HITCHCOCK - Driving south along busy Highway 6 as it bisects this little Galveston-area bedroom community, population 7,000, you're more likely to notice D&D Liquors, Hot Rod Diesels and La Frontera Mexican Restaurant than you are the unobtrusive state historical marker and small sign announcing Stringfellow Orchards. But then, when you make a left turn into a long, straight driveway lined with tall pine trees, traffic noise fading and fallen pine needles cushioning your ride, you're suddenly in another century.
At the foot of the driveway is a white frame house with green trim, a two-story Queen Anne with a wide front porch, the porch ceiling painted the traditional sky-blue to confuse wasps and yellow-jackets. Built by a Confederate Army veteran in 1884, the house and adjoining nine heavily wooded acres is now owned by a black man, financial consultant Sam Collins III. The Hitchcock native appreciates the historic irony. So do his fellow preservationists.
"We've been going around the country tearing down Confederate statues, and here he is, an African American, preserving this Confederate soldier's legacy home," said Minnette Boesel, a Houstonian who serves with Collins on the board of the National Trust of Historic Preservation. "He recognizes the significance of the place as a teaching tool. Our kids are learning their history from it."
Today the partially restored old house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, serves as Collins' office. The house and grounds still need lots of work, but one day, someday, if his dream gradually matures into reality, it will be the Stringfellow Learning Center. It will be a venue for the arts, for living-history exhibits, horticulture classes and other community functions to add to the Juneteenth celebrations he and his wife Doris have been hosting since 2006. He has no shortage of ideas for the place, if only he can find the time - and the money.
The man who built the house, a Virginian named Henry Martyn Stringfellow, was a private in the Confederate Army who fought at the battles of Yorktown and Richmond. He accompanied Major Gen. John B. Macgruder to Galveston, participated in the Battle of Galveston and afterward was promoted to captain and put in charge of the ordnance department in Houston. In 1863, he married Alice Johnston of Houston, and the young couple settled in Galveston.
As Stephen Chism, author of a Stringfellow biography, tells the story, a chance encounter in April 1866, changed his life. Fishing from a Galveston wharf one morning, he struck up a conversation with a man who had grown up on the Rhine in Germany - where he should have stayed, the man told Stringfellow. He could have made a fortune growing grapes. Stringfellow was intrigued, and, in Chism's words, "soon became infatuated with horticulture." He started experimenting with fruits and vegetables on a two-and-a-half-acre plot at 45th St. and Ave. N. He started with cabbage and melons, added a small orange grove and 600 grape vines and began selling his produce to local dealers and restaurants.
In 1883, worried about storms and tidal surges on the island, Stringfellow moved his family across Galveston Bay to Hitchcock, at the time a little farming community and shipping center. He acquired 30 acres along Highland Bayou, built his home the next year and started Stringfellow Orchards. He also wrote two books about growing fruits and vegetables along the coast and within a decade or so was known nationwide for his experiments with pears, Satsuma oranges from Japan, grapes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and other fruits and vegetables.
The Dallas Morning News labeled Stringfellow the state's "Pioneer Pear Man." The paper also noted that Hitchcock "didn't amount to much," until Stringfellow moved in and got the locals interested in growing fruits and vegetables and shipping the produce across the country.
Collins, 45, was intrigued to discover that Stringfellow was something of a progressive for his day. At a time when black laborers in the area were being paid 50 cents a day, Stringfellow was paying his 30 black employees $1 a day. His neighbors grumbled that the dollar-a-day wage was driving up labor costs. "I always say, he took the high road, because the low road was so crowded," said Collins, a Texas Aggie with a yen for pithy aphorisms.
A green preservationist
In 1894, Stringfellow sold the orchard and moved back to Galveston because of failing health. (He died in 1912.) The property went through a couple of owners until Albert and Myrtle Kipfer bought it in 1920, fleeing the cold winters of their native Kansas. Collins bought the property in 2005 from their surviving daughter.
When Collins discovered the property in 2004, damage lingered from Hurricane Alicia in 1983 - the property overgrown, trees and limbs down, gaping holes in the floor and roof, outbuildings collapsing in on themselves. The house was cluttered with Kipfer-family belongings and records from the Stringfellow operation. "It was like a time capsule," he said.
"Why'd you do this?" I asked Collins a couple of days ago as he sat eating a Jack-in-the-Box breakfast behind a vintage desk in what had once been the parlor. He took a swig of orange juice. "I read the historical marker," he said. "That's why preservation and history is so important. Without that marker, I wouldn't have known the story. And then I drove down the driveway, and I said, 'Man, look at that! A house!' "
He quickly decided he had to have it, but the house wasn't for sale. ("You gotta be outch your mind!" his wife told him.) A year later he went back to the house and managed to negotiate a deal with the elderly owners. He realized almost immediately he had taken on a monster task.
"I had never done a project like that," he recalled. "I'm going from no experience to trying to restore a historic structure, keep it authentic the way it's supposed to be. I was new to preservation, as green as they come."
He knew he didn't want to turn the old house into some sort of museum. When he learned the phrase "adaptive reuse" from his new acquaintances at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he realized that's what he was trying to do. "That wasn't a good fit to get the traffic that I need to be sustainable," he said. "Now, with my investment business, the site is sustainable. And then I'm still able to do the preservation work and the history work. We still have kids coming in on field trips, we still have families rent the grounds for family reunions."
Unspoken issue of race
I met Collins a few weeks ago when he visited the Chronicle editorial board as part of a National Trust contingent. It's unusual to see an African American involved with historic preservation. Collins laughs about it, but he's aware that race is an unspoken issue, whether it's having to use a bank in the Northeast for financing because area banks turned him down (despite his finance experience) or having to deal with local suspicions about his motives. He knows what they were thinking: Black guy? Historic preservation? Why?
"And I grew up here!" he said. "My message to the heritage society is that we came to add something. It's not, 'We gotcha! We got the slave-owner's place!' Getting involved with historic preservation helped me turn this place into an asset for the community."
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https://www.facebook.com/pages/Joe-Holley/296218067166702holleynewsNative Texan Joe Holley is a former editorial page editor and columnist for newspapers in San Antonio and San Diego and a staff writer for The Washington Post. He has been a regular contributor to Texas Monthly and Columbia Journalism Review and is the author of two books, including a biography of football hero, Slingin' Sammy Baugh. He joined the Houston Chronicle in 2009.
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This article was shared from The Houston Chronicle originally published 11/4/2016
The City of Hitchcock is located on Hwy 6 in Galveston County 10 north of Galveston and 30 miles south of Houston.
Hitchcock is a city in Galveston County, Texas, United States. The population was 6,386 at the 2000 census. Hitchcock was created as a station of the railroad between Galveston and Houston in 1873 and around the turn of the 20th century became a vegetable shipping center. The settlement's economy crashed in the 1930s after insect plagues in the surrounding areas, and the area stayed impoverished until the establishment of both an anti-aircraft training base and the Hitchcock Naval Air Station at the beginning of World War II.