Waco Stories You Didn’t Know Existed: the Waco History App

Waco History allows users to walk around and gather information on-the-go about Waco's most historic monuments like the ALICO Building. Photo credit: Sarah Jennings

For those on a budget, it’s become trendy to be a tourist in a hometown. Now, with Waco History, a free app designed by Baylor employees, it’s easier than ever.

The app and website documents interesting places, people, and events in Waco and McLennan County. A result of a partnership between the Baylor Institute for Oral History and the Texas Collection, the app features over 90 multimedia narratives and two tours—Heart O’ Texas Foodways and Houses of Worship.

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Waco History allows users to walk around and gather information on-the-go about Waco's most historic monuments like the ALICO Building. Photo credit: Sarah Jennings

Dr. Stephen Sloan, director of the Institute for Oral History, said QR codes are currently going up around the city, connecting users with historic businesses and churches.

“In history, we usually talk in national and international terms. History can be a very abstract thing. What I like about the app, it brings history down to a real tangible and intimate sort of level. I can listen to the people who it happened to; I can see what the site looks like now,” Sloan said.

Sloan discovered Curatescape — a web and mobile app framework that emphasizes story telling in a location-based format — through a similar public history project at Cleveland State University. He then proposed this venture to John Wilson, Texas Collection director. Incorporating the vast visual archives of the Texas Collection with the wealth of over 1,000 oral histories, the app offers a flexible way to present a variety of stories.

“The entries are place-based. You can move through the landscape. You can pursue the themes that interest you, and you can tailor this app to your particular interest,” Sloan said. “If you’re interested in African-American history or Mexican-American history or whatever it be — sports history, food-ways — then you can follow your own track.”

Amanda Sawyer, a Baylor museum studies graduate student, began working with the team two years ago in Sloan’s undergraduate Methods in Oral History class. She said she had never done anything outside of Chinese history before, and the opportunity to write entries for the app introduced her to a new passion—public history. She now produces about one new entry a week.

“The thing that was most exciting to me was just how old the city was,” Sawyer said. “Then there was the first time somebody told me that Waco used to be a huge city—in its time, an Austin or Dallas—it blew my mind. I never knew that.”

Sawyer said that working on this project showed her the deep sense of community in Waco. Waco has survived big disasters, like the tornado in 1953. However, she observed that this community comes together afterwards, and that’s not often recognized.

“It’s really easy to come to Waco, just see it as a temporary home, and not even get to know the area around you,” Sawyer said. “But I feel like since we’re living here, most of us for four years at least, there’s a sense of duty, at least on my part, to understand the community I’m living in.”

Many entries will surprise users. Not many people know Waco had a legalized red-light district — known as the Reservation — or a downtown ballpark called Katy Park. A quick tap on the app’s interactive map may uncover the story behind the ALICO Center.

“Often, the popular understanding of Waco — particularly nationally — is way too narrow,” Sloan said. “So this project has reaffirmed how rich and diverse our history is. I know this as an oral historian; there are many different experiences and perspectives on the past. It’s too easy to generalize, to oversimplify. Things like this make that harder.”