In 2004, Sam Collins III was driving down state Highway 6 in Hitchcock when a roadside marker at the edge of a piece of property piqued his interest.
Braving the surrounding terrain, Collins proceeded down a long drive shrouded by oak and pine trees and decades of overgrown vegetation. He found at the drive’s end a one-and-a-half-story Queen Anne Victorian house — a piece of history quietly decaying in vacancy.
“You couldn’t see the house from the road,” Collins said. “It was a forest.”
His initial curiosity developed into a full-blown passion over the next year despite his wife Doris’ well-founded reservations.
“My wife did not want to buy this house,” Collins said. “She actually didn’t even see it until after I signed the papers.”
The 12-room house was completed in 1884 by Henry Martyn Stringfellow, a veteran of the Civil War and a renowned horticulturalist who tilled the once 30-acre plot into a thriving experimental orchard, becoming the first to plant satsuma oranges on the Gulf Coast.
Stringfellow lived in the house with his wife, Alice Johnston Stringfellow, an artist.
Collins closed on the purchase of the house on Dec. 15, 2005 — 142 years to the day the Stringfellows were married.
After the Stringfellows and before the Collins family, Albert and Myrtle Kipfer owned the property for 85 years, beginning in 1920 when they moved to Hitchcock from Houston. The Kipfers had moved to Texas from Kansas, which they left because of the harsh winters.
With their children, Clara, John and Alice, the Kipfers embarked on a family farming business. They started small — selling eggs, butter and produce as available — and eventually began truck farming, growing several crops at a time and supplying to local and distant markets.
In 1938, Myrtle Kipfer opened the Hi-way Bi-way Flower Shop along FM 519. Albert Kipfer died in 1941. The flower shop stayed open until 1989 and was run by Myrtle and Clara. Johnny, the oldest Kipfer child, also worked on the farm and for the flower shop.
The Kipfers were invested in Hitchcock, and organized community events such as the Union Church’s annual picnic, the Modern Woodmen of the World gatherings and Boy Scout campouts. Children played baseball, volleyball and horseshoes on the lawn.
As they aged, the Kipfers sold parcels of the original plot, whittling it down to a more manageable 9.4 acres.
“They used to keep the property immaculate, but as they got older, they just couldn’t keep up,” Collins said. “When I bought it, it had been vacant for three or four years and there were still trees down from Hurricane Alicia.”
The wood frame, L-shaped house sits on a pier and beam foundation and is clad in painted cypress.
Off a small entry hall, the first floor has four rooms in varying sizes, lined in shiplap.
“At first, I thought about painting it, but decided to leave it exposed,” Collins said.
At the back of the entry hall, half-turn stairs with and octagonal newel post and turned balusters, lead to the upstairs, which is divided into three bedrooms — two small and one large.
Rich hardwood floors, original trim and four-paneled doors topped with glazed transoms tell the story of a time when craftsmanship was key.
Collins wasn’t exactly sure of his investment’s future when he bought it — he debated flipping the house to turn a profit, but decided against it.
“It was like a first date,” Collins said. “The further I got into it, the more I realized: ‘I like her. I think I’ll keep her.’”
Because of damage incurred during Hurricane Ike, the renovation process has been slow and is a continuing adventure for the Collins family.
“It’s one nail at a time,” Collins said. “We started with the foundation, worked on rehabilitating the exterior, and replaced pieces of the wood that were rotting.”
Collins operates his own business, SLC Investment Services, out of the building and uses the property for special events, such as the annual Juneteenth celebration.
Earl Jones, the artist who carved the tree sculpture of champion boxer Jack Johnson, which is displayed at The Oaks in Galveston, uses part of the Stringfellow Orchards’ ample grounds as an outdoor studio. Stacked near the barn, rings of a “freedom tree” that once shaded former slaves as they gathered to learn of their emancipation, are a work-in-progress for Jones.
School children occasionally tour the property on a field trip, and Collins keeps a book of thank you letters decorated in bright marker drawings. For the father of four to Torin, 17, Dallas, 15, Joseph, 13, and Spencer, 4, the letters are reminders of why his endeavor to keep history alive for future generations is so worthwhile.
The property has appeared on HGTV’s “If Walls Could Talk,” a PBS special, “Lidia Celebrates America: Freedom and Independence,” and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in February. It also was featured on “Texas Country Reporter” with Bob Phillips.
In the end, Doris Collins had a change of heart about her husband’s decision to purchase the property.
“Now she never wants to sell it,” Collins said.