Waco history bursts ‘Baylor Bubble’

Waco history includes much more than the Waco Suspension Bridge and “Fixer Upper.” The Waco History app, local museums – like the Dr Pepper museum pictured here and Baylor Institute for Oral History work to make Waco’s history more accessible and engaging to the public. Lariat File Photo Photo credit: Liesje Powers

By Rewon Shimray | Reporter

While student housing on the other side of I-35 and La Salle offers more engagement with “the broader landscape of Waco,” Dr. Stephen Sloan, Baylor Institute for Oral History director, said few students have interacted with the history of Waco.

Sloan said this may be due to the “transient nature” of college, as a “waiting time between where you used to live and where you want to live.”

Sloan said the popular understanding of Waco’s history is “very narrow.”

“I think oftentimes, because our society can be present-obsessed and future-focused, we don’t think as much about where we are and what that means,” Sloan said. “It’s about good citizenship to have a broader sense of the community you live in. If you live in a place, I believe it becomes a part of you. By having a richer understanding of the character of that place, you have a fuller understanding of where you’ve been and who you are.”

Waco graduate student Camille Plemmons said it can be easy for students to avoid interacting with the Waco community because Baylor is a comfortable environment to stay in. She said this pattern creates a “Baylor Bubble” that is “very real.”

In the pursuit of helping Baylor students, along with the broader Waco community, historians have made efforts to make Waco history more accessible to the everyday individual. Historians like Sloan have been a part of the conversion of traditional history forms (textbooks, theses, etc.) into interactive and digital mediums for the community, also known as public history.

Tulsa, Okla., PhD student Skylar Ray, also said public history is “distinct from an academic history, where maybe you’re doing research for writing that’s geared toward an academic audience;” that is instead “made to connect with the everyday individual, with the community, to be very accessible to them.”

Waco History App

Two Baylor programs, the Institute for Oral History and The Texas Collection, developed the Waco History app in reaction to Sloan finding there was no “functioning museum that interpreted Waco’s history.” The app launched on March 1, 2015 — the anniversary of the Waco village’s founding in 1849— as what Sloan calls a cutting edge way to make history accessible to the community.

The app features a map of Waco and surrounding suburbs filled with geolocation pins. Each pin features oral history interviews, archived photos and a 400- to 600-word blurb about the historical significance of the location. Some indicate historic figures or organizations.

Since May 2017, Ray has worked under Sloan to contribute app entries, which she said helped her better settle into and appreciate Waco.

“I feel like I’m more invested in the community, and I know more about the history of the place around me,” Ray said. “It’s really fascinating, and so I would love for students who live here, especially that aren’t from here, to be able to know more about that.”

Ray said the app guides walking tours for those wandering downtown and offers information for those who would rather stay in the comfort of their own home.

The first 100 or so entries covered “places that were more historically obvious,” so by the time she began to work on the app, Ray said she had to “dig a little bit further to identify further places.” She said she discovered establishments no longer in existence through oral history interviews, newspaper records and everyday conversations.

“The very fact that they don’t exist anymore means they’re at risk of — their stories and the voices behind the stories — being forgotten,” Ray said. “That’s one of the main benefits of oral history and public history is that it’s kind of giving voices to individuals whose voices wouldn’t be heard in a historical record or narrative.”

The Legacy of Wilton Lanning Jr.

Waco historian and prominent community figure Wilton Lanning Jr. died Jan. 10.

Stephen Sielaff, Baylor Institute for Oral History senior editor and collections manager, interviewed Lanning for the archive at the Baylor Institute for Oral History. He said Lanning’s grandchildren listen to his oral history records to hear Lanning’s voice and stories.

“There’s a saying in oral history that says, ‘Every time an older person dies, a library burns down.’ Just that there’s these unique sets of stories, and Mr. Lanning had an impressive library,” Sloan said. “He was a storehouse of local history and local stories, and so it’s a loss when that happens. I’ve consoled just a little bit by that loss, because of his contributions either through institutions he helped create, his writings or his contributions to oral history.”

Lanning owned Waco’s longest operating business, Tom Padgitt, Inc., and founded the Dr Pepper Museum & Free Enterprise Institute. He held several leadership positions as the executive director of the Waco Business League, president of the Rotary Club of Waco and chairman of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. Lanning served on the boards of the Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, Waco Industrial Foundation and the Waco Mammoth Foundation.

B.J. Greaves, architect and president/CEO of ARCHITEXAS, was close friends with Lanning for over 30 years. He said every time they parted ways, Lanning would shake his hand and say, “Thank you for your friendship.” Because Greaves’ father worked for Dr Pepper in sales and later in management, he remembers running and playing around the plant as a 10-year-old. Growing up around the building, Greaves slowly developed a friendship with Lanning. Lanning invited Greaves to join the Dr Pepper Museum project, first as an associate, then as the head. Ever since, Greaves has been the only architect at the museum.

“I don’t know what to say about Wilton, other than that he was just an amazingly gracious human being, and he was a real civic-minded person in that I never knew him to say no to anyone that needed his involvement in something that was bettering the community,” Greaves said. “Any kind of fundraising drive, any kind of community enterprise, he was involved in it somewhere. His involvement always seemed to be crucial to the success of the enterprise.”

Sloan said people like Lanning “remind a place of its character and educate new people on the character of that place.”

Plemmons has worked at the Dr Pepper Museum for five years. She said Lanning was constantly engaging with visitors.

“He was full of little Dr Pepper jokes all the time,” Plemmons said.

Plemmons said Lanning would count down 10-2-4 (the times of day recommended to drink a Dr Pepper, according to their 1920s and 1930s ad campaign) when he saw people taking a picture. He would also joke that the museum was “holy ground” as the location where Dr Pepper was invented.

Sloan said the Dr Pepper Museum is a “physical reminder of [Lanning’s] contribution.”

“He’ll have the enduring contribution with the Dr Pepper Museum. It’s those sorts of places that give a place character. It’s an unusual thing that we have. It’s a remarkable thing that outsiders want to see,” Sloan said.

Like the Waco History app, the Dr Pepper Museum acts as a Waco history interpreter for the community.

Plemmons works in interpretations at the museum, which entails educating visitors. Plemmons leads architecture tours, in which she tells the over 100-year-long history of the original Dr Pepper building – the museum building was originally a Dr Pepper bottling plant until it moved to another location in Waco in 1965.

The Dr Pepper Museum, along with the ALICO building, is among the few buildings left intact following the Waco tornado of 1953, according to Sielaff. The differentiation in brick color on the exterior of the museum reveal a bite-like impact from the tornado.

Sielaff said people reference the Waco tornado as “not only a huge historical event, but something that changed the nature of Waco.” In the museum tours, Plemmons takes visitors outside to point out the existing signs of the tornado on the downtown infrastructure.

“There are so many parking lots because the tornado devastated so many buildings,” Plemmons said. “Waco was projected to be as big as Dallas by now, but the tornado destroyed most of downtown, and that really held it back.”

Looking Back at Waco History

Sielaff said Waco was a hub for educational, religious and commercial activity during the World War 1 era. Following the tornado, many of the wealthy families who could afford to move did so, leaving a poorer working class behind, Sielaff said. Greaves said while growing up in Waco, the city “seemed like a community that seemed somewhat poor” with “a really large lower and lower-middle class.”

“There was a time when Waco was sort of complacent,” Greaves said. “You know, the way things were was fine: culturally, socially, economically. But that really has changed, and that has changed slowly over a few years, and now it’s really changing quickly. There’s so much influence from entrepreneurs to the people associated with ‘Fixer Upper.’ It’s like the town is waking up or coming out a cocoon, and it’s just doing so with such force and grace. It’s exciting. It’s an exciting time to be in Waco.”

Greaves said Waco is growing at steady pace, but not “at the expense of losing its history.” In his architectural field, he has seen more interest in the preservation of older buildings and homes.

“There are enough people in town, there’s enough influence in town, that the history of Waco is not being just pushed aside and forgotten,” Greaves said. “I think that’s good for the roots of Waco to be remembered in that way.”

Ray said history is distinct from the past in that history is the interpretation of past events which helps societies evaluate themselves and their role today. History, Ray said, cultivates “humility and empathy toward yourself and others.”

“If you’re going to look into the past, and try to understand someone or their life, you have to be able to step outside of yourself and understand that person in their time on their own terms. As historians say, ‘The past is like a foreign country, and they do things differently there,’” Ray said.

Sloan said he challenges Baylor students to “get out. Go learn something new. Find something to appreciate.”

Outlets for Waco history exploration include Waco walking tours, Institute for Oral History interviews, Baylor Texas Collection Archives, and the Waco History app.

“If they’re not the type that’s going to go on and look through interviews, or go to the archives, or even download the app, I think even a lot you can pick up on if you just open your eyes around you,” Ray said. “That’s something anyone could do.”