The City of Brenham was first settled in 1843 and was originally known as the Hickory Grove community. The name was changed to Brenham in 1844 in honor of Dr. Richard Fox Brenham, a native of Kentucky who practiced medicine in Washington County. He actually never lived inside the city limits. Dr. Brenham was a member of the Mier expedition.
He is described in 1915 by Mrs. R. E. Pennington as:
"All nature combined to make Dr. Brenham a model man; and physically, intellectually and morally his life is worthy of emulation by the youth of Brenham. He was a strikingly handsome man, of tall and commanding physique; around his broad forehead were masses of light brown hair; and his classical features were lighted by dark brown eyes in which gleaned the fires of intelligence. He possessed superior education, magnetic personality, a cheerful disposition, a rare gift of oratory, and being naturally witty always pleased a crowd. Many incidents illustrating the sterling character of Dr. Brenham were told by the early settlers. When he lived in Washington County he had many friends among the men, women and little children; and they so loved this bright and skillful physician, that when the time came to name the town of Brenham the brave and good man and his services were not forgotten..."
Brenham was named the county seat of Washington County in 1844 and has remained the county seat since that time. It formally incorporated in 1858 with the first elections held on May 29, 1858. In 2008, the City celebrated its Sesquicentennial with a Mayor's Gala and other festivities.
Brenham is a Home-Rule City, having adopted the City Manager/Council form of government in 1968.
In 1848, the Galveston & Red River Railway Company was incorporated, making it the second railroad company in Texas. Plans were to extend the tracks from Galveston to the Red River, with a branch running through Brenham. By 1853, tracks had reached Houston and construction was started toward Hempstead. However, the company changed its policy in 1856 and prohibited any branches being built until the main line reached the Red River. This change of plan was unacceptable to the businessmen in Brenham who had been eagerly awaiting a more stable form of transportation for their products. Local citizens took matters into their own hands, and led by Jabez Demming (J.D.) Giddings and his brother, Dewitt Clinton (D.C.), the 21 miles of tracks needed to reach Hempstead were laid. The outbreak of the Civil War slowed the progress of construction somewhat, but by 1861 the Washington County Railroad was built.
All railroad construction in Texas halted after the beginning of the Civil War, so for the next 10 years, the only sizable Texas railroad towns were Brenham, Houston and Galveston. Trains operated to and from the coast throughout the Civil War, with goods from Washington County shipped to the east coast and around the world. This advantage made Brenham economically important and laid the foundation for the area's growth and prosperity.
The railroad is still very active in Brenham, with approximately 40 trains coming through on a daily basis. In 2011, the City established a Railroad Quiet Zone, which prohibits the trains from blowing their horns through the town.
One of Brenham's greatest stories, retold in a recently constructed downtown park called Toubin Park, is the Burning of Brenham. Not only did over half the town burn, it was the impetus that created the Brenham Fire Department. It was in September of 1866; Brenham had been living under federal martial law for the past year and hostilities were evident between Union soldiers and residents. The local newspaper editor had been arrested twice for his writings against the Union soldiers.
Local legend has it that a group of Union soldiers were roaming the street, looking for a fight. They came to dance being held to raise funds to build a new black school. The attendees, mostly freedmen, had all paid a small admission fee. The Union soldiers were asked to do the same and upon refusing to do so, were refused entrance to the dance. They forced their way in and started creating problems, so the dance was ended. The soldiers became so enraged they started fighting and soon the fighting spilled over into the streets. The Union major in command ordered the soldiers to set fire to the town, to which they are said to have responded "We have set the town afire? All hell can't save it now!"
A report of the Joint Select Committee on the part of the Texas Senate and House of Representatives formed to investigate the fire did indeed lay the blame for the fire on the actions of the Union soldiers. As a result of the fire, it was realized there must be some means of protection from both fires and Union troops. Thus, the Brenham Fire Department was organized, on the surface, for protection against fire. However, the underlying reason of this formation was to suppress the lawlessness of Union troops stationed in Brenham. This military organization, disguised as the Volunteer Fire Department, held the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Brenham as well as their property during Reconstruction.
The fire department's history is very much intertwined with the City's. It was the Fire Department that purchased 14 acres in 1883 that eventually became Fireman's Park. In 1917 it was deeded to the City as the first city park. It is the home of Fireman's Field, where the State Champion Brenham Cub Baseball team plays. The Cubs are one of three teams in the state to have reached the state championship 15 times; they have won it seven times. Brenham is known in the baseball world as "The Baseball Capital of Texas."
The Fire Department is also responsible for revitalizing Brenham's Maifest – an annual spring time festival that celebrates the youth of the community. It was originally started in 1874, but due to financial difficulties, the fire department took over running the festivities until after World War I.
One of Brenham's greatest assets is its Flying Horses Antique Carousel. Located in Fireman's Park, the City's records indicate that the carousel was found in a field next to a railroad track approximately twenty miles northeast of Brenham in 1932. It was purchased from the owner of the field and brought to Fireman's Park, restored, and used during the county fair that year. A 16-sided building, built by the WPA and thought to be one of the few left in Texas, was constructed to house the horses in 1935.
The "Flying Horses" appear to be designed in the "county fair" style of carousels. Those were a sleek style, with form and function as closely united as the wooden horses and their built-in saddles. The horses seem to fly, with manes and tails carved to give an appearance of speed. Building each horse to conform to the same mad dash pose had a two-fold benefit. The animated sense of speed appealed to the customers' imagination, and the identical leg position satisfied the traveling fair or carnival's need to erect and dismantle rides in a hurry.
The horses were originally thought to have been built by the C. W. Parker Company in Kansas. They do fit the type built during the time frame of 1895 and 1906. A few of the horses also bear the tags of the Armitage-Hershell company of New York. However, with the help of the National Carousel Association, it has been determined that the horses were actually carved by Charles W. Dare, a hobbyhorse manufacturer who started building carousels.
Dare's New York carousel company produced its first portable carousels in America sometime between 1867 and 1875. Around 1890 Dare renamed his operation the Charles W. Dare Company and moved it to Brooklyn, New York. County fair carousels flowered with the nurturing of Hershell and Parker, but Dare was the one who planted the seeds for the style. Although his factory was located near the companies famous for ornate decorations, Dare retained his simple designs. According to the NCA, other carousel companies, including Parker's and Armitage-Hershell, purchased horses from builders as well as manufacturers. What set Dare's horses apart were the simple designs he retained, and the fact that he is the only carousel maker to provide his horses with a running martingale – a leather thong that linked the bridle with the chest strap and prevented horses from throwing their heads back – which was popular circa 1985.
All of the Flying Horses in Brenham's Flying Horses Antique Carousel bear the running martingale, which confirms they were carved by Charles Dare sometime between 1867 and 1901, when Dare died. The carousel itself was definitely manufactured by C. W. Parker; during the recent restoration, Parker's stamp was found near the top of the turning mechanism.
The City closed the carousel in 2005 and spent the next two years restoring the horses and the building. It is available for rentals and tours, and is open during each spring break to the general public.
In 1875, the Texas Legislature authorized incorporated towns to organize and maintain public schools. Brenham's city council voted on April 26, 1875, on the organization of a public school system and Brenham established the first public school system in Texas. A school Board and the course of study were set up in August of 1875.
Pickard High School was an esteemed Texas school established about 1875 by the Brenham Public School system for black pupils of elementary through high school grades. It was the first high school in Texas for blacks.
After the school had been a part of the city government of Brenham for half a century, the school authorities asked for an independent school District, which was created by the State Legislature on September 27, 1926. On October 4 of the same year, the city commission passed a resolution transferring the control and title of the property to the trustees of the Brenham Independent School District.
Brenham public schools have developed over the years and have maintained high standards. The schools have been a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools since 1915, and also a member of the Texas Education Agency. Brenham public schools were the first to receive accreditation in Texas.
Brenham has a population of 15,716 according to the 2010 census. The City employs over 200 people, and owns all utilities, including electric, gas, water, wastewater and sanitation. It is one of approximately 10 cities in the state that own and maintain all utilities.