Hard work is its own reward at Brazos de Dios, a community north of Waco.
Brazos de Dios, an agrarian Christian community north of Waco, maintains a simple way of life not so much as a rejection of modern conveniences but more for the character-building aspects of good old-fashioned hard work. On Thanksgiving weekend the fellowship throws open the gates for a three-day harvest celebration filled with hand-cranked ice cream, fine crafted goods, family music, and tours of the farm.
Nestled in the thick forest of the fertile river valley, the community's small Homestead Heritage Crafts Village of shops and workshops welcomes visitors year-round. The visitors center is also the Homestead Farms Deli. The generously portioned chicken and turkey sandwiches are made to order on fresh homemade breads. They also offer top choice smoked brisket sandwiches. A person could make a pretty good meal of side orders of potato salads, cole slaw, and barbecued beans.
Enjoy the food in the dining room lined with shelves filled with jars of jelly, packages of herbs, and breads -- all made at the farm. There are also picnic tables under the shade of the big oak trees around the visitors center. Don't forget to leave room for some homemade ice cream.
After a big sandwich, a little walking and shopping can be just the thing. The restored 200-year-old barn showcases the work of the community's craftsmen. From dresses to soaps, kitchenware to handcrafted furniture, this is the main retail outlet of the group's production.
A stroll around the grounds of the Homestead Heritage Crafts Village leads to the workshops. Workers in the Potter's House are eager to show visitors the skill of making wheel-thrown stoneware pottery. Next door in the furniture shop, workmen use traditional tools to build early Texas replica pieces out of longleaf pine, cherry, and mahogany woods.
Across the wood bridge and on the side of a small hill behind the visitors center, the clang of the blacksmith's hammer rings throughout the village. The shop makes decorative items for the retail sales as well as large contract jobs for local construction projects. Above the blacksmith shop is the village's herb garden, filled with fragrant and colorful plants.
Brazos de Dios (Spanish for "Arms of God" and the original name of the nearby Brazos River) was founded in 1990 by the Heritage Ministries. The Central Texas community is home to nearly 200 of the more than 700-member Christian fellowship. It has been a long journey for the congregation, which began in a storefront church in New York City's Hell's Kitchen in 1973.
From New York, the group relocated to New Jersey to begin a small-scale farming operation. A splinter group moved to Colorado, but the drop in the economy wrecked their hopes of launching a self-sustaining agrarian community.
Many of the members reunited in Austin, where they began making cabinets. Their distinctive product utilized longleaf yellow pine salvaged from buildings constructed prior to 1920, before it was depleted in the forests of the southern United States.
On 350 acres between Elm Mott and Gholson, the church group started the Christian agrarian community which they had tried in other locations. About 20 members farm the land full time, and everyone helps with the labor-intensive plantings and harvests. Other members work in the craft industries at the village or hold jobs in Waco and surrounding towns.
Unlike the apocalyptic Branch Davidians, the Brazos de Dios community is avowedly nonviolent and welcomes visitors. Members offer hayride tours of the farm on Saturdays. The society provides a resource for others who want to return to self-sufficient farming, gardening, home schooling, and the crafts and skills of bygone days.
The members of Brazos de Dios do not entirely shun modern living. While they do not own televisions, use motorized farming equipment, or read daily newspapers, most of the members own cars or trucks and have air-conditioned homes. Their lives are a blend of 19th-century rural life with selective utilization of modern conveniences.
While the community's methods may be more labor-intensive than their modern counterparts, the means lead to high-quality products and give the members a strong sense of character and camaraderie.
Homestead Heritage Visitors Center is north of Waco; exit I-35 at Elm Mott, take FM 308 west to FM 933, and go north about 1.5 miles to Halbert Lane. The village shops are open 10am-6pm Monday-Saturday. There is no admission fee, and they ask that pets be left at home. For more information, call 254/829-0417.
The Heritage Craft & Children's Fair takes place at the village Nov. 26 and 27, 10am-9pm and Nov. 28, noon-6pm; admission is free. The focus is on activities for the children as well as displays and demonstrations on farming, alternative energy, cooking, gardening, and other skills. There will be lots of food and crafts for sale as well as music.
Homestead Heritage furniture and other crafts are also sold at the Early Texas store, 329 Main in Fredericksburg, across the street from the Nimitz Museum. The store is open Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Call 830/997-1812, for more information.
Coming up this weekend ...
Poinsettia Celebration at Ellison's Greenhouses in Brenham opens five acres of blooming poinsettias along with craft booths and floral demonstrations to the public, Nov. 20-21. 409/836-0084.
Weihnachtsmarkt in New Braunfels' Civic Center offers a weekend of unique Christmas shopping under one roof, Nov. 19-21. The downtown Christmas tree lighting with Santa will be held at sundown in the Main Plaza, Nov. 19. 830/629-1572.
Walkway of Lights in Lakeside Park in Marble Falls is one of the most spectacular Christmas light shows in the Hill Country, Nov. 19-Jan. 1. 830/693-4449.
Coming up ...
"Voyage of Doom," a NOVA documentary about Fort St. Louis and La Salle's ship the Belle, which was found off the Texas coast, will air on PBS, Nov. 23. See local listings for details.
Thanksgiving in Luckenbach features an exquisite meal prepared by Navajo Grill Catering at 6:30pm followed by a dance to the two-steppin' sounds of Don Walser, Nov. 27. 888/311-8990x2 or http://www.luckenbachtexas.com.