Village offers trip back to pioneer times near Elm Mott
- Dallas Morning News, October 2010
Homestead Heritage Teaches Rural Crafts
- GRIT, November/December 2009
- by Sandy Bates Bell
- Wacoan, 2009
- by Kevin Tankersley
- New York Times, January 2007
- by Finn−Olaf Jones
With Their Own Hands - Video
- Texas Country Reporter
The Local Show - Homestead Heritage
- KWBU, January 2006
Where Community Is No Cliché
- Christianity Today, February 2005
- by Roger Olson
Old mill given new life in Elm Mott
- Waco Tribune-Herald, 2004
- by Dan Genz
Growing Seeds of Tradition
- Waco Tribune-Herald, 2004
- by Karel Holloway
Visit a Village of Tradition
- The Sunday Sun, May 2003
- by Joan Upton Hall
Step Back in Time at Homestead Heritage
- Waco Today, November 2003
- by Kendra Willeby
Back To Simpler Times
- Waco Today, November 2003
- by Kendra Willeby
Finding spirituality on the farm
- Dallas Morning News, April 2002
- by Dianne Jennings
- Texas Highways, November 1996
- by Lana Robinson
Elm Mott’s Homestead Heritage Fair Shares its Simple Gifts
Originally printed in Texas Highways
Reprinted with the permission of the author, Lana Robinson
Poignant lines from this old Shaker hymn express the mood and philosophy of Brazos de Dios, a modest Central Texas farming community dedicated to the restoration and preservation of a tradition−laden family life and culture.
At the community’s 350−acre working hornestead on the Brazos River near Elm Mott, families discover their inpidual and collective gifts in an ongoing relationship with the land, from which they derive the necessities of life. Visitors to this quiet world of horse−drawn farm implements and gentlefolk can't help but find inspiration here.
"The overall simplicity and fruitfulness of the community is so evident," says Steffani Powell of Burnet, who, along with her husband, Ned, daughters Sarah, 14, and Rebekah, 11, and five−year−old son, Boone, has made a family tradition of visiting the farm’s annual Homestead Heritage Craft and Children’s Fair. "In their craft fair and lifestyle," Steffani adds, "the people of Brazos de Dios really value crafts for their beauty and utility.
Each Thanksgiving weekend, folks from the Heart of Texas region and beyond come to the three−day harvest celebration, reminiscent of an old−time country exposition, to enjoy a leisurely hayride, mix and mingle with barnyard animals, and feast on farm−fresh fare−hand−cranked ice cream, just−squeezed cider, sausage−on−a−stick, and other such treats.
Many gather first at the craft tabernacle, where potters, blacksmiths, woodworkers weavers and other artisans of all ages demonstrate their particular talents and exhibit wares wrought throughout the year Baskets, brooms, wooden spoons and toys, crocks and pottery, quilts, cross−stitched greeting cards, candles, hand−embroidered linens, bonnets, leather goods, hand−knitted sweaters, felt and woolen garments, and durable adults’ and children’s clothing of denim and chambray are just some of the useful articles for sale at this down−home bazaar. The Homestead Heritage Craft and Children’s Fair provides a refreshing alternative for Christmas shoppers, or for those merely wanting to stock up on stone−ground cornmeal, sorghum syrup, natural soap, and other essentials.
The theme of each fair − " Brazos de Dios: Where the Classroom Is a Life" − expresses the community’s belief that an agricultural setting, with its "living curriculum" and hands−on experience, remains the ideal context for rearing and educating children. Exhibits of the children’s poetry and other creative writings on nature, farming, hunting, and other experiences give fairgoers a glimpse into the everyday lives of students here. Displays of handcrafted items and special fair projects reveal a commitment to excellence by each child.
Jeremy Adams, a resident teenager, says he and his friends look forward to the fair "because it gives us something to build up to all year. It’s also another way of saying ‘thank you’ at Thanksgiving."
Even young children have a part to play in the festivities, Jeremy’s seven−year−old brother, John, says, "My favorite parts are the singing and helping in the soda booth."
Children’s choirs and ensembles perform traditional and gospel music during each afternoon and evening of the fair. From time to time, the older kids strike up lively bluegrass tunes on stringed instruments − guitars, banjos, violins, bass fiddles, and mandolins, many of them handmade by the musicians themselves.
The musical talents and quality of the children’s work at Brazos de Dios seem remarkable to Ken and Dolores McBee of Pasadena. Drawn by the farm’s welcoming atmosphere, panoramic views, and adorable animals, the couple regularly attend the fair with their teenagers, Rachel and Timothy, and 10−year−old daughter, Melissa.
"Our kids really like getting right in among the different animals," says Dolores. "One year, they had a milking demonstration and let each of the kids take turns churning butter. They really got a kick out of that."
The McBees numbered among the several thousand people who attended the first fair here in 1990. Altogether, approximately 28,000 people from across the nation and 12 foreign countries have enjoyed the fair since 1993.
Operated by a 700−member Christian fellowship, 175 of whom live and work on the farm, Brazos de Dios (Spanish for "arms of God") is a marvelous resource for those yearning to return to principles of self−sufficient farming, gardening, home schooling, and the crafts and skills of previous generations.
"We are inundated with requests for workshops," says Howard Wheeler, a minister who lives on the farm. One− to three−day workshops on skills such as pottery−throwing, basket−weaving, soapmaking, woodworking, farming with horses, felting, quilting, and spinning are held here each spring.
Moreover, to accommodate the steady stream of guests flowing in and out of Brazos de Dios, the farm opened the Homestead Heritage Visitors Center in 1994.
During the 1996 spring semester, approximately 1,200 public school students participated in tours at Brazos de Dios. On a typical field trip, kids enjoy a hayride, take part in several craft demonstrations, and sample a variety of farm activities (continued on page 44).
Over the past two years, the farm’s village of shops has expanded to include the Homestead Heritage Furniture Shop (See "Texas’ New Generation of Craftsmen," page 42), where craftsmen fashion furniture of exceptional quality from old longleaf pine and other woods, and Heritage Forge Blacksmith Shop, a den of decorative ironwork and metal castings − furniture, lamps, hooks, dinner bells, and fireplace tools. Wheels are always turning at the Potter’s House, another recent addition, where artisan Donna Arispe directs a handful of apprentices − mostly young women − as they create lovely, hand−thrown pottery.
"We specialize in functional stoneware − mugs, bowls, pitchers, place settings − things used not only in the kitchen, but throughout the home," says Donna, explaining that vessels are formed from three types of clay and fired in either a woodburning kiln or an electric one, depending upon the desired effect. ‘Many of the colors we've developed, like rose, green, teal, and blue−to−brown, go well with country color schemes. You'll also see the traditional two stripes of cobalt blue, originally found on 18th−Century colonial American stoneware, and lots of bluebonnets. We also have a good assortment of lamps − electric lamps, wick lamps, and oil lamps − and some beautiful crocks."
The pottery, together with the pioneer−style, solid−wood furniture, hand−forged ironwork, quilts, and other community−crafted items, sells well both at the farm and in the community’s Early Texas store in Fredericksburg.
Many of those finding "common ground" in the homesteading community have roots in an old religious tradition springing from the nonviolent movements of the Reformation era, which, through the last four−and−a−half centuries, has included the Mennonites and Amish. People of very perse backgrounds live here, including lawyers, public school administrators, ministers, teachers, seminary instructors, medical professionals, pharmacists, engineers, accountants, firemen, and mechanics.
The cycles of agrarian life provide a rhythm that continues year round at this old−fashioned farm. While each family at Brazos de Dios has its own homestead, complete with gardens and farm animals, all cooperate to work and harvest larger crops for the entire community. At any given time, young men can be seen toiling with huge Percheron and Belgian drafthorses in the rich river bottom land, plowing, discing, planting, and, later, harvesting sorghum, corn, sweet potatoes, and hay − each in its proper season.
Meanwhile, other residents of the farmstead stay busy feeding, milking, or tending livestock, stacking hay, and performing other chores. Young women don bonnets to plant and harvest the herbs, tomatoes, and peppers that flavor their zesty herbal vinegars and spicy salsas. These resourceful homesteaders make the most of native crops as well, picking plump, wild mustang grapes for jelly and harvesting pecans from the abundant native trees for use in baking and candy−making. And the list goes on.
Conventional wisdom might argue that the methods and equipment preferred by this unusual group are outmoded and inefficient. But homesteader Jerry Lancaster, who along with his wife, Anne, and three sons, moved out to the farm from Waco three years ago, suggests that simple farming tools, though perhaps not as productive in terms of cash as their modern counterparts, are excellent instruments for cultivating crops, character, and camaraderie.
"It is a lot of hard work, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything," says Jerry unapologetically.
Clearly, a Jeffersonian ideal endures at this agricultural collective called Brazos de Dios, where the people seem to have found freedom, simplicity, and a sense of community and place. At the end of the day, they still find time for life’s simple pleasures − games of horseshoes, long walks, swims in the Brazos, and front−porch sing−alongs.
’Tis the gift, indeed.
Texas’ New Generation of Craftsmen
Furniture of the style and quality introduced to the Texas frontier by German immigrants more than a hundred years ago has been revived by a new generation of craftsmen at the Homestead Heritage Furniture Shop at Brazos de Dios, just off Interstate 35 near Waco.
In 1989, the gifted woodworkers of the Brazos de Dios farming community decided to go against the grain of contemporary furniture−making by renouncing particle board and plywood and vowing to build only solid−wood furniture. Using history books, old photographs, and authentic pieces of furniture from the 1840−1870 era to guide them, they’ve carved out a niche in the specialty−furniture business.
"We wanted to get away from production and focus on craftsmanship," says Kevin Durkin, a 42−year−old master woodworker who manages the shop.
Inspired by the remarkable strength and beauty of early Texas furniture, these modern−day builders use longleaf pine for their handmade masterpieces. But such wood is hard to come by.
"I’m talking about old−growth timber, with very hard, very tight grain," Kevin stresses, speaking of trees that were centuries old and as tall as 125 feet.
They reclaim the historic wood from old mills gins, and industrial buildings built in Texas around or before the turn of the century, choosing only those buildings deemed unsuitable for preservation. Much of the recycled wood recently used for building furniture at the Homestead Heritage Furniture Shop comes from the old Brazos Valley Cotton Mill, built in the town of West in 1900, and from the old William Cameron Mill, built in Waco in 1915.
According to Kevin, a history buff as well as an avid woodworker, the longleaf pine derives its name from its unusually long needles, which can reach 16 inches. About 70 million acres of this species of southern yellow pine once extended from Florida to Texas, but almost all of it was harvested in the 1800s for use in homes, ships, bridges, and factories.
Well−managed, the harvest of the timber would have perpetually supplied localized economies, Kevin says. But, not long after 1900, loggers reduced what remained of the once−vast longleaf forests to broad stretches of stumps.
"The trees that replaced them were not the same," says Kevin. "New−growth trees sprang up quickly in the bright sunshine, forming a soft, pulpy wood. Their annual rings lacked the tight grain of the trees that had grown slowly in dark virgin forests."
Occasionally, Kevin and fellow workers find wooden pegs embedded in salvaged beams, vestiges from the days when virgin longleafs grown on plantations were tapped for their sap, or pitch, and then plugged with wooden pegs. But manufacturers soon discovered that turpentine, tar, and varnish could be synthesized from petroleum.
"And so, the last of the virgin longleaf trees that had found a refuge in pitch plantations were carted off to the lumber mills. By 1925, there were no more virgin longleaf pine forests in Texas," the wood expert explains.
The shop’s initial projects were slowgoing, Kevin recalls. Making the transition from power tools to hand tools, and building furniture without screws and nails, took some practice. Handcut dovetails for the first chest of drawers required about 50 hours. With practice, the work has gotten much faster.
"We found that we can handsaw a dovetail in the time it would take someone else to find his power tool’s extension cord," claims Kevin. "We have learned the beauty of those old, forgotten ways."
Today, the 20 or so craftsmen, including several young apprentices, make their work with chisels, saws, and other hand tools look easy.
"One craftsman takes a piece from start to finish. We don’t specialize the trades [inpidually assign only one aspect of die overall project]," says Kevin. "This week, we may be making a bed, the next week, a chest of drawers. That way, it’s not boring." The crew, he adds, works in rhythm with the Texas climate, sometimes breaking during the heat of the day and resuming when the sun goes down.
In addition to their popular pine furniture, the folks at Homestead Heritage use native Texas woods − walnut, mesquite, cedar, and pecan − for making pie safes, sleigh beds, chests, armoires, desks, dressers, tables, chairs, and other items. Orders arrive regularly from across Texas and from the East and West coasts.
"Over the past six years, we have stuck to our guns and have only made solid−wood furniture," says the resolute craftsman.
Rancher Robert Meadows of Elgin, whose home and office are vast, showcases of Homestead Heritage furniture, says, "It’s built for the ages. There’s no question about it. Their designs are always so well worked out. And they don’t cut any corners. The backs are as solid and attractive as the fronts."
Robert bought his first piece of furniture shortly after visiting the Early Texas store in Fredericksburg four years ago. Since that time, he and his wife, Jan, a teacher and private school owner and operator, have purchased at least 50 more pieces.
"I’ve had some experience with building," says Robert, "and if someone had asked me years ago if I’d be interested in pine furniture, I’d have said no. But the longleaf pine is a hard, dense wood with such inherent beauty, I was struck by it."
Lately, craftsmen at Brazos de Dios have expanded their woodworking realm to include more architectural millwork, which is done at the farm’s shop and at a mill in Austin. Using traditional methods, such as mortise−and−tenon joinery and hand−planing, they fashion entry doors, custom cabinetry, moldings, heart−pine flooring, staircases, windows, and exposed beams for homes and offices.
Complementing the efforts of this talented group of woodworkers are the Homestead Heritage Builders, a group of skilled carpenters, rock masons, electricians, plumbers, and their apprentices − all committed to excellence in the building trades. The builders recently completed a home at White Bluff on Lake Whitney that was featured last spring in Home Plan Ideas, a Better Homes & Gardens special publication on house designs.
The owners, Sam and Kathy Leake of Dallas, beam when they describe their home, which, from the front, looks like a two−story, 19th−century "Sunday house" with a gabled tin roof and full−length shed porch. But it is actually a four−story, contemporary limestone structure with a marvelous backdoor view of the water.
"We love our house. They [Homestead Heritage Builders] do such perfect work. They’re real craftsmen, and I just can’t say enough about them," says Kathy, who adds that quite a few furnishings in the spacious lake home came from the Homestead Heritage Furniture Shop.
Kevin Durkin suggests that the furniture−building and home−building trades themselves dovetail with other crafts and skills to strengthen Homestead Heritage’s commitment to restoring traditional cultural patterns and farming practices.
"The name ‘heritage’ means something to us," he says, smiling. "We are reclaiming our inheritance of those trades that were almost lost. The trades produce depth of character and common sense, which are rare commodities. That’s what we want for ourselves and our kids."
Homestead Heritage Craft and Children’s Fair
Brazos de Dios is 5 miles north of Waco and easily accessible from Interstate 35. Take exit 343, go west on FM 308 three miles, go north on FM 933 for 1.5 miles, and then turn west on Halbert Lane.
The 1996 Homestead Heritage Craft and Children’s Fair, set for Nov. 29−Dec. 1, provides an opportune time to view and purchase homestead furniture, pottery, fireplace toois, and other items produced by the artisans and children of Brazos de Dios.
Special performances by childrens’ choirs and adults singing traditional, gospel, and Christmas music highlight the fair each afternoon and evening. Bluegrass music performed on handcrafted stringed instruments proves a genuine crowd−pleaser. Fair hours: Fri−Sat 10−9, Sun noon−6. Admission: Free. Wheelchair accessible.
In addition to hayrides and craft demonstrations, enjoy exhibits of children’s writings and poetry and foods such as homemade tamales, gordi−tas, pizza, snish kebob, falafel, and fresh−squeezed apple cider throughout the harvest celebration.
Write to Homestead Heritage Craft and Children’s Fair, Box 869, Elm Mott 76640; 817/776−9972.
Homestead Heritage Visitors Center
The Homestead Heritage Visitors Center at Brazos de Dios houses a deli, gift shop, and bookstore. The two−story, dogtrot−style log building, which was constructed by seasoned and budding carpenters down to the felling of cedar trees and splitting of shingles, opens daily, except Sundays, year round. Hours: Mon−Sat 10−6. You can purchase early Texas longleaf pine furniture, along with quilts, wrought−iron fireplace tools, artwork, hand−thrown pottery, and numerous other handcrafted items at the center. You can also buy stone−ground corn−meal, sorghum syrup, jalapeno jelly, salsa, and other Homestead Farms foods here. Farm tours are offered on Sat; group tours by appt. Wheelchair accessible.
One− to three−day workshops for adults who want to learn crafts and skills take place each spring at the farm’s Homestead Heritage Learning Center. The lineup includes workshops in horse farming, pottery−throwing, basketmaking, soapmaking, woodworking, spinning, and more. To inquire about workshops and schedules, write to the Homestead Heritage Visitors Center, Box 869, Elm Mott 76640; 817/829−0417.
Early Texas Furniture, Millwork and Custom Homebuilding
Homestead Heritage furniture is also sold at the Early Texas store, 329 East Main St., Fredericksburg, across the street from the Nimitz Museum. Hand−forged wrought−iron furniture, lamps, hooks, dinner bells, and fireplace tools, as well as a wide variety of stoneware bowls, mugs, pitchers, place settings, and more are featured in this charming retail shop. Wheelchair accessible. Early Texas hours: Mon−Fri 10−5, Sat 9:30−5:30. Call 210/997−1812 for more information.
For inquiries, to place an order for an item from the full line of solid−wood furniture offered by Homestead Heritage, or to have furniture custom−built to your specifications from longleaf pine and other native Texas hardwoods, including walnut, mesquite, cedar, and pecan, call 817/829−2060 or 210/997−1812. Furniture and other purchases are shipped nationally. MasterCard, VISA, and American Express orders accepted.