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Texas Traveler: Brenham

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Brenham is a quaint small town that isn't. It's the town the Blue Bell built, which is obvious as you exit 290 to head north on Loop 577, passing picket-fenced house after house with wide sweeping lawns, until finally, around a curve and over a hill, the gleaming white ice cream factory (and let's be honest, calling it a "creamery" is a little inadequate once you see the size of the facility) emerges. But Brenham ain't all rolling hills and casual scenery: the town is savvy enough to have its own Twitter account, and free wifi is offered downtown.

Blue Bell is what brought Texas Traveler to Brenham, and before we go any further, a word of warning. The Blue Bell website says that tours typically fill up before lunch, which is surprising considering the facility caps admission at 800 people each day. Summer is obviously the most popular time for tours, and the facility is not open on the weekends. So unless you want to spend your rare day off waiting in the scorching sun with 799 of your closest ice cream-famished friends, you best arrive early.

Make sure you get your turn for a picture with the Belle the Cow statue. The tour costs $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and children. It takes about an hour and includes a free scoop of ice cream at the end.

If you've had ice cream for breakfast, by the time you're done with the tour (and the waiting in line) you'll be ready for lunch. Downtown Brenham, just west of the creamery, is surprisingly thriving compared to other nearby cities. It's filled with the kinds of businesses tourists love: overpriced antique stores selling outsider art, "olde tyme" diners, odd little boutiques with off-label clothing. Almost every business, from restaurants to junk stores, has a small cooler filled with Blue Bell Ice Cream for sell, in case one scoop was not enough for you.

The front half of Must Be Heaven is actually pretty adorably-styled as an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. The back half looks like your spinster aunt's tea room -- decor is heavy on roosters, Holsteins and Laura Ashley fabric. The food is adventurous for diner fare (my party ate a salmon and dill sandwich and lobster quiche), but unfortunately bland. Their specialty is home-made pies, and they were extremely busy for a weekday afternoon.

After your lunch, around 1 p.m., you should head northeast along 105 until you get to an intersection for FM 50. This will take you west to Independence, TX, the tiny community that tried, in 1824, to become the seat of Washington County. Many historical buildings still stand there, from the old town square to the first settlement of Baylor Female College to the Seward Plantation, on of the best-preserved pre-bellum plantations in the South.

Around 2 p.m. you can head further north on HWY 105 to the Monastery Saint Clare, an odd little farm where the cloistered nuns raise miniature horses. Admission to the monastery is $4 for adults, starting at 2 p.m. Once you pay, you have full rein of the facilities (within reason), which includes a petting area for mares and babies, as well as entrance to the chapel. Sometimes the nuns host Family Days, where they race the horses and give more in-depth tours and demonstrations. The Monastery also hosts Mass every Sunday. Call 979-836-9652 for details.

The city has tried to maintain its modernized image with a summer concert series, Hot Nights, Cool Tunes, every Saturday this month in front of the Washington County Courthouse. Concerts are free, and the Longhorn Saloon proudly serves Saint Arnold's while hosting local bands on its stage. Ernie's American Bistro, a block or so north, is a good place for a bite to eat. But not, unfortunately, the ubiquitous Blue Bell Ice Cream.

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