Meet 5 Texas couples who’ve said goodbye to city life for rural Brenham

Frances Lawson

You don’t have to be a retiree. While the COVID-19 pandemic has made high-density cities less appealing for people of all ages, demographics experts say Millennials are embracing small town life, too, migrating from urban cores for more affordable housing and an easier place to raise a family. Ben Winchester, […]

You don’t have to be a retiree. While the COVID-19 pandemic has made high-density cities less appealing for people of all ages, demographics experts say Millennials are embracing small town life, too, migrating from urban cores for more affordable housing and an easier place to raise a family.

Ben Winchester, who collects data nationally as a rural sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension, is not surprised to see Brenham, a city of about 17,000 halfway between Houston and Austin, growing. Daily, about 6,000 people come into the area for work, about 8,000 commute out and more than 5,000 live and work in the area, he noted.

“It’s not the middle of nowhere. It really is the middle of everywhere.” That has become Winchester’s rallying cry; his beat on the pulse has even sparked a Kentucky-based podcast called “Middle of Everywhere.”

Brenham officials expect their city to grow by more than 17 percent by 2040, driven primarily by an influx of young families. “It was happening before the pandemic, but it has definitely accelerated,” said Susan Cates, director of Brenham Washington County Economic Development. “It’s a very positive change for our community and schools, and one we welcome.”

For some, small towns also are easier places to start businesses. We asked five entrepreneurial couples who are influencing the area’s food, beverage, retail and lodging scenes what brought them here and how they’re faring, pro and con. In their 30s and 40s, with enterprises that range from fashion design to salt-of-the-earth food production, they’re partners in business and life who thrive on each others’ individual strengths. And they are not looking back.

The farmers: “And then we did this to ourselves”

Sam and Carolyn Moffett, who left Austin in 2016, changed their life radically to start Shirttail Creek Farm on 115 acres near Brenham three-and-a-half years ago.

He had a digital advertising business and proprietary video technology, but they were burned out. The farm they fell in love with had a sturdy house built by immigrants from Prussia in the mid-1800s and looked like an ideal place to raise their two toddlers. Their daughter Ellie is now 6, and son Django is 4.

We stood in one of their pastures to talk, buffeted by wind and surrounded by a rowdy flock of 1,500 cackling, inquisitive Hy-Line Brown chickens who pecked at our jeans and shoes, untying laces. Ellie and Django ran headlong through the ruckus, deftly picking up flapping birds by their feet and cuddling them like city kids might handle stuffed bears. “It’s so weird to us that this is their normal,” Sam said.

Practicing regenerative agriculture, the Moffetts rotate grazing animals across cultivated pastures every few days. A distant field bright with rye grass, oats, vetch and turnips would soon be munched down by the cows, who would be followed by chickens that sleep and travel from field to field in carport-sized henhouses, protected inside portable electric fences.

The farm’s 6,000 working hens daily produce 400 dozen big, beautiful brown eggs with golden yolks during the warm months, and a little more than half that this time of year. They sell to Central Market and smaller grocers as well as to area restaurants and individuals. Pastured hens are the most profitable kind of animal to have, given the Moffetts’ acreage, but they also sell about 400 meat birds a month and are “finishing” 100 head of cattle this winter. “Our goal was to make this thing something we could live on,” Sam said. “We were done with chasing the vision of life we thought we wanted.”

He commuted back to Austin the first year. Now the work is physical and all-consuming. “Everything that happens on the farm has to happen every single day, whether it’s 28 degrees and sleeting or 108 degrees, like a hair dryer blowing in your face all day,” he said. “When we first moved out here, there was the novelty of, it’s the country, and pretty, and we’ve got animals. Then, after a year or so of getting it going, I mostly built chicken houses for two-and-a-half years.”

There are times he can hardly believe what he and Carolyn have done. “I was a successful guy in Austin. We had a very cushy life, and then we did this to ourselves. … Every day we’re learning how to do stuff we’ve never done. But through all that, you find out what you’re capable of.”

He’s into big-picture thinking and operations. Carolyn keeps them on task. “Sometimes I feel more responsibility just because we have so many animals, and we’re tied every day to the farm. That was not a space I had in my head,” she said. “It’s a completely different way of living, but we really enjoy it.”

And they’re turning a profit. “It’s not sexy money,” Sam said, “but that wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to make a life and make the farm support our family, and it’s doing that.”

With six farmhands now, they were able to take a “test run” vacation after Thanksgiving, spending four days in Fredericksburg. “It was a success,” Sam said. “Nothing major went wrong.”

The pandemic has complicated life, even on the farm; they weren’t planning to homeschool the kids. But as people cook more, one aspect of the business has grown: New customers from Brenham and Houston found the farm — enough that the Moffetts are developing an e-commerce component to offer meat shipping and subscriptions. They’re also starting to raise pigs.

Each Saturday, Carolyn and Sam split up to greet customers at two different Austin farmer’s markets, which is part of their social life and keeps them connected to the city. They miss the abundant coffee shops and restaurants, as well as Whole Foods and Wheatsville Coop. And the swimming holes.

But strangers seem friendlier in the country. “In Austin, nobody really talks to you. Here, anybody will talk to you and offer to help,” Carolyn said.

They’ve also met people at a church down the road, and their neighbors include a veteran rancher who mentored Sam and hurried over at 1 a.m. to help when a heifer was calving. “Nobody out here is trying to be anything they’re not. In Austin, there’s more focus on the car you’re driving and what neighborhood you live in. Here, those things don’t carry much weight,” Sam said.

“It’s been a whirlwind. Just building this in three-and-a-half years is a pretty lofty undertaking. But we love it and wouldn’t trade it for the world. We have no regrets.”

Shirttail Creek Farm, 281-546-8912,

shirttailcreekfarm.com

The retailers: ‘One thing snowballed into another

Kathleen Matthews and Jared Anderson took a calculated risk when they moved to Brenham from the Houston Heights and opened their modern general store Ballad of the Bird Dog in late 2018.

“A bunch of things came together to make it the right choice,” Anderson said. “The feasibility of rent, the space, the fact that there wasn’t anything like this and the tourists coming out here that would want to shop at someplace unique and different.”

The store sells casual clothes, leather goods, toiletries and gifts, and it has a craft-coffee bar, Mescalito, and two resident bird dogs, Ruby and Rye.

We sat in the back room, amid tables of sale merchandise, near a vintage barbershop space that had pop-ups before the pandemic. Matthews and Anderson said they are surprised by how quickly their business has evolved, and they’re not done yet.

The first plan was to open Bird Dog on weekends, with an online component. “Then one thing snowballed into another,” Anderson said. “The town just had good energy. The right people were taking downtown in the right direction. They spent a lot of time developing a strategy, and it’s one we believed in. And the right kinds of people are moving here: people like us and baby boomers who’ve retired with money, who appreciate a small town for what it is.”

They might have stayed in Houston if they could have afforded a house in the Heights. She was a pastry chef at Fluff Bake Bar (and before that, Uchi). He is a civil engineer and project manager in the oil and gas business. But an affordable, small-town alternative with potential sounded like a good option.

They came up with the store concept on their honeymoon in 2017, inspired by the qualities they loved about their first bird dog, Skeet, who died a month before the wedding. “Loyalty, tradition, trust, heritage, all those things that specifically bird dogs have, especially when you hunt with them,” Anderson explained. “We were thinking about basic, traditional goods, handmade stuff.”

They had a lot of cool stuff between them with nowhere to put it — things they could use as store displays, or even sell. Anderson had collected too much turquoise and leather. Matthews had a houseful of unique furnishings inherited from her stylish grandmother.

Anderson found Brenham almost by accident, looking for cheap storage space. He loved the old architecture and prettied-up alleyways. They bought a 1960s house in town, and soon the store was open seven days a week. Last fall they opened 1844 Liquor Market and its upstairs event room, the Side Door, a few blocks away from the store. Buildings are tougher to collect than turquoise, but Anderson has the bug. He might spin off Mescalito. “Downtown still doesn’t have a coffee shop with proper seating,” he said. He’d like to enlarge the general store and maybe open another business.

“Jared always has an idea,” Matthews said. “He’s always thinking ahead, while I’m in the moment.” Day to day, he handles the social media. She manages the store floors. “I don’t think I realized just how much I was going to have to be here. I like doing that, but you’ve got to be on everything,” she said. “The numbers in my head are constant, thinking about everything. Lists.”

He has kept his oil and gas job, but working remotely last year also put him in the thick of Brenham businesses. “CBD doesn’t work,” he said, smiling. “We used to have weekends to just relax. Now weekends are our busiest time, and at the end of the day, we’re tired.” The life he once knew — happy hours at North near the Galleria with other engineers, project managers and finance people — “that’s not happening,” he said. “But the people we’ve met are great, and on another trajectory we’d never have met them. And we’re finding more young professionals working remotely that we’ll probably have more in common with as time evolves, post-COVID.”

They miss Houston’s restaurants and food options. “Everything else we can get,” Matthews said. “It’s really not a bad trade-off. If we want to drive to Houston for a good dinner, we can.” As tired as they get, she added, “You know you’re doing it for a good reason. … Here, people are excited that you want to bring something to the community.”

Ballad of the Bird Dog, 212 W. Alamo, 979-347-0522,

balladofthebirdog.com

.

1844 Liquor Market, 210 S. Park, Brenham;
979-347-2710

,
1844liquormarket.com

The designers: ‘The question is, can we make it here?’

The pandemic pushed fashion designers Julie Haus Alkire and Jason Alkire from New York to Round Top, although the move wasn’t random.

She grew up in Katy. They met at the University of Houston in the 1990s and launched their first business, a magazine called Spoon, in downtown Houston’s Wagon Works building. Her parents live in Chappell Hill. They were visiting twice a year, bringing trunk shows from their 8-year-old Haus Alkire brand to serve some of their best clients. Before the pandemic, they talked about opening a small retail space in Houston, or a live-work loft. They also dreamed of building a home in the Catskills but didn’t want to give up lucrative consulting and creative directing projects.

“When you’re in that machine in New York, you’re going all the time,” Julie said. “Every time we came to Texas we’d just go, ‘Ahhh, we can breathe and sketch and think.’” We sat at their long farmhouse table, in a stylish, loftlike living space separated from their new luxury clothing store by glass doors. “In a dream world, it could be really cool,” Julie said. “We’re just still trying to figure out what we’re doing, and if we’ll stay here or build.”

The country looked good after they rescued puppies last spring. “That just canceled out even renting a house in Houston, with two monster dogs,” Jason said. “We came out here for lunch one day with a friend, saw this and poked our head in and started thinking, well …”

“This” was a 4-acre lease property that also has a barn suitable for a studio. “It was a beautiful day. We sat outside at the Garden Co. Had the perfect drink. I was like, ‘They have salmon here!’” Julie said, laughing.

Art dealer Nancy Littlejohn, whom they’ve known since the Spoon days, offered to collaborate by hanging paintings in the space — appropriate since the Alkires also approach fashion design as art. Their clothes have a 21st-century Zen-nature aesthetic, crisply articulated in luxury fabrics such as waterproof cashmere, laser-cut leather and silk prints made from Jason’s paintings and photographs. “We do stories; we don’t necessarily do seasons,” Jason said. One collection, which also is finding its way into pillows, features prints inspired by the life of Kusakabe Kimbei, a Japanese photographer from the 1800s.

Most definitely not a Texas-country vibe. “We don’t need a hundred people every day,” Julie said. “We just need a few of the right people.” She displayed a feathery cocktail confection she called a “pink cupcake” in the window as kind of a good-luck talisman, just for grins. To her surprise, it was the first piece they sold, to a new client who’s a Houston Chronicle Best Dressed hall-of-famer with a house nearby.

Last year was supposed to be Haus Alkire’s breakout. About 600 stores sold the couple’s previous ready-to-wear brand, Julie Haus. But the Council of Fashion Designers of America christened them rising stars in 2019, and they were to be paired with stylists and media who would follow their work in 2020. Then, of course, the fashion world fell apart.

Julie and Jason still pine a bit for the stimuli of New York’s streets pre-COVID, where they could walk to get art supplies and fabric trims and had a neighborly “family” of local restaurateurs and bodega owners. “But it’s kind of hard to miss what’s not there,” Jason said. “All the charm and quaint things we had finally lived to earn in that city, being there for 18 years … That’s all gone.”

Now they walk daily on the wooded grounds at Festival Hill, just across the road. “We get so much more out of that than rushing through life,” Julie said. “It was never enough.”

They still work with suppliers and clients in New York, often hauling boxes to Brenham, 20 minutes away, because Fedex doesn’t come daily to Round Top. “And then you’d better go to the grocery store,” Julie said. “You’re planning your days according to going to town.” It must be said, however, that 20 minutes on country roads is not at all like 20 minutes on Houston’s freeways or clogged streets.

And they have made friends. Julie contracted Bell’s palsy last summer, and a cashier from the Round Top Mercantile helped her get through it. “When we went to the Christmas parade, we took the dogs and we were at Mandito’s, and everyone’s walking around outside with a drink — which was very odd because you’re allowed to do that here — I said, ‘I think this is it.’ I’ve definitely fallen in love with the community and the idea of it,” she said. “The question is, can we make it here?”

Jason is both philosophical and practical. “We’ve reduced our rent role by 90 percent, and the quality of life went up by 90 percent,” he said. “When you’re over 40, you start thinking about these things. You really want to understand what gets you up every day. When something like COVID hits, after you’ve already gone through a dot-com crash and the mortgage crisis, you start thinking, what’s the next one? That is completely out of our control. So let’s control what we can and have some happiness.”

Haus Alkire, 453 N. Washington, Round Top; 979-249-3910,

hausalkire.com

The brewers: ‘The biggest leap of faith ever’

Next Post

Practice club seeks new space for peninsula railway model

Trains haven’t operate on the North Olympic Peninsula for about 40 a long time, but it may be doable to provide a railway to your home or garage. Club users from the North Olympic Peninsula Railroaders seek out a new property for their miniature reproduction of the Milwaukee Railroad procedure […]

Subscribe US Now