By Joan Gould
Much of the Greater Houston area’s growth and success stems from the days of farming, lumber, railroad, and oil. Today, many of the “old towns” in Precinct 4 have transformed into bustling destinations for tourists and locals with specialty shops, quaint restaurants, and festivals that give a nod to that past.
Nestled within sprawling towns, businesses housed in 100-year-old buildings offer a few moments of nostalgia and a unique economic benefit as they draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Old Town Spring
Spring’s history dates back to the early 19th century, when the French and Spanish traded with the local Akokisa tribe. German settlers arrived shortly after and, by the end of the 1800s, Spring was a busy railroad hub.
The early 1900s brought the oil boom and the Great Depression. The railroad roundhouse moved to Houston and, as with most of the country, economic growth slowed in Spring.
The oil boom of the late 1960s and 1970s revived the local economy, and an influx of businesses returned to what now is called Old Town Spring. Property owners restored old shops and homes to house new ventures.
Near the intersection of Spring Cypress and Hardy roads, Old Town Spring now boasts more than 140 businesses, including retail shops, restaurants, art galleries, beauty services, and churches.
Ursula Sledge, a Spring Preservation League board member and owner of The German Gift House, says she was a regular customer at the gift shop in Old Town Spring. When she heard 12 years ago that the owner was interested in selling, she jumped at the chance to own the business.
“I love it because it feels a little European,” Sledge says about Old Town Spring. “There are unique shops; everybody has different things. Everything goes at a slower pace, and it’s not so hectic. Slow in a positive sense, because life can be so stressful.”
The Spring Preservation League is a merchant organization dedicated to promoting Old Town Spring and attracting visitors. The group works closely with the Spring Improvement District to host festivals like the annual Texas Crawfish Festival and Home for the Holidays, now in its 41st year.
“As a shop owner, I think everyone should be involved in decorating the town and be part of the decision making,” Sledge says. “It’s really a joyful atmosphere.”
Old Town Tomball
Tomball, known as Peck when it was established, also has roots as a railroad boomtown in the early 1900s. Thomas Henry Ball, a lawyer and mayor of Huntsville, encouraged the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railroad to lay its tracks through the area, providing easier access to the port.
The new railroads brought prosperity and job growth to the area and the ability to move goods efficiently. The people of Peck honored Thomas Henry Ball by renaming the town Tom Ball. Eventually, the post office combined the two words, and Tom Ball became Tomball.
“Our history is like a road map,” says Bruce Hillegeist, a lifelong resident of Tomball and president of the Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce. “You need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.”
Magnolia Oil, which later became Humble Oil, discovered oil in Tomball in 1933, further contributing to its economic growth.
The population of Tomball expanded after the railroad and oil booms. Prominent businesses like the grocery store, the post office, and the bank moved west of what is now considered Old Town Tomball, a six-block area centered on West Main Street, between the railroad tracks at North and South Elm streets and North and South Pine streets.
Hillegeist says this left much of the town sitting vacant until the rise in popularity of antique shops. Today, Old Town Tomball is a hot spot for restaurants, retail shops, and antiques.
“We have easy, convenient access to the interstates, the port, and the airport, which makes people and businesses give Tomball a second look,” Hillegeist says. “We’re all about jobs and prosperity and economic development. We want the greater Tomball area to be the place of choice for people, for businesses to live, work, play, and worship.”
Hillegeist says that even with Tomball’s development, the town stays true to its motto: “Hometown with a Heart,” with friendly people and a sense of community built by bringing people together with festivals, local shopping, and excellent schools and businesses.
Many of Tomball’s festivals and activities, including the semi-annual German Festival, were canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19.
“Tough times go away. Tough people do not,” Hillegeist says. “We’re going to be stronger, and we’re going to come back in a big way.”
Historic Downtown Humble
Tomball’s approach to growth, economic development, and community engagement has been so successful that other cities, like Humble, seek to emulate it in attracting visitors to their historic downtown areas. Gwen Key Willis, the chair of the Humble Beautification Committee, says Humble reached out to marketing teams from Tomball and Friendswood to gain insight on how to entice visitors and local shoppers to the downtown Humble area, which is at the beginning stages of a revitalization initiative.
The early settlement of Humble began in the late 1820s, when a member of Stephen F. Austin’s colony, Davis Harris, received the area’s first land grant.
An oil discovery in the early 1900s put Humble on the map. Humble Oil Company was soon founded and later purchased by Standard Oil Co., eventually becoming part of ExxonMobil.
Though much of Humble moved on to other industries after the oil boom, its history remains rooted in the oil boom days.
The annual Good Oil Days Festival, in its 41st year, commemorates Humble’s settlers and oilfield history. More recent revitalization projects like the Charles Bender Performing Arts Center and the newly opened Humble Museum invite visitors to learn and explore Humble’s origins.
Willis purchased an office on Main Street for her real estate business in 2010. She quickly began volunteering with the committee, which works closely with the Humble City Council.
“Our goal is to identify things in the community that may need to be upgraded or put to better use,” Willis says. “We also recently started a revitalization initiative to get the business owners input on what they would like to see in the downtown area.”
Willis says many of the committee members are lifetime residents of Humble and have a wealth of knowledge of the city. Some members, including Willis, are also board members of the newly reopened Humble Museum. Willis says they are committed to keeping Humble’s history alive by preserving landmarks like the Humble Cemetery and Lambrecht’s Artesian Well, a water spring discovered while drilling for oil in 1912.
New festivals and events like the Music on Main free concert series and a newly added sip-and-stroll during Good Oil Days are innovative ways to engage the community, Willis says. These events also provide Main Street business owners opportunities to visit with the public.
“We’ve got some great places to visit and see,” Willis says. “We’re trying to get all these people that have an interest in the City of Humble to work together and offer opportunities for people to visit and see what we have to offer.”
Next time you’re enjoying a day of shopping or dining in one of these “old towns,” stop by the museums to learn a little more about the history and origins of the towns that built Precinct 4.
Spring Historical Museum
403 Main Street
Tomball Museum Center
510 N. Pine Street
601 Higgins Street