- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

WINEDALE, Texas (AP) - The three houses and two barns that date back centuries and dot a 225-acre historic site near Round Top offer a rare look into the lives of some of Central Texas’ earliest settlers.

Similar paintings in two of the houses, for example, tell the tale of an itinerant German artist, who in the late 1800s painted both homes in exchange for a place to stay. Such trades were common then, when many immigrants had more talent to offer than cash.

Ima Hogg, the Houston philanthropist and preservationist, loved the paintings. At the center of one is a parrot, a notoriously long-lived bird, meant to bring longevity to the family that lived here more than 150 years ago. In the 1960s, Hogg bought and restored the houses and barns and gave them to the University of Texas, wishing longevity to the small community and to the history it represented. She wanted Winedale to become a laboratory for UT students and others to explore history and culture.

For a time, it was. But now some fear the old Texas folk museum - home to a popular Shakespeare program - is on its way to dusty death, the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1nKzFmg) reported.

Over the last several decades, Winedale became a getaway for Houstonians. Visitors came to learn farming on weekends. They watched blacksmiths and bought crafts at festivals. They took in the students’ plays in an old barn, as they do now.

The Shakespeare program is still going strong, but in recent years, Winedale has become a less lively place. Control of the historic site has shifted, and many worry UT has all but lost interest in it.

“Miss Ima would roll over in her grave!” is the common refrain among those who know most about Hogg’s gift to UT.

The daughter of Gov. James Hogg, Ima Hogg was one of Houston’s most well-known and generous philanthropists. She and her brothers, Will and Mike, sold Memorial Park to the city for a small sum. Around the same time she gave Winedale to UT, she donated Bayou Bend to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

A faculty advisory council and a fundraising group, mostly made up of Hogg’s friends, originally helped manage Winedale, but both were dismantled years ago. The historical center has moved under the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, which manages Winedale from Austin, along with two other museums across the state. The Briscoe Center’s hands are full, and its budget is tight.

Aside from the Shakespeare shows, a historic quilt showcase and an annual Christmas festival, festivities at Winedale have become infrequent. Guests must make reservations to take tours, and the site is rarely open on the weekend, its staff gutted. Former directors and locals, who lament the loss of many of the center’s programs, say little remains of what Winedale once was.

Briscoe Center officials, however, say Winedale is still fulfilling its key mission: to preserve the history of Central Texas settlers by protecting the three houses, barns and other structures on site. And with withering resources, preserving the wooden structures is about all the center can afford to do.

“You put a quarter-million dollars into one of those houses, it doesn’t take long until you need another quarter million,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center.

When Ima Hogg was alive, and for a long time after she died in 1975, Winedale’s grounds were perfectly manicured. Roses and vegetable gardens, wooden fences and signs welcomed visitors.

Now, the gardens are mostly gone. The signs, recently rotting, have been taken down. Many of the fences have fallen and some of the structures are falling, too.

During the summer, Winedale is haunted by the voices of students in the Shakespeare program, who read The Bard’s works in the dogtrots of the old houses. “Out, out!” a young woman’s voice drifted from one on a recent afternoon. The students perform to large crowds - the biggest Winedale sees - on the weekends.

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