The Round Top secret is out – that much we know for sure. Ever since the modest appearance of Oktoberfest in the late 1960s, the biennial antique show has taken over the sleepy Texas town with an explosion of 4,000 vendors and nearly 100,000 visitors. But how did it become what it is today, and where is it headed with big-name buyers moving in? What will become of this once quaint antiques fair with VIP buyers and corporate sponsors buying up the venues? We look at the past, present and future of this beloved shopping event.
How it all started
By S. Holland Murphy
When Ima Hogg entered the building, antique dealers pounced on her. “Miss Ima,” a Houston socialite, wanted to furnish her pet restoration project, the Stagecoach Inn in Winedale. “He was a very important person — and a good buyer,” says Nancy Krause, one of 22 dealers invited to the first Round Top Antiques in Rifle Hall in 1968.
In the 1960s, many well-to-do urbanites bought land and set up country homes on the Fayette County prairie. Hazel Ledbetter was the first to hone in on Round Top, a town of barely a square mile. It was Ledbetter who sold the Winedale property to Hogg, and he sold many of Round Top’s old pioneer houses to Faith Bybee. (Faith and Charles Bybee are the couple for whom the Dallas Museum of Art changed its curatorial policy on the decorative arts to acquire their collection.)
Ledbetter was also the one who told antiques dealer Emma Lee Turney that she should start a show at Round Top. And start a show that he did. The event had a laid-back vibe in those early days, with the first fair being advertised as the German “Oktoberfest” and featuring antique stalls as well as a biergarten. Krause recalls the smell of smoke pits wafting through the open windows of the Rifle Hall. It wasn’t until a few years later, when Turney was gifting his dealers with contracts, that the crew realized that the Round Top Antiques Show was more than just a casual community event, it was a serious business.
Round Top drew crowds and locations began popping up along Highway 237. Turney bought land five miles north of Round Top and built the Big Red Barn, adding 30,000 square feet of antiques to his estate. The Continental Tent was next. “It became the thing to do and the place to say you bought something,” says Krause.
But perhaps Round Top’s destiny as host of the nation’s largest antique show was written in the stars long before Turney and the doyens of Houston society showed up. Perhaps it was the fate of the German immigrants who settled there in the 1840s, who built the city’s eponymous tower with its octagonal roof. The Texas city that has become an international design destination is named after an architectural feature—it seems almost too fitting.
How is it going
By Coryanne Ettiene
Ten years ago, as a newly adopted Texan, I had a writing assignment to interview an antique linen dealer in Round Top. I’d been to Brimfield, Mass.’s country flea market a few times before, so I knew what to expect when the rolling farmland was transformed into a temporary antique shopping mecca. But the similarities end there.
Beyond the bluebonnet-lined highways and down a normally calm road, a booming town awaited with a few thousand shoppers strolling through miles of tents filled with everything he never knew he needed. It was amazing to see and not only because the people watching was nothing short of brilliant, but also because the moment you got out of the car you couldn’t help but soak up ‘Round Top Happy’ , which permeated everything. making it impossible not to get caught up in the fun.
Since there was hardly a blog post to guide me, I found a slim show guide to navigate the vendor maze. Cash was the only currency. Royers was practically the only dining option. And forget cell phone signal—when you entered Round Top, you gave up all notions of modern life in exchange for a truckload of history, bought from a dealer living in Van Life before it was fashionable.
Round Top was a gem that was passed down through the generations. Only the hearty and devoted knew where the Round Top Road exit was. Even Google barely knew about it. Back then, three hundred dollars could get you a dresser, a few yards of vintage fabric, and a couple of raggedy cement chickens to decorate your chicken coop. And you’ve definitely never seen a selfie line at the Round Top city limits sign.
While Round Top Happy continues to impress all who come, development has taken hold of this small town. What was once a food desert is now a food oasis; look no further than Oakbones’ chef-inspired menu for proof. Today, even vegans can register free of charge if they need to pack a cooler. The advent of social media (and more reliable mobile service, huzzah!) paved the way for the Round Top runway, which ensures that everyone is dressed for the occasion regardless of the weather.
Local business owners are thrilled with the changes, including Nick Mosley, co-owner of Townsend Provisions. “With more people coming to town throughout the year, that created more demand for shopping, dining and lodging,” he says. “The growth of the city in such a short period of time has been remarkable.” And it’s not just day hikers who pass through it; the town receives enough visitors from outside the Lone Star State that Paige and Smoot Hull of The Vintage Round Top have turned their modern farmhouse into a year-round event center complete with meeting rooms and tiny cottages.
Indeed, ask any small business owner in Round Top and they’ll agree: this is Round Top’s golden age, and it’s long overdue.
Where to next?
By Kendall Morgan
Round Top has evolved from an under-the-radar antique collector’s paradise to an essential stop for top design talent. But as private dinners and celebrity browsing proliferate, is this tiny town in danger of oversaturation?
Coryanne Ettiene, who owned McKinney’s boutique Ettiene Market outpost in Blue Hills for nearly a decade, has witnessed the sea change firsthand.
“There were people who came from all over the country, but they were professional antique dealers, so they all knew each other,” he recalls. “Now Joanna Gaines is coming in with her helicopter, and so is Miranda Lambert. It was pretty surreal to watch.”
Indeed, hunting evolved from dirty digging to finely curated displays, with the uniform of dusty boots and faded jeans giving way to wide-brimmed hats and Hunter Bell suits.
“It’s probably trying to shed the flea market identity and go more in the direction of High Point,” says Scott Smith of SVO Antiques, who has been attending events for 15 years. “If you’re clinging to the warm fuzzy ideas of Round Top when you first went with your mom, it’s probably going to go away.”
In addition to the spring and autumn markets, a third market also booms in January. And while the pandemic forced a short hiatus, things picked up by the end of 2021. “There were a lot of new buildings, new venues and new accommodations—and VIP dinners,” says Jan Jones, a Dallas interior designer and seasoned tour-de-force. About his return in spring 2022.
A mix of new merchandise and antiques could also be a welcome development as Round Top’s customer base changes. In particular, Blue Hills adheres to the philosophy of “something for everyone” – from high-end European to country vintage, from reproductions to clothing.
“Since Blue Hills started, we’ve had a lot of vendors who are wholesalers,” says Stephanie Layne Disney, whose family bought the site in 2018. “It’s an incubator for old businesses that are new or trying new things. ”
Bargain hunters know that arriving before the show is key to getting the best pieces. For some local retailers, taking advantage of the city’s reputation for weekend shopping power means going in the off-season. Currently in the process of doubling the size of Market Hill, owner Paul Michael decided to open every Wednesday to Sunday for the past two years. Still, Round Top’s year-round retail experience presents challenges.
“It completely changes when the show doesn’t go well,” he says. “It’s developing into a much higher-income area, so the struggle is where workers have to drive 30 or 40 miles.”
Pop-A-Top Bottle Shop owner and Chamber of Commerce President Tiffany Reid describes the current state of the city as two round-topped tales whose differences are hard to reconcile. Because of this, says Reid, “We’re working very hard to make Round Top a year-round destination.”
There were people who came from all over the country, but they were professional antique dealers, so they all knew each other. Now Joanna Gaines comes in with her helicopter, and so does Miranda Lambert. It was pretty surreal to watch.
Which means there’s still room for improvement — including the new shopping district at Round Top Square and new luxury accommodations like Red Antler Bungalows. A group of investors tied to Brook Partners — the group that operates the Fashion Industry Gallery and the Dallas Art Fair — has big plans for Marburger Farm, arguably the show’s most iconic venue. Following the acquisition of the Farm in 2021, the team is working to improve catering while keeping the standards of traders high. The Laynes added 40,000 square feet to Blue Hills and recently announced family ownership of the Big Red Barn. Their goal is to keep the Barn’s selection of authentic American antiques—with the addition of better food and cocktails.
However things develop or change, residents are ready to ensure that the city’s inherent charm is protected. “I don’t think the county or the city wants us to become Fredericksburg,” says Red Antler co-owner John Cone. “In terms of real estate values, whatever you build has to be very beautiful or it doesn’t make sense. That alone prevents a lot of smaller T-shirt shops and things like that from coming in.”
Jeremy Buonamici, managing director of Brook Partners and now CEO of Marburger Farm, likens the destination to another Texas treasure. “I suspect Round Top will follow a similar trajectory to Marfa,” he muses. “We really like what we have today, and in that sense, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”