History of Round Top
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.
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 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.