ELM MOTT — The Spanish called this river Brazos de Dios — arms of God. The Christian community that farms more than a mile of the rich river bottom near here has adopted the name.
Homestead Heritage at Brazos de Dios is a close-knit, agrarian community of about 1,000 people living on and around a 550-acre farm about 69 miles north of Killeen.
The community embraces the old ways of worship and work — singing and praying, spinning and weaving, milking and churning, planting and harvesting with horses and mules.
Over the years, Homestead Heritage also has become a thriving tourist destination that drew more than 70,000 visitors last year.
“We enjoy having people out here,” said Howard Wheeler, a spokesman for the community. “It is a fun place.”
The annual Homestead Fair on Thanksgiving weekend typically attracts 15,000 visitors for craft and farming demonstrations, food and family-oriented educational activities.
The Sorghum Festival on Labor Day weekend draws a few thousand people to watch men and horses harvest sorghum and press it into syrup.
Some visitors come to learn skills from the Ploughshare Center for Essential Education — how to plow with a team of draft horses, how to raise honey bees, how to hammer hot iron into a door hinge, how to shape spinning clay into a bowl for hand-spun yarn, how to weave cloth, how to milk a goat, how to craft fine furniture using tools powered only by steady hands.
Classes are offered to the public in the workshops, buildings and barns of the Homestead craft village. Tools, books, seeds and supplies are available at the general store. The handiwork of the community’s skilled craftsmen and artists is available at a gift shop housed in a historic barn.
Some visitors come for the food. Café Homestead offers soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts handmade from fresh, local, organic ingredients. Manager Derek Varejcka said the café ranks No. 1 among area restaurants on mobile apps Travel Advisor and Yelp.
Brazos Valley Cheese, one of several business enterprises to spring from the community, produces prize-winning cheddar, Gouda, Brie, Swiss and Vansormon cheeses shipped to restaurants across Texas and available at the cheese shop that opened in December.
The cheeses are aged in Homestead’s own climate-controlled cheese cave built in January 2011.
A grocery and farmers co-op will occupy the new steel building being erected near the general store. “This is our first steel building,” Wheeler said.
Many of the structures on the grounds were built before the American Revolution. The Homestead grist mill, built in New Jersey in the 1750s, was dismantled and reassembled here by community craftsmen. The water-powered mill provides flour for the bakery.
“This is not a living history museum,” Wheeler said. “This is our way of life, an outgrowth of our values.”
While the church is nonprofit, Wheeler said, all the business enterprises are run by the community and its members pay taxes.
The church at the center of the community is Anabaptist, a Christian movement dating from 16th century Europe that includes Amish, Mennonite and Brethren congregations.
Members of the community drive cars and use computers but adopt plain dress and traditional values, school their children at home and strive to master the skills of self-sufficiency.
“This is not a commune, it is a community,” Wheeler said, “a self-sufficient village.”
For more information about Homestead Heritage at Brazos de Dios, go to www.homesteadheritage.com.
Homestead Heritage visitor center is at 608 Dry Creek Road, Waco, TX 76705.