Waco, Texas: As I remembered it..
Fortunately, the city was nothing like what I expected.
After leaving Dallas, we headed south to our next campground at I-35 RV Park and Resort. This park was a conveniently located right off of the interstate and along our planned pathway to Galveston.
We arrived in November, 2018 for a five day stay. We gave this park 4 out of 5 stars. It's an average park with gravel sites. Although, I have to say after staying at over 200 different campgrounds, this is the ONLY one that offers free, made-to-order breakfasts! It's also about 13 miles north of the city of Waco. At the time of our stay the rates were $39 per night. As I write this blog, the rates have risen to $55/night, that's about a 40% increase over three years.
After getting settled we drove into the city of Waco.
Named after the Waco Indian tribe, the village of Waco was established in 1849 and
incorporated in 1856. The legendary Chisholm cattle trail (mentioned in my last blog post) crossed Waco’s historic Suspension Bridge on their way to northern cattle markets. Waco lies deep within the "heart of Texas" and is about half-way between Dallas and Austin. It has a population around 138,000 people.
It is a quiet city with many buildings that remind you of what life must have been like a century ago.
But let's face it, Waco is primarily known for two things:
CHIP AND JOANNA GAINES' MAGNOLIA MARKETPLACE:
THE WACO SIEGE:
Let's start with the more pleasant one first:
MAGNOLIA MARKETPLACE AT THE SILOS:
"Chip and Joanna Gaines have saved this city"...
We heard these words from many of the locals. No one had a bad thing to say about them. It seems they have almost single-handedly taken this wilting city and turned it into a tourist mecca. Chip and Joanna were the hosts of the wildly popular home-renovation tv show Fixer Upper. Each episode focused on the Gaines' ability to buy run-down homes in the Waco area and transform them into manifestations of Joanna’s farmhouse chic style. As their popularity grew, the Gaines decided to build an outlet where people could buy many of the decorations used on the show. They purchased an old, abandoned cotton-oil mill.
I found two interesting photos on the Baylor University website, taken a hundred years apart, that shows how the mill property has been transformed.
The Marketplace is an oasis of style in a city that desperately needs it.
Here's a gallery of some of the photos I took during our visit:
Another real treat is the adjoining Magnolia Bakery. It really steals the show and it's almost a guarantee that a line will form long before the store even opens. And it was worth the wait. We only purchased a few cupcakes, but they were heavenly!
We still talk about how good those cupcakes were!
First let me say that the people of Waco greatly resent being associated with this event. The compound is actually in Axtell, Texas about thirteen miles outside Waco. I suppose those in the press thought Waco made for a better headline than Axtell.
About thirty years ago, there was a fanatical religious leader named David Koresh, who along with about 90 of his followers, lived on a 77-acre ranch-commune.
To make a long story short, the ATF and the FBI were alerted to potentially illegal activities going on at the ranch and ordered David Koresh and his followers to surrender. A shoot out ensued, and 51 days later the feds assaulted the compound.
If you are around my age, you probably recall the image of the complex totally engulfed in flames. It is a horror story about miscommunications and misunderstanding. People willing to die to protect their property and religious rights, verses those who thought a large show of force would cause them to abandon their sincerely held beliefs. Both sides lost that day.
When the smoke cleared 82 people lie dead (including 4 federal agents and 20 children).
Those deeply imbedded memories of this tragedy made me want to seek it out. I was curious to see what it looked like today. Would any of the former structures still be there? Would it be surrounded by barbed-wired fencing? What was the land being used for now?
After driving past miles of rich farmland, we turned down Double EE Ranch Road.
And there it was..
We drove past slowly scoping the property out. Seeing the gate open, but nobody around, we turned around and with great trepidation entered the property.
To our surprise, there was a church and a few other active structures on the property. The caretaker came out to greet us. She was a very nice older lady who later told us that she lost acquaintances in the siege (she wasn't an adherent of David Koresh's theology but knew many of his followers).
She gave us permission to drive around the property.
The pool pictured below is the only remaining structure that exists from the former compound.
I found the bird's eye picture of the pool on the Internet.
It can be seen at the back of the former compound:
It was a bit surreal and eerie, to be standing at the location where so many men, women and children died.
The above building sits next to the pool and is an active church today. There are memorials on the property dedicated to those that died.
If you're interested in a better view of the property, I found some drone footage of the property on YouTube:
Before leaving the topic, I wanted to mention something the caretaker shared with us that gave me pause for thought. She said that David Koresh was an exercise fanatic. Almost every day he would jog along the desolate Double EE Ranch Road. The authorities could have easily arrested/detained him during any of his daily jogs, but for some reason they chose not to pursue this strategy.
WACO MAMMOTH NATIONAL MONUMENT:
Two men that stumbled upon history.
If the bones of prehistoric animals are your thing, then this is a must see when you're in Waco. As the story goes, two men were out walking along a dried riverbed when they saw something that looked out of place. As it turns out, it was a large bone. They sent the bone off to Baylor University where it was examined and identified as the leg bone of a Columbian Woolly Mammoth!
After further excavating, it was discovered that an entire nursery-herd of mammoths perished here thousands of years ago.
How the mammoths died is still a mystery. No evidence of human or predator involvement was found, and many of the remains were not disturbed by scavengers. One hypothesis was that the animals all perished in a flash flood and were quickly covered by sediment.
Among the interesting facts I learned was that mammoths are not considered dinosaurs. Although they are considered pre-historic, dinosaurs were reptiles and mammoths were mammals. And these woolly elephants came on the scene thousands of years after the dinosaurs had perished. Who knew??
The Mammoth National Monument website has a pretty cool virtual tour which can be accessed by clicking here.
There are a few other interesting attractions in this small town:
TEXAS RANGER HALL OF FAME & MUSEUM
One of the most popular attractions in the state is the official Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum. It is a fascinating look back at the rough and tumble history of the state of Texas. From its founding in 1823 solely to stop cattle rustlers, the role of the Rangers has grown and today they are the state's police force. History buffs, gun collectors and those enchanted by the Wild West will love it here. The museum’s 14,000 artifacts date back to the early days of the Republic and include firearms, uniforms, badges, and other historical displays chronicling the achievements of this organization.
There are two interesting facts that stuck with me from our visit:
First, Frank Hamer, who led the 1934 posse that tracked down and killed criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, was a retired Texas Ranger (he almost didn't take the assignment because it might entail shooting a woman).
The second being that the fictional story of the Lone Ranger was possibly based on the achievements of a former slave, Bass Reeves. He was the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi and is said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws, all without sustaining a single gun wound!
There is also a solemn display commemorating the 124 Rangers who have died in the line of duty since the founding of the organization.
There are a few other attractions worth checking out if you're passing through:
One of Waco's greatest natural assets is the beautiful Brazos River. This river, which runs from the state of New Mexico down to the Gulf of Mexico, meanders through the downtown area. The city has wisely developed a seven-mile stretch as a multi-use Riverwalk trail that loops along both banks of the river. This popular attraction is a great place to come and walk, jog, or just people watch.
Here's a video Lorraine took while we were there:
While on the trail make sure you stop and visit the Waco Suspension Bridge.
WACO SUSPENSION BRIDGE:
Imagine the history this bridge has seen since its completion in 1869! Being the first bridge built to span the Brazos River, it has seen the crossing of cowboys and their herds of bellowing, long-horn steers (at a charge of five cents per head), and horse drawn carts that gave way to "horseless carriages". It was an active bridge up until the early 1970's when it was converted into a pedestrian-only bridge.
There is a stirring tribute to the cowboys that brought such prosperity to this town in the form of twenty-five bronze sculptures named the: Trail Boss and Longhorn. It depicts a traditional Texas trail drive on the Chisholm Trial. The three cattle drivers are frozen in time as they attempt to keep the herd together and moving forward.
At the time of this bridge's construction, the closest railroad depot was over 100 miles away and the closest town with skilled craftsmen was Galveston, Texas which is over 200 miles away. Although hard to comprehend by today standards, back in the day the building of this bridge was considered a remarkable achievement.
If you're into strolling along the walkways of beautiful college campuses, then a visit to Baylor is a must. This private, Christian college with a student population of 21,000, boasts one of the most beautiful college campuses in the U.S. We found it quite peaceful to stroll its 1,000-acre campus and admire its many well-manicured green spaces bordered by rows of colorful flowers, decorative fountains, and noble structures.
If you're looking for a good cup of coffee, we recommend visiting the Common Grounds coffee shop just off the main campus, on 8th street. Not only do they have coffees from all over the world, but the decor is an interesting mix of shabby-chic.
"I'll have a Waco!"
I did want to mention one quirky attraction that we passed on visiting, and that is the Dr. Pepper Museum. The fountain drink was created in this town by a drug store attendant in 1885 (a year before the introduction of Coca-Cola). At first folks would come in and ask for a "Waco". The name was later changed to "Dr. Pepper", but nobody really knows why. Not being fans of any type of soda drink, we found the admission price of $10 per person, to be a bit too fizzy for our taste.
Along this journey, Lorraine and I have had the opportunity (and pleasure) to visit numerous towns and cities. Each radiates with its own unique "aura". It's the impression, or the vibe, you get as you stroll the streets and meet the locals. Some auras linger as a fine perfume, while others leave you in need of a Silkwood-shower. While each may have a Main Street, and a Visitor's Center, and municipal services, it's the less quantifiable trait of a shared community-vision (past, present and future) that seems to set each location apart. We've been in some "one gas-station" towns that are so desolate even dust won't settle there, but their town-folk are so dang friendly and quick with a story that you find reasons to linger. Even though some of its buildings may have long ago closed their eyes for the last time, the charm of most places is in its people. This sense of community is a location's essence, aura and weather-vein. The greater the pride, the greater its glow. It's the difference between a sense of hope or hopelessness.
Why did I launch into this diatribe about sense of community? Because you can sense a renewal going on in Waco. A vitality returning to its streets. A slow reawakening. Window boardings coming down and "Grand Opening" banners rising in their place. Businesses returning to the places that businesses should be.
We were remarkably surprised at what this sleepy city had to offer. For such a small place there is a lot to see and do. Although still more "farm town" than "big city", Waco seems like a nice place to live with a good mixture of outdoor and indoor activities (not to mention home of Baylor University). Although I would not call it a destination vacation spot, we enjoyed our stay and worth the detour if you're passing by.