If the state map had a star on it marking the “Antique Capital of Texas,” it would likely rest on a tiny black dot in Fayette County on a pretty little place called Round Top, population 77. But ask any woman within a 200-mile radius of this little east-central-Texas whistle-stop, and she’ll tell you that she’s either been there herself or knows someone else who has. And if she hasn’t been to Round Top, it’s a safe bet she’s seen it on television, on shows like Bob Phillips’ Texas Country Reporter, or read about it in The Washington Post or The Dallas Morning News. Why all this fuss over such a tiny postage-stamp of a place? Because twice a year the town and its surrounds swell with throngs of tourists eager to shop at the hottest retail venue in the Lone Star State: the Round Top Antiques Fair, or “Great America Country Show,” as it’s sometimes called. For the past 40 years, Round Top has been the place to find everything anyone could want — from fine art to fashion, antiques to junk, kitsch to rare collectibles and everything in between.
Located on the old La Bahía Road between LaGrange and Brenham, Round Top was first settled by Englishmen who came from other parts of the United States, and the first families established themselves there in 1826. Later, German immigrants would settle there, too. So where did Round Top get its name? According to historical reports, in the early 1840s, Alwin H. Soergel, an author, historian and musician, settled in the area and built a white house with an octagonal tower on top, which by 1847 was listed as a U. S. post office. The oddly shaped tower inspired the town’s name. If you want to go to the antiques fair, you should start planning now. For this is no small affair, and you’ll want to be prepared with a place to stay, a place to eat, good walking shoes and a wide-brimmed hat to protect you from the Texas sun. This spring, the Round Top Antiques Fair will take place on March 25-31 and April 1-6, and in October they’ll do it all again. As few as 15,000 visitors and as many as 60,000 are expected — the figures vary so much because no one in Round Top is quite sure how to get a proper head count while the place is swarming with shoppers. Most reports estimate that between 40,000 and 50,000 folks will be there. “If you build it, they will come” must have been the maxim of antique fair founder and local icon Emma Lee Turney, and come guests do, shopping at an estimated 35 separate show locations, from tents to card tables and barns to big buildings scattered across the hills, linking the little towns of Round Top, Warrenton, Carmine and Shelby.
The show, which Turney began 40 years ago, has put this little town on the map, but once you get to Round Top, you’ll soon learn that there’s more to this hamlet than antiques and flea markets. For starters, there’s music. Not only is Round Top fortunate enough to host the Antiques Fair, it is also the permanent home of the James Dick Foundation for the Performing Arts International Festival Institute of Round Top, founded in 1971 by world-renowned concert pianist James Dick. What began as a 10-day session featuring 10 piano students and two concerts in the town square, and which expanded to an annual event held in leased buildings,now grown to an internationally acclaimed European-styled music institute for aspiring young musicians and distinguished faculty.
Today the Institute is the permanent home of the Texas Festival Orchestra and sprawls across a lovely 210-acre campus called Festival Hill, which contains impressive performance facilities (including a grand festival hall seating 1,000), historic houses, beautiful little chapel, extensive gardens and manicured grounds, parks, nature preserves, housing for resident artists and more. The Institute is also a place of scholarly research and musical study and teaching.
Each year during June and July, about 30 concerts are performed there, and people come from all over the state — and, indeed, all over the world — to enjoy the music. According to the Institute, “The August-to-April Series, the International Guitar Festival, the Theatre Forum, the Poetry Forum and the Herbal Forum bring the total number of year-round events to more than 50.” The Festival Concert Hall building is an impressive, almost Gothic-looking edifice, distinctly European in style. No one would imagine such a place could be found in rural Round Top, Texas, just down a slender road from LaGrange. But the Institute isn’t the only surprise in town.
Round Top is home to attractive cafés, wine bars, junk shops, coffee shops, post offices, art galleries and even a fine linen retail space, so there’s a lot to explore on any Saturday or Sunday when the antiques fair isn’t being held. “We’re not really at our best when the town is bursting at the seams with visitors, you know. The nicest time to see Round Top is when it is quiet and relaxing: on a day like this with spring weather, places to park and stroll about and time to eat pie at the Round Top Café,” advised one helpful gallery owner open late on a Sunday afternoon when we dropped in to visit the Gallery at Round Top. The pie she is referring to is almost as famous as the antiques fair and the music institute all rolled into one. And with good reason. Royer’s Round Top Café is a drawing card all its own if you’re within a 100-mile radius of Round Top, because it serves up some of the best eats from here to Houston, and their specialty is homemade pie. “They’ll charge you extra if you don’t get a big scoop of ice cream on top, too,” chuckles a local resident. “Bud Royer won’t let you get away without having pie. But then, he might just sit down and put his fork into your piece, too, if you’re not careful. He’s known for doing stuff like that.” He’s known also for being a friendly guy, and if you ask if the Round Top Café is his place, he’s quick to tell you that it is a family business that he has run with his wife, Karen, and four kids since they came from Houston in 1987 to make Round Top their home.
The 38-seat country-style family dining mecca has been serving folks for over 60 years, and its atmosphere is warm and welcoming, casual and kooky. A bust of Elvis greets you at the counter when you come inside. Outside, a cooler holds beer and sodas, and it’s all on the honor system. “You just tell them when you get inside what all you drank,” explained a regular. Marks A Lot scribbled on the cooler warns that the honor system doesn’t apply to bankers and lawyers: “They must pay cash.” Inside, folks are eating steaks, burgers, fries and, you guessed it, homemade pies. From peach to cherry, apple to coconut — there’s a whole counter full of heaven waiting, along with a big pot of hot coffee, and Bud won’t let you leave without having some. There’s also a vast selection of fine wines available — over 60 labels on hand on any given day. Not too shabby for a place known for burgers, fries and cherry pies. Royer’s is a favorite with locals, but some famous guests like it too; former first lady Barbara Bush is said to be a big fan of this little café.
“Last year we called Bud and made a reservation to eat there around 9:30 p.m. during the weekend of the Antiques Fair. We knew to do that ahead of time so we could eat after we closed the gallery,” explains Ken Muenzenmayer. He and his wife, Karen Vernon, are coowners of the Gallery at Round Top with Dave and Linda Tibolla. “That night around 9, Bud called us and said, “I can squeeze you in, but you’re going to have to bring your own chairs. We’ve filled up all the chairs we’ve got.’ That’s how it is here in Round Top.” If you think finding food is hard during the Antiques Fair or during the summer concert season at the music institute, then just imagine trying to find a place to spend the night. “That’s not a problem if you call to book in advance,” says bed and breakfast owner Lenore Prud’Homme of the Outpost at Cedar Creek Inn. “There are over 80 bed and breakfast inns in our area.” “That’s more B&Bs than Round Top residents!” remarked one surprised visitor. Prud’Homme understands the popularity of Round Top as a weekend getaway. “Round Top is such a quaint and friendly little town with a surprising number of activities. Our guests enjoy the tranquillity and uniqueness of our private cottages, cabins and farm houses. The little inns here are a haven hiding in the hills,” she says.
Many of the lodgings are found in quaint country houses, little log cabins or separate residences where guests may enjoy the peace and quiet of country life, the privacy of an individual home and close proximity to all the galleries, cafés, antique shops and more in Round Top. Because Round Top is ideally situated not far from Highway 290, between Austin and Houston, visitors from both cities make a steady pilgrimage to Round Top almost every weekend, so there’s always something going on, and there are plenty of folks in town. Famous Texan Ima Hogg and her friends Hazel Ledbetter and Faith Bybee, also prominent ladies in Round Top’s history, were instrumental in creating many of the good things that remain there, from the music festivals to the preservation of historic sites where re-enactments of Texas Independence battles and Civil War battles are sometimes staged.
As the evening shade falls on the broad limbs of live oak trees lining the streets, everyone downtown turns out to say goodnight, hugs one another fondly and goes on home. A good time was had by all in Round Top. It was just another Sunday, of course — a special event in a place known for having plenty of those — a town worth coming back to any time at all.
IF YOU GO:
For more information about what to do and see in Round Top, visit www.roundtop.com.
For information on the upcoming 40th Annual Spring Round Top Antiques Fair to be held March 25-April 6 or the 41st Annual Fall Antiques Fair to be held October 1 – 4, visit www.roundtop.org, or call (888) 368-4783.
For information regarding the James Dick Foundation for the Performing Arts’ International Festival to be held June 1- July 13, visit www.festivalhill.org, or call (979) 249-3129.
To learn more about Royer’s Round Top Café, visit www.royersroundtopcafe.com, or call the café at (979) 249-3611.
To learn more about the Outpost at Cedar Creek bed and breakfast inn, visit
www.outpostatcedarcreek.com, or call (888) 433-5791.
To learn more about the Belle of Round Top bed and breakfast inn and retreat center, visit www.belleofroundtop. com, or call (979) 249-4134.
Author: Janis Turk