A Farm That’s Almost as Old as Round Top Brings Back Colonial Times: Walnut Hill Farm and Three Collectors’ Extraordinary Cache of Artifacts
This working country home dates back to 1872, two years after Round Top’s incorporation into a village.
Walnut Hill Farm, Burton, Texas — This is not the tale of a modern farmhouse with a country-chic aesthetic. The shiplap and timeworn boards date way before Chip and Joanna Gaines first thought of Fixer Upper. This story features the first wave of mid-20th century families pioneering Round Top and environs — a dynasty whose arrival came 100 years after German settlers incorporated Round Top on May 6, 1870.
The late Virginia and Robin Elverson of Houston purchased a weekend farm in the area in 1967. This was transformative both for their family and for the community. The Elversons’ country home called Walnut Hill Farm dates to 1872, two years after Round Top’s incorporation into a village.
Their discovery of the farm, which was in a state of genteel decay when they acquired it more than half a century ago, was prompted by the same grande dame who suggested to James Dick that he establish Festival Hill music conservatory in Round Top: Miss Ima Hogg, daughter of the first native-born governor of Texas and founder of the Houston Symphony and Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens. Walnut Hill Farm became the muse for Virginia Lee Elverson, who would go on to a distinguished and unique career as a cookbook author, Le Cordon Bleu grad, chum of Julia Child, authority on colonial-era culinary arts, educator on Texas pioneer life and savior to the charming settlement of Winedale, gateway to the region’s German heritage. Virginia’s charismatic husband (who died in 1999) was the British-born Robin Elverson, a World War II pilot and realtor to the River Oaks set.
After Virginia passed away in 2011, the heritage of Walnut Hill Farm was memorialized in a 2012 volume spanning five decades of family life at the homestead, edited by daughter Ginny Elverson Welch, the current keeper of the flame.
Between breakouts of barnyard animals and a busy day at the farm, we caught up with Welch, a retired realtor and community builder like her parents and late husband Pat Welch. The photographs here — including an antique toolshed and a 19th-century log kitchen — reflect Elverson Welch’s passion for collecting, as well as that of her parents. While plans call for keeping these remarkable troves of 19th- and early-20th century artifacts within the family, Welch also hopes to welcome future groups to Walnut Hill Farm for lectures on the history of the area and to present discussions and demonstrations following a day in the life of Germany settlers in Texas a hundred years ago.
Take us back to 1967 and acquiring Walnut Hill Farm.
Ginny Elverson Welch: I was a teenager, about 16, when my parents bought Walnut Hill as a weekend farm. They didn’t want to be too far from Houston, but the realtor said, “Meet me in Sealy.” We were all in the station wagon — mother and dogs and everything.
Our realtor took off. My father was saying, “Stop, stop! We’ve passed Shelby, for goodness sake. I said we wanted to be no more than 45 minutes from Houston!” The realtor just kept going. Finally he stopped in front of this house. The grass was high, and the house had not been painted, and the porch needed to be fixed. But we pull up, and my mother looks at it and says, “This is it.” We bought it from the original family.
Love at first sight.
GEW: We trooped in, and it was great. It had so much potential. Nothing had been done to it. All we did was repair windows and small things like that. We painted it yellow with dark green trim, so it melded into the countryside. We wanted to preserve the frontier look.
It was — and still is — relatively small. We decided we would restore it so that we could come up every weekend. And that’s what we did for at least 40 years, because my mother continued coming after my father died in ’99.
Even when my father had Parkinson’s, we had weekend nurses who came up 24/7. There were times when he’d look out into the countryside and say, “Is this England?” It was so comfortable and so lovely, and we continued to work on the house and the gardens. We didn’t have air conditioning or a heater because mom wanted to keep everything in its authentic time period.
On the farm’s German heritage.
GEW: Victor Witte came over from Germany with his sons and bought several plots of land. This plot was originally 300 acres — when we bought it, it was 112 acres. The house was built around 1872 by Victor Witte and his son Armin.
GEW: The post office says we’re in Burton, Texas, which is 15 miles from here as the crow flies. However, we are 1.6 miles from Winedale and six miles from Round Top. We’re out in the country. There’s not anything except for an old post office and the house next door, which belonged to the Wittes. The stagecoach between Houston and Austin used to stop here for passengers to get a drink of water.
The log kitchen.
GEW: Originally the kitchen was on a neighboring property, and was built around the same time as the main house, or slightly before. There was a creek that the wagon had to cross, and it would stop at the log cabin. It was pulled by oxen. They’d feed the oxen, have dinner, then go on.
Your parents’ romance.
GEW: My father met my mother during the war, and they corresponded for three years. When the war was over and my father was back in England, my father’s father said, “Robin, you need to get yourself out of England because you’re the second son, not the first son — the first son gets everything. You need to go to America and make yourself big there.”
He wanted to track down my mother, whom he had met in Greenville, Texas, when he was stationed there during the war. My grandmother and grandfather lived in Greenville — my mother’s parents — because my grandfather was a ground captain in the army. So one night my grandfather brought these English flyers home. My father asked my mother for a glass of water and followed her into the kitchen, and the rest is history.
Your folks as collectors.
GEW: My father had a wonderful tool collection, and mother had an early American cookware collection. When they first bought this place, friends in the area would say, “Oh, we have something in our hay barn you might be interested in.” They found a lot of wonderful old metal tools and implements, which now hang on the wall in the log kitchen and the toolshed. They’re mostly from around here or made in the area.
Also, my father was great friends with fellow collector (the late) Ray Hankamer. They used to go around on weekends, visiting old-timers in the area to see if they would part with some of their furniture or implements that might be gathering dust in a barn.
When my parents bought Walnut Hill Farm, this was about the time the Round Top Antiques Fair began (it was founded 1968), when Emma Lee Turney held it in the Round Top Rifle Hall. Texas primitive furniture was just being discovered, and Miss Hogg was preserving Winedale. So my parents also acquired many finds at the early antiques fair — most of which came from this area.
There was a stonemason nearby — he was quite old, but he came out and built a wonderful cooking fireplace. Mother found a scalloped rack that went in the fireplace, from which you’d hang a pot or a roast to cook.
Why the collections are important.
The cookware and tool collections are what the first settlers in this part of Texas used in everyday life, as far back as 180 years ago. These objects are notable and valuable embodiments of this early farming community and the people that lived here in the 1800s.
Your mother and Miss Ima.
GEW: One of the main reasons we’re here is because Miss Ima was here. Mother was a docent at Bayou Bend. Miss Ima was beginning to collect Texas furniture for Winedale, and she said to my mother, “Virginia, you need to come up here and help me with this because you have so many great ideas.” That’s why my parents bought this house.
My mother wrote one of the first colonial cookbooks in 1975, A Cooking Legacy: Over 200 Recipes Inspired by Early American Cooks, with recipes from this era. Miss Ima encouraged her to write the book. She said, “Oh Miss Ima, I’ve never written a book before.” Miss Ima said, “I know you can do it. Now, you and Muffy McLanahan get together and write this book.” And they did, and they donated the proceeds to Bayou Bend. She was so interwoven with Miss Ima.
On culinary fame.
GEW: PBS found out about mother’s colonial kitchen when she began giving cooking demonstrations to elementary school children in the area. The kids would come out on a bus, she would have the cook fire going, and she would prepare some dove. She was in the kitchen attired as a 19th-century country woman, cooking a meal. She would explain the different implements, how they worked, and where the food came from. The kids would come into the log kitchen, sit in a circle around her, listen and watch. Then they would all eat the food.
Houston’s PBS station came out and filmed her in a short. They called the feature “A Day in the Life of a Pioneer Woman.” It was marvelous and quite in-depth. The film began by showing her getting up at 4 am and stoking the fire. The husband brings in the dove, she washes clothes in the creek and hangs them to dry over bushes.
Your mom’s culinary connections.
GEW: Two of her good friends were Julia Child and Simone Beck. She was also friends with the chef Jacques Pépin. When Julia and her husband Paul came to Houston, they would come over to our house. Mother and father also visited Julia and Paul at their place in France. Sometimes my mother would invite people over, and Simone or Julia and my mother would cook or give demonstrations, and guests would pitch in and prep.
Julia Child was very funny. Simone Beck was quietly funny. I don’t remember Jacques’ personality. He was much younger than Julia and Simone. Jacques visited Walnut Hill Farm, probably for one of mom’s cooking parties. I don’t know if Julia and Simone ever came to Round Top.
Your folks’ Round Top hospitality.
GEW: My parents entertained a lot at Walnut Hill. We would have 50 people to something called a chinking party. A chinking is something you put between the logs to enclose the house for winter. She also had cooking-school parties with a wonderful meal at the end, dictated by the season.
It’s fascinating how you’ve continued your mother’s work, including her mission with Winedale.
GEW: I wouldn’t think of doing anything else. I’m the protector of history around here. After mother died and I wrote her obituary, I realized just how much she was involved in.
The photography for this story was shot by Pär Bengtsson. Michelle Aviña did the art direction.
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