The roots of the Circle J Ranch go deep into the soil of Texas history. In fact, when you step out on these acres, you are stepping into the foot steps of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300.” You can’t get more Texan than that!
This spread in Waller County, Texas, near the historic town of Hempstead, was part of Austin’s first colony. By1826, the Merritt M. Coates family raised stock and farmed this land. Texas was a place of refuge back then where people could start over, far from conventions and troubles that might have plagued them back in the states. The people who journeyed under these skies came here to enjoy the promise of liberty on this land—something we all have in common.
This was great county, too. Well-watered by creeks, it bordered the mighty Rio de los Brazos de Dios, the appropriately named River of the Arms of God. You can almost feel the almighty embrace you underneath these Texas skies, and so it must have seemed to the Coates family as their plow bit the unbroken sod and they planned for their future.
There were other pioneers here too. Two of their neighbors on the east bank of the Brazos were free blacks Lewis B. Jones and Samuel Hardin. Just a couple of miles to the south, Virginia Native Jared E. Groce came to Austin’s Colony to establish an impressive cotton operation he christened Bernardo Plantation. His late wife, Mary Waller, was from a prominent family which included Texas patriot Edwin L. Waller, later the namesake of the county. Groce shipped his cotton by barge down the Brazos and was soon of the wealthiest men in Texas and his farm a well-known landmark.
The Texas Revolution also played out here. In 1836, Sam Houston crossed the Brazos nearby as he led the Texian army toward its showdown with the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto. The famous “Twin Sisters” cannon used in that fight were mounted to their carriages at the Bernardo workshops! Juan Antonio Padilla, a longtime resident of Texas, had land just down river from Groce’s planation. This one-time Spanish soldier and Mexican official believed in the Texas cause and fought for independence and then helped form the Republic’s first government.
Not surprisingly, this fertile region settled fast. Cotton seemed to jump out of the ground here. The hearty land dotted with pecan trees, live oaks, sycamores, ash, elm, cottonwood, walnut trees, and wild fruits and berries supported these early settlers and attracted plenty of game. Turkeys and deer weighted many a rough-hewn table in this area. Groce’s son, Leonard Waller Groce, carried on his family’s farming tradition and established the impressive Liendo Plantation east of present-day Hempstead.
By 1858, the Houston and Texas Central Railway crossed this region, and the market town of Hempstead sprang up along its tracks. During the Civil War, Confederate troops established camps in the region and after that conflict US troops under George Armstrong Custer moved in to restore Federal control. As the years rolled on, agriculture continued to be the main pursuit.
In 1879, Prairie View A&M opened to educate African Americans in the region. All the prosperity beckoned newcomers to the area, including German-born Elizabet Ney. Her family bought the impressive Liendo house, and in later years she would go on to become one of the first professional sculptors in Texas. Hermarble Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston greet visitors in the state capitol to this day.
Today, Waller County is fast becoming an extension of the dynamic city of Houston, itself a great expression of the energy and diversity of the Lone Star State. Yes, the region may have changed, but the land remains. As you walk the lands of the Circle J Ranch, you are keeping good company. The people who have come and gone along these same roads, creekbanks, and fence lines are the very fiber of twine of Texas. Like you, they come from a variety of backgrounds, have lived many different adventures, and have pursued their happiness in a variety of ways. Even so, they appreciated a good sunset, the sight of birds on the wing, and the snort of a buck checking the wind.
Like you, the men and women of those by gone eras loved the feel of Texas under their boots. Now, as you hunt the thickets, fields, and tanks of the Circle J, pause for a moment—breathe in the history—and listen for their voices in the breeze. Their story is now part of your story, too.