It's been a rough summer for Texans. And Indian summer isn't getting much better. Last week’s wildfires ravaged millions of acres and thousands of homes throughout Central Texas and fires are still raging in Bastrop. Here in Austin, it's hard to feel comfortable in the rush of daily city life when smoke and haze hover over downtown, ash rains down and worries loom about family and friends in the affected areas.
Despite the apocalyptic scenes of dryness and devastation, there is still a place—only 90-minutes from downtown Austin—that transports drought-weary visitors to a simpler time in Texas, when life moved slower, when no one locked their front doors and precious things like water were properly cherished.
The Prairie sings of Marie Antoinette, but not exactly in her infamously frivolous fashion of excess.
When I first turned onto the protracted gravel driveway of The Prairie by Rachel Ashwell, I thought for a second that I had the wrong address. All I could see on either side were two fields of dead, sun-charred grass. But then, a pristine white, 1800s country home bordered by towering pecan trees came into focus. I suddenly had a feeling of embarking on an “atavistic endeavor,” as the late Hunter S. Thompson would say, “a dream-trip into the past.”
And I’d be going further back in time than I thought. Rachel Ashwell, the internationally acclaimed designer, author and founder of the Shabby Chic brand, recently bought and redesigned The Prairie, a unique B&B formerly known as The Outpost in between Austin and Houston and five miles from the tiny town of Round Top. The property consists of a large barn and a handful of renovated 19th century country houses.
Her design mission? Marie Antoinette goes to Texas.
The idea of classic French couture and chic design in the middle of the Texas countryside might seem like a strange concept, but Ashwell has a keen eye for the unexpected—as well as a distinct respect for beautiful objects of the past. And the simple, unrefined nature of the Texas cottages serves as the ideal blank canvas for Ashwell’s whimsical, uber feminine designs.
The Prairie sings of Marie Antoinette, but not exactly in her infamously frivolous fashion of excess. Ashwell's vision is more of an extravagantly rooted sense of comfort, with classic Texan design elements like antler chandeliers, corrugated metal walls, raw woods and claw foot tubs outfitted with a dash of elegance whether it be a couture lampshade, ornate gold-carved chairs, floral slipcovers (one of Ashwell’s many claims to fame) or just a fresh coat of white paint.
Each of The Prairie’s guesthouses contain unique reservoirs of authentic beauty, but the Bluebonnet Barn is a true wellspring. In fact, it originally served as the property’s water cistern. In the 1800s, the Hedwig Meyer family would harvest rainwater from the rooftop cistern and ration it for cooking, washing and farming when long droughts made the precious resource scarce. I thought the cottage, complete with its own white picket fence and French door entrance (kept unlocked, like all of the rooms) was the best representation of both Texas and Marie Antoinette style.
The 16th century French queen was known for more than just her style. She loved to entertain guests and her social gatherings, hosted in her most intimate quarters at Versailles, were notorious. The Prairie pays tribute to Antoinette in that way as well, thanks to Ashwell’s uncanny ability to create and fill a space to make someone—anyone—feel at home.
Even more inviting, a new onsite boutique, Shabby Chic (available by appointment only) allows the inevitable number of visitors inspired by The Prairie’s décor—whether it be the custom dream catcher hanging in their room, a petticoat lampshade or Ashwell’s signature bedding—to bring the beauty home.
Einstein once said that humans only have four years left on Earth when bees go extinct. So, after not having seen anything so green, so healthy, so alive in Texas in months, I was happy to hear healthy swarms of them buzzing from flower to flower, singing—we’re alive, we’re still making it out here.
On my last morning at The Prairie—the same day that the Central Texas wildfires started—I sat talking with Danny Riedeling, the resident foreman, gardener, breakfast chef extraordinaire and more—about the strong northern winds that had blown in, shaking every leaf on the property. I was happy about the change in weather. “Fall is finally coming!” I exclaimed. But Danny was worried about the high winds—“It’s the perfect conditions for fire.” He prayed out loud that nothing would burn; that everything would return to normal.
The changing weather got Danny talking about some of the local effects of the drought. Almost all of the farmers in the area have sold their cattle. Hay prices have skyrocketed to $110 a bale. Fields aren’t even producing enough wheat for farmers to make a single cut.
“It’s just sad. Springtime is the prettiest time here. All of the surrounding fields are covered in wild flowers, especially bluebonnets during the season,” Danny says. “But not last year. We didn’t see any. The 100-degree temperatures started in May. It’s scary stuff. I just hope it’ll end.”