Round Top, Texas is a historic community in Fayette County, Texas that has been named one of the “Top 100 Arts Towns in America”. With a population of 90 full time residents, it has an outsized reputation for its extraordinary arts attractions, its annual Fourth of July parade and its twice annual Arts and Antiques events.
In addition to being the smallest incorporated town on Texas with a full service public library, it is the home of the internationally regarded Festival-Institute at Round Top, and Shakespeare at Round Top, a program at the Winedale Historical Center whose students have twice performed at the Globe Theatre in London. The historic buildings in the center of town are protected by a local historical district. Round Top is also the smallest Town in Texas with a Land Use and Architectural Controls Ordinance.
Located beside Cummins Creek near the eastern boundary of Fayette County, Round Top was first known as “Townsend Settlement” after a family of early settlers in the area. It was also referred to as “Jones Post Office” after Myers F. Jones, the first postmaster. Round Top is entirely situated on one square mile of land taken from a league of land granted to James Winn on March 31, 1831. It is unclear when the town first began to be known as “Round Top.” Records indicate it was before 1850. Stories claim that it was named after a local house and stagecoach stop that had a “round top” where settlers would watch for the stage on the chance that it needed defense from hostile Indians.
The first settlers were predominantly Anglo-American and many distinguished themselves in the Texas War of Independence. Joel Robison, a local man, captured an older Mexican officer after the Battle of San Jacinto. Feeling pity for the vanquished man, he allowed him to ride on the back of his horse on the way back to where the prisoners were held. As they rode along the road, the other Mexican troopers began to salute and show great deference towards the older officer. It turned out that he was Santa Anna, the Dictator of Mexico. In gratitude for his gentle treatment, the Mexican leader gave Mr. Robison his gold braided vest. For years, young men in the Round Top area wore the vest on their wedding days.
In the San Jacinto campaign, the Townsend family had a larger representation present than any other family in Texas. Three local men of the Hill family also fought in the battle. By the late 1840’s, German immigrants had bought land in and around Round Top and began to indelibly imprint their culture on the region’s landscape. Prior to the settling of German immigrants in Round top, Count Boos-Waldeck, a cousin of Queen Victoria of England, purchased the Nassau Plantation below Round Top. It was bought in 1842 by the Adelsverin of Germany to promote German colonization of Texas. (continued)
During the civil war, Round Top served as a recruiting station for the northern half of Fayette County. Two companies, the Round Top Mounted Infantry and the Round Top Guerrillas were organized here. After the war, lawlessness prompted citizens to organize a community militia. In 1870, Robert Zapp, a legislator in the twelfth legislature and a citizen of Round Top, introduced his first bill, a writ calling for the incorporation of Round Top. The charter was granted the same year. In 1866, the residents erected the stone sanctuary of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church. That same year, Traugott Wandke of Round Top, an herbalist, organ maker and magician, built a new pipe organ made entirely of native cedar and donated it to the church. Wandke constructed the first pipe organs made in Texas. The organ is still operational and the church is still a house of worship, making Bethlehem Lutheran Church one of the oldest continuously operating Lutheran Churches in the State of Texas. By the early 1900s, the population of Round Top was 250. It was a thriving mercantile and agricultural community. Amongst other significant businesses whose buildings still exist are one of the earliest cigar factories in Texas, built in the late 1800s by Charles Schiege. The Round Top General Store, still in existence, was built in 1848. Round Top organized its volunteer fire department (shown above) in 1902. During World War I and World War II, many area citizens served their country. The people of Round Top have long been patriotic and loyal Americans as is demonstrated by the fact that the Round Top Fourth of July parade is the longest continuous Independence Day parade west of the Mississippi. In the past several decades, many old buildings and homes in the Round Top area have been restored. Some of these early restorers were John Nielson, Hazel Ledbetter and Charles and Faith Bybee through their Pioneer Arts Foundation. Some of the best examples of German arts and architecture are to be found at the Winedale Historical Center, restored by Miss Ima Hogg and donated to the University of Texas. In 1970, three new organizations began that were to mark Round Top history. Texas philanthropist Miss Ima Hogg was instrumental in the creation and/or inspiration of all three. She had invited a brilliant young concert pianist, Mr. James Dick, to play in the performance barn at Winedale. With this performance, the Festival Institute at Round Top was born. She also talked to Dr. James B. Ayres about performing Shakespeare in the same old building. Soon afterwards, Shakespeare at Winedale was begun and sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin. She was also an inspiration to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bybee, who created the Pioneer Arts Foundation that same year. (Now known as the Bybee Foundation. The seven acre site is now the site of Henkel Square Market.) Round Top is also known for large arts and crafts events that were founded by Ms. Emma Lee Turney in the late sixties and have grown into events that now involve several neighboring towns and bring 50,000 to 60,000 people to the area for as much as three weeks. The events end on the first full weekend of April and October each year. Special thanks to the Round Top Historical Society for this brief history and images.
Known as “Festival Hill” to its local audience, the Festival-Institute, founded by internationally acclaimed concert pianist James Dick, is one of the premier rural classical music performing arts Institutions in the world. It’s extraordinary 1,000 seat Concert Hall, spectacularly landscaped grounds and immaculately restored historic structures bring students from all over the world to train with world-class instructors. The Institute offers year round performances, as well as educational forums and other events, but the Festival Hill’s busiest concert schedule is during its six week long Summer Institute that runs from June 6th through July 17th.
The Shakespeare at Winedale Summer Class is a course dedicated to the study of Shakespeare’s plays through performance. This course offers an educational and theatrical experience of great intensity, as well as a unique opportunity for group interaction and self-exploration, to students from any discipline. The program is part of the curriculum of the University of Texas at Austin Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts. Performances are primarily done in the summer from mid-June until mid-August, but additional single performances occur during their Spring and Fall seasons.
Camp Shakespeare is a two-week University of Texas residential summer camp for young people, ages 11-16,* dedicated to exploring Shakespeare through performance. It was founded by James B. Ayers, the original founder and instructor of Shakespeare at Winedale. Young people find their way not through rehearsals but performances. Every moment is a performance. Campers are challenged to play out their interpretative discoveries on stage.
The Winedale Historical Complex, a division of UT Austin’s Briscoe Center, is a collection of nineteenth-century structures and their period furnishings situated on 225 acres just two miles from Round Top. Winedale’s collections offer a tangible link to the Texas past, capturing the evidence of history through architecture, furnishings, and decorative arts. Most of the structures and collections at Winedale were moved to the complex by Miss Ima Hogg in the 1960s. Miss Hogg donated the Winedale campus to the University of Texas in 1967, envisioning a “laboratory for students in college to explore many fields associated with the history and culture of ethnic groups who migrated to Texas in the early part of the 19th Century.” A large portion of Miss Hogg’s Texas furniture collection is now on display at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas. Winedale’s purpose is to foster an understanding of Texas history and culture by preserving the collections and making them available for teaching and research.
Emma Lee Turney founded the Round Top Antiques Fair over forty years ago in the Round Top Rifle Hall. In the process, she has transformed the economy, the landscape, and even the culture of the sleepy little backcountry town that was once Round Top. According to the Dallas Morning News, Miss Emma’s show is the “…best antique show in Texas…some say the best west of the Mississippi, others say best in the country…”. Southern Accents claims “…the Round Top Antiques Fair is one of the country’s premier antiques events.” CBS news Sunday Morning raves “…When the (Antiques) Fair opens, it looks like opening night….It isn’t the scenery that draws crowds to tiny Round Top…it is the Round Top Antiques Fair…it’s the best…Round Top has become a decorating Mecca.” Emma Lee and the shopping juggernaut she began, has inspired many other copycat antiques and craft events over that thirty-five years, and together with her four venues, they attract the single largest influx of tourism, tourist dollars, and sales tax revenue of the year in Fayette and surrounding counties. Antiques Week (which is really approaching three weeks these days), draws as many as 50,000 visitors to the area, according to some of the more optimistic estimates.
The Round Top Schützen Verein (shooting society) was formed in 1873 by the town’s German heritage inhabitants. It’s purpose was stated as “the support and encouragement of innocent outdoor sports, such as bicycle riding, target and trap shooting, open air athletics, games, dancing, and others of a like character”. The 10.5 acre property on which the Rifle Association Hall is located was purchased in 1881-1882. By 1912, construction was complete on the dance hall, bandstand, outdoor kitchen and bar and the site was named Schützen Park, or Sharpshooter’s Park. It became the locale of many community events – dances, holiday celebrations, shooting contests, cook-offs and other events. The Rifle Hall was also the original location of Emma Lee Turney’s Round Top Antiques and Crafts Show. Perhaps the best known of all Rifle Association events is Round Top’s annual Fourth of July Parade which has been celebrated every year since 1851. It is known as “the longest running Fourth of July Parade west of the Mississippi.”
Arts for Rural Texas, headquartered in Fayetteville, Texas, is a partner and collaborator of the Round Top Family Library. The non-profit organization strives to enhance the region’s exposure to the visual and performing arts. Founded in 2003, they have offered augmenting school art programs in Fayette, Colorado, Austin and Washington counties as well as Art After School and Fine Art Assemblies. The Assemblies bring individual artists and groups, such as the Houston Opera To Go and the Austin Ballet, to perform and teach in local schools. Summer Art Camps are also held annually for area school children. They also sponsor ArtWalk, an annual, juried outdoor art show which draws visitors from around the state to the square in Fayetteville.
Each May, the Fayetteville Chamber Music Festival presents concerts of chamber music during which the audience sits near the musicians and experiences the music close-up. World-class musicians from New York, Hungary, Poland, Houston and Austin perform in the Moravian Room at the Country Place Hotel in downtown historic Fayetteville where the natural acoustics bring a perfect warm, intimate sound to the musicians’ violin, clarinet and piano. The repertoire includes classics by Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Czech favorites by Dvorak and Janacek, and Swedish pieces by Berwald, Netzel, and Stenhammar, among others. It was founded in 2006 by its Artistic Director, internationally acclaimed clarinetist, Hakan Rosengren.