Saving a Piece of History by Saving a House
TOH readers Doris and Samuel Collins, stewards of a storied Texas property, have turned it into a community gathering spot
Who> Doris and Samuel Collins
Where> Hitchcock, Tex.
What> Host an annual celebration at a historic property they're fixing up.
The first thing my wife, Doris, said when she saw the house was, "Are you serious?" We were living with our kids in a Texas town near Galveston and looking to upsize. A crumbling farmhouse wasn't what she had in mind. Nobody had lived there for a while, and the driveway was so dense with brush that you couldn't see the place from the road—it was a jungle. The porch was falling down. There were holes in the roof and, as a result, water damage inside. But I could see potential.
Shown: The restored porch of the 1883 farmhouse is a favorite hangout for (from left)
Torin, Joseph, Dallas, and their father, Samuel Collins III.
I grew up nearby in Hitchcock, but I'd never paid much attention to the property. Then one day, while driving by, I noticed a roadside marker. I stopped, read it, and thought, Oh, this is an interesting story about this Mr. Stringfellow. He was an internationally known horticulturist who tended orchards there. Little did I know that when I went down that overgrown drive, shaded with live oaks and towering pines, I'd fall in love with the place. As I walked around, I imagined raising my family there, adding our legacy to the house's history.
So we bought the house and its 9½ acres in December 2005 (most of the original parcel of land had been sold off years before). A gentleman from the Galveston Historical Foundation came out to give it the once-over. He said that beneath the dilapidated exterior, the home's bones were great.
Shown: The historical marker on the main road that first caught Samuel's attention and led him down the driveway.
It was built in 1883 for Henry Martyn Stringfellow, a Confederate Army veteran and onetime slave owner. Despite his past allegiance to the South, he paid freed men a dollar a day, more than twice the going rate, to tend his 30 acres of pear trees. This planter was more than fair to his employees. Stringfellow's neighbors pressured him to keep wages down, but he didn't, giving his workers resources to buy land and build houses and schools. As African-Americans, we felt this home would be good ground for us.
We all pitched in to demolish moisture- and termite-damaged areas and to strip wallpaper off original cypress boards inside. My father, a master electrician, helped me with rewiring and recommended an HVAC guy to put in central air and heat.
This may seem backwards, but our primary goal wasn't to move in—we've left the inside largely as it was, including the bathrooms and kitchen, and we're still fixing it up little by little. We wanted to get the property in shape to host the first annual Juneteenth Picnic at Stringfellow Orchards. Juneteenth, which originated in Galveston, commemorates June 19, 1865, the day slavery ended in the U.S.—two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Doris and I wanted all people to celebrate this day, as important in our community as the Fourth of July. To prepare, we worked on the house's exterior, rebuilding the porch, fixing columns and gingerbread trim, and getting the roof replaced. We chose a color scheme of bright white with green trim. We pruned the trees, some more than 200 years old. Slowly, the place began coming back to life.
About 600 people showed up for that first Juneteenth Picnic, and we've continued to host it every year. We put on activities for kids, a car show, and historical skits.
Shown: A local carpenter carved reproduction gingerbread and turned one new column to rebuild the termite- and water-damaged porch.
One attendee the second year was on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and she asked if I wanted to take her place when she stepped down. Now I'm in my second three-year term, and I've gotten involved with three state historical organizations. Buying this house just ignited something in me, and I've become consumed by the idea of preservation.
When we started inviting people to the property, we wondered if we should tell the whole story or just the positives. To be good stewards, we decided, we have to tell the true history. If we ignore Mr. Stringfellow's Confederacy involvement, it's just another kind of discrimination. I look at our Juneteenth celebration as a way to acknowledge America's constant evolution. As such, an African-American family now holds the deed to this two-story farmstead and its pear, pecan, and orange trees.
Shown: The 300-foot-long drive at Stringfellow Orchards was so overgrown when Samuel first visited, the house was not visible. Live oak, pine, pear, pecan, and orange trees still dot the property.
At some point I realized I knew more about Stringfellow's history than my own; I've now traced my family to 1870. Before that, the census didn't list slaves by name.
Our buying this place has inspired other locals to research their families and to connect. They've even sent funding and volunteered to help us finish the house. We're still living nearby and working on it on weekends, but the goal is to make this our forever home. I don't really play the lottery, but if I hit it, we'll be moving in that much sooner.