, oil mills and cotton compresses were built. Photography studios, tailoring shops, and bakeries were opening and providing much-needed services. Even a horse-drawn trolley car/rail system was devised along the brick paved, Commerce Street to transport people from the Railroad Depot to hotels and business houses in the downtown area.
This growth continued with minor dips and swings of the economy until another burst of redevelopment was realized. Around 1912, many downtown buildings were remodeled, with first-floor storefronts being built with marble, copper and colorful canvas or metal awnings were added to freshen the general appearances.
Downtown has always been the center of social activity, with concerts, events, and parades, but with the advent and popular use of the automobile, the development of Downtown changed. Following World War II, a decline in population began with the general transition of agricultural-based, breadwinners moving to larger cities in search of better paying work. Many downtown buildings were neglected or torn down, while others did their best just to maintain their property.
During the 1950’s and early 1960’s, and economic recovery and movement of businesses to new loop area, led many owners to “update” their buildings with aluminum screens over the historic facades, and several properties were demolished for parking lots. Downtown was changing from a center of commerce and cultural events to a business center for banks, attorneys, and governmental agencies spotted with a few, old established department and five and dime stores.
In the early 1980’s, the decline of downtown led the City of Brenham to join the Texas Main Street program and much success was achieved. When the city decided to get out of the program after three years, property values declined almost 60%, leading to re-entering the program in 1999.
Following more than $25,000,000 in reinvestment in the area, thousands and thousands of volunteer hours, and a dedication to revitalization by the City of Brenham and the community, Downtown Brenham has become a thriving, evolving, cool and authentic place!