Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Miniature horses make Texas town gallop

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BRENHAM, Texas -- When the horses you're herding are about the size of chunky golden retrievers, roundup time is no big deal in this part of south-central Texas.

Sister Angela certainly had few problems corralling her frisky purebred miniature horses in time for the early-morning arrival of tourists to the Franciscan monastery. About 130 kilometres west of Houston, small has become a big attraction for horse lovers visiting the monastery's herd of about 80 miniature horses.

During the peak spring tourist season, as many as 800 people a day pass through the gates. Measuring no more than 34 inches to the shoulder, the horses -- while petite -- have generated big bucks toward operating this religious centre.

Riding herd aboard her John Deere utility vehicle, the genial Sister Angela Chandler is in charge of patrolling the 100-acre spread surrounding the Monastery of St. Clare, maintained by the resident Franciscan Poor Clare Nuns on the outskirts of this vibrant community. With about 14,000 residents, Brenham has become the main tourist centre for this historic region, often called the birthplace of Texas.

At nearby Washington-on-the-Brazos, settlers signed a declaration of independence from Mexico in 1836, sparking a revolutionary war that would lead to the creation of the Republic of Texas. The fledgling republic lasted 10 years before the territory became part of the United States.

Brenham has capitalized on this strong connection to revitalize its downtown and transform historical buildings into inns, antique stores, restaurants and funky specialty shops. With its laid-back atmosphere, the town seems a world away from the hustle and bustle of Austin and Houston.

The monastery/farm (monasteryminiaturehorses.com) was established in 1981. Serendipitously, the Lilliputian herd of horses proved a lifesaver for the monastery, financing it through entrance fees and annual horse sales. The miniature horses range in price from $600 to $5,000, with an average of 20 sold each year. The size and the gentle nature of the animals makes them perfect companions for acreage owners and their children. Other income is generated through the sale of ceramics, crafts and baked products produced here.

The horses have been a blessing, and the monastery is doubly blessed that they have provided such pleasure to visitors, Sister Angela says.

A visit to the monastery is just one of the many vacation opportunities around Brenham, which provides a varied list of visitor attractions. With a complement of fine eateries, accommodation choices and plenty of arts and craft stores in town, Brenham has become a popular home base for exploring the surrounding Washington County (brenhamtexas.com).

If you're touring the region, regardless of whether you stay in Brenham or at one of the many bed-and-breakfast ranches and working farms, many accommodation options are available.

While most of the big-chain hotels and motels can be found in town, I opted for the Inn at Wakefield Farms. (wakefieldfarms.com). The charmingly restored ranch home surrounded by rolling green ranch land near the tiny community of Chappell Hill proved an ideal choice. Owners Susan and George Borck have done a masterful job of restoring several original buildings to their former glory.

One prized addition to their property is an original Rosenwald school, one of few remaining examples of a rural school-building program that was part of an early 20th-century effort to improve the quality of public education for African-Americans living in the South. The program began in 1912, when Booker T. Washington met with Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. The great educator and orator inspired the creation of the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, which provided seed money for the construction of more than 5,000 buildings in 15 states, including schools, shops and teacher accommodations. All the structures were built by and for African-Americans.

The Borcks found their original Rosenwald school standing empty and badly deteriorated in a nearby community. They moved it to their ranch and spent more than a year painstakingly restoring it. The circa 1920s school is now a reception centre for weddings, conferences and other events.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 D5

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