Hempstead celebrates its watermelon heritage every July with a festival. Visitors also come for tours of the 1853 antebellum home and grounds of Liendo Plantation. At the end of the Civil War, Union General George Armstrong Custer headquartered at Liendo. From 1873 until 1911, Liendo was owned by the sculptor Elisabet Ney, who created marble statues of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston for the U.S. Capitol, and her husband, Dr. Edmund Montgomery. The couple is buried on Liendo’s grounds.
Founded in 1856, Hempstead was a supply and manufacturing center during the Civil War and prospered afterwards from cotton production and textile manufacturing. By 1873, Hempstead was designated the Waller County seat, and later became a shipping center for produce. During the 1940s, the city was the largest shipper of watermelons in the nation. This diverse community was home to a significant population of African Americans, though it wasn’t until 1984 that Hempstead elected its first African American mayor, Leroy Singleton. The city’s European Jewish immigrant population grew after the Civil War and through the early 20th Century. The first ordained rabbi to lead a Texas congregation, Heinrich Schwartz, came to Hempstead from Prussia in 1873. The rabbi’s brother and son built a wood-frame, Gothic-style chapel in the son’s backyard, and the tiny synagogue served Hempstead’s Jewish community until 1939. Rabbi Schwarz was the great-grandfather of Robert S. Strauss, a politically active Dallas attorney who became the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in the early 1990s.
As the Waller County seat, Hempstead has seen three courthouses grace the town square, the most recent completed in 1955. The three-story structure, designed by architect Herbert Voelcker, is sleek and modern, built of brick and limestone with towering banks of windows. Residents honor the demolished Victorian era courthouse by placing the restored four-sided Seth Thomas clock and 1,000-pound bell in a free-standing brick tower on the courthouse lawn.