History of Navasota
The origin of the name Navasota has been debated by many over the years. Some speculate it’s a native American phrase meaning “prickly pear” while others lean toward “muddy waters,” referring to the nearby Navasota and Brazos Rivers. Whatever its origin – from the Native American hunters and Spanish conquistadors to the settlers of the early Republic and 21st century entrepreneurs and investors - Navasota represents opportunity and resiliency!
Originally called Hollandale after Francis Holland who first settled the area in 1822, Navasota was situated within two Montgomery County land grants. Grimes County was created in 1846 but it would take the forward thinking of James Nolan and others like him before it would renamed Navasota in 1854.
Nolan recognized the importance of Navasota’s location between the county seat of Anderson and Washington-on-the-Brazos and to the Brazos River and erected his home and the area’s first stage stop there in the mid-1850s. When the town of Washington turned down the opportunity for a railroad in 1859, Nolan responded by deeding 80 acres to the Houston and Texas Central Railroad (H&TC).
By 1865, with the addition of three stage lines, a post office and its prime location as a farm-to-market shipping site for cattle and cotton, Navasota boasted a population of approximately 2,700. During the Civil War and several years following, fires and yellow fever cut the population in half but with the addition of a third railroad, mills and gins, electric lights and water systems, the City entered the 20th century with a population of about 3,500.
Navasota’s population took another hit following World War I, the Great Depression and mechanization of agriculture but that entrepreneurial spirit prevailed again with the creation of the Navasota Industrial Foundation in 1952 to bring new industry to Navasota.
Since then, Navasota has faced economic downturns, acts of nature and even a pandemic but its quaint shops, bustling restaurants and teeming nightlife are testaments to Navasota’s resiliency!
Texas Ranger Frank Hamer is probably best known as the lawman who ended the murderous crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde, but to Navasotans, he’s the man who created calm out of chaos and brought justice for all to town.
While it’s hard to imagine Navasota’s quaint downtown with boutique shopping, music and dining as the wild, wild west it once was, The Navasota Examiner- Review reported at least 100 citizens met violent deaths from shoot-outs between 1906 and 1908. It was in this climate of lawlessness that a desperate Navasota city council hired Hamer as city Marshall Dec. 3, 1908.
Less than 24 hours on the job, Hamer was challenged by a local citizen who considered himself above the law. His swift administration of justice prompted word to spread that there was a new lawman in town who wasn’t afraid to do his job! During his tenure, Hamer made Navasota a safe place to live and did so without favor to race, creed or status.
On April 20, 1911, after a little more than two years on the job, Hamer turned in his Marshall’s shield to work as a special officer for Houston Mayor Baldwin Rice. His intelligence, intuition and investigative skills led him to the Texas border intercepting arms for Pancho Villa, apprehending whiskey runners during prohibition and investigating communists on Houston’s docks and in the oilfields.
Despite his previous accomplishments, Hamer is best known for his relentless 102-day pursuit of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, which ended in a hail of gunfire May 23, 1934.
Hamer died July 10, 1955, at the age of 71 but his contribution to Navasota’s current law abiding, peaceful existence was recognized in 2013 when a statue honoring Frank Hamer was erected on the grounds of the Navasota City Hall. This bronze labor of love, sculpted by former Navasota artist Russell Cushman, attracts visitors from near and far and serves as the starting point for the Navasota-Grimes County Chamber of Commerce “Texas Ranger-Law Enforcement Tour.”
While Navasotans embrace the future through the revitalization of their historic downtown and turn-of-the-century homes, it cherishes its past. Navasota was the beneficiary of its fair share of WPA (Works Progress Administration) dollars, thanks to former City Manager R.J. Brule, and preserving that bit of Navasota history is important to both citizens and city leaders.
The WPA was one of the largest programs under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal public works programs. It was established May 6, 1935, with the purpose of reducing the relief rolls and increasing employment after the Great Depression.
Before the program’s termination June 30, 1943, it boasted the addition or improvement of 800 airports, 8,000 parks, 16,000 miles of new water lines, 125,000 public buildings, 650,000 miles of new or improved roads and employed 8.5 million people across the United States.
Funding was competitive and projects were subject to rejection at any step in the process. In addition, local communities had to provide “matching” funds of anywhere from 12-25% during the worst economic downturn in American history. Not only did Brule, an engineer by trade, secure funding for Navasota, he designed projects utilizing Navasota’s natural resources.
Brule served as Navasota’s city manager from 1928-1946, and to-date, is the longest serving city manager. Navasota’s municipal swimming pool, flagstone football field and stadium, the beloved “rock gym,” numerous bridges and a sewer system are the legacy of R. J. Brule.
Navasota Theatre Alliance
Navasota was a rough ‘n ready cow town in the 1880s, but it was not without culture! According to the 1954 Navasota Bluebonnet which commemorates Navasota history from 1854-1954, the town was home to several theater groups.
Today’s Navasota Theatre Alliance can perhaps trace its roots to “The Dramatic Club” which performed upstairs in the P.A. Smith opera house and at Mattie Foster’s opera house. Thanks to its location along rail lines, Navasota was also the destination of touring companies which gave Friday night and Saturday matinee performances.
A century later, live theater in Navasota experienced a rebirth in 1985 when Houston transplant Kim Parks put her 20-years of theater experience to work and obtained nonprofit status for the newly organized Navasota Theatre Alliance.
In 1992, Park’s dream of a permanent home came true when former Navasotan, 87-year old Florence Lebin and her husband donated the present site at 104 W. Washington Avenue to the Navasota Theatre Alliance. The building, valued at $30,000 was named in memory of Lebin’s late friend, Sunny Furman.
The Sunny Furman Theater’s small, intimate setting attracts not only Navasotans among its regular patrons but from all over the Brazos Valley and beyond.
The Navasota Theatre Alliance offers four main stage shows each year as well as summer theater camps for children and other special events such as the spook-tacular Lanterns & Legends in October. The guided walking tour through Oakland Cemetery begins at twilight and brings to life the men and women who left their mark on Navasota history and now “rest” in Oakland.