Hidden history of Waco uncovered at Fort House, fashion exhibit

The Historic Waco Foundation's new exhibit "A Fashionable Past," displays tradition garb from centuries past. Courtesy of Ken Sury for the Waco Tribune Herald

By Molly Atchison | Print Managing Editor

The Historic Waco Foundation is luring in both tourists and locals with their exhibit, “A Fashionable Past,” an exclusive collection of traditional garb displaying how fashion has changed throughout time. Fabrics, accessories and traditional footwear from the late 1800’s to the 1940s gleamed from behind the glass cases at the Fort House Museum, where the exhibit will remain open until March 31. In addition to the formalwear and tight corsets on display, the Fort House also gives tours of the estate.

Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by friendly Historic Waco Foundation tour guides, ready and eager to guide guests in the right destination. The five dollar fee — an all-inclusive price for admission to the fashion exhibit and a guided tour of the house — is reasonable for the wealth of information tourists receive.

I opted to take the guided tour of the house first, followed by the self-guided tour of the exhibit on the second floor. A member of the Historic Waco Foundation welcomed me warmly into the foyer and proceeded to intrigue me with stories of the Fort family, who moved from Virginia to this dusty village in Texas called Waco. The Fort family was an integral force in making Waco the bustling city it is today. By helping build the first bridge in Waco and stimulating the local economy with their insurance company, the Forts left a lasting legacy that is still talked about today.

The Fort House complimented the vocalized information in the tour with a large collection of original items from the 1800s, including a map of Waco prior to the construction of the Brazos bridges, and colored photographs of family and friends of the Forts.

Antiques and anecdotes lined the halls of the historic home. Vibrant curtains and paintings hung proudly on the walls and windows, and a steep, wood-paneled staircase added an air of nostalgia to the tour. Visitors could easily imagine a family gathering in the sitting room together at night, enjoying one another’s company and a warm fire emerging from the stately fireplace.

The house, an ostentatious grecian-style building, was built by William Aldridge Fort, which housed himself in addition to 10 family members who moved to Waco with him from Virginia. The full house sheltered Fort’s wife, mother, nieces, nephews and their children, who were orphaned after their parents underwent a fatal episode of Typhoid fever. This very disease would eventually wipe out most of the Fort family.

Fort himself later died of grief, leaving his wife to live with her surviving sons in the house until her death in 1910. The Forts weren’t only essential to the economic prosperity of Waco in the 1800s; they also contributed to Waco’s historical and cultural significance due to their social standing and upper-class lifestyle.

At the end of the tour, I was left to explore the second floor, where several rooms had been converted to harbor the Fashionable Past exhibit. Heavy garments were draped next to intricately beaded flapper dresses. Along the edges of the room rested lace gloves, oversized hats and tightly-tied boots. As someone who loves fashion, seeing these items was something incredibly special — it gave me an idea of how women lived in each respective era, and how fashion grew into what we know it to be today.

For anyone who wants to learn more about the hidden history of Waco, or to escape the Magnolia crowds on the weekend, I highly recommend taking a stroll through history at the Fort House. The house is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m.