Waco’s changing reputation from the Siege to Magnolia

The deadly siege of the Branch Davidian's compound in 1993 was all spectators thought of Waco until the Magnolia dynasty swept through town. Getty Images

By Madalyn Watson | Staff Writer

Today, Waco is known for the triumphs and controversies of Baylor, a mass of Baptist churches as well as the Magnolia Silos and all the current and future offshoots of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s popularity.

In 1993, there was a much more sinister following making the name Waco known to people around the world: the Branch Davidians.

In an article titled “10 Things you may not know about Waco” published in Feb. 2018 on PBS Frontline, all of the points listed pertain to the standoff between the federal government and the Branch Davidians, led by Vernon Howell, who is also known as David Koresh.

Current Baylor students don’t remember the day referred to as “Black Monday” by the Waco Tribune-Herald, the infamous ATF raid or the 51-day standoff that ended in a fire. But Waco residents who lived here during the ’90s remember.

Robert Darden is a professor of journalism, public relations and new media, former editor for both the Waco-Tribune Herald and Billboard magazine as well as the author and co-author of several books, including “Mad Man in Waco” with Brad Bailey.

“I had done some work independently on the history of the group, which goes back to the 1930s in Waco,” Darden said.

The Davidians originated in the Seventh-day Adventist church in 1931, when Victor Houteff formed his own group. They moved to the outskirts of Waco and established Mount Carmel on 189 acres of land by Lake Waco, an article published in 1987 by the Waco-Tribune Herald said. A fraction of the group later became the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh.

“A day or two after the initial assault, my agent talked to the publisher and said, ‘I think there’s a book here,’ and part of it was because Koresh used to stop by my office when I worked at the Waco newspaper, so I had a longer relationship with them,” Darden said.

Darden was the gospel music editor for Billboard magazine in New York at the time, so Koresh would give him cassette tapes of the music he made with his band and ask him to show it to music producers.

Koresh would invite Darden to eat meals and play music with him and his followers at the compound, but Darden never accepted his offer.

“I’d seen him around town, like a lot of people had. He would be teaching,” Darden said. “I remember we were at the Dairy Queen on Bosque and New Road one time. And he’s there eating burgers and milkshakes and they’re all sitting there, apparently for hours, with no water, just sitting.”

His devout followers believed him to be Christ, but a sinful messiah.

The Waco-Tribune Herald wrote a seven-part series called “The Sinful Messiah,” published Feb. 27 to March 1 of 1993. The paper’s investigation claims that Vernon (Koresh) physically, psychologically and sexually abused the children on the compound and that Koresh claimed a divine right to all the daughters and wives in the compound as his concubines, in what he called the House of David.

“But he was the sinful messiah, so he took all their sins, so he did everything so they didn’t have to, including their wives and daughters,” Darden said.

Darden said that he called Brad Bailey, a freelance writer outside of Dallas, because they wanted the book finished and published quickly, when the group was still the object of worldwide discussion.

“While I was working on getting it up from the beginning right up to the assault, Brad took it from the assault to the fire and beyond,” Darden said.

Rod Aydelotte, the current photo chief for the Waco-Tribune Herald and a part-timer lecturer in the journalism, public relations and new media, was one of the photographers on the scene.

“There was the compound a couple of yards in front of us and there was a ATF sniper, and so we were sort of caught in the middle,” Aydelotte said.

During the 45-minute battle, four agents and two Davidians were killed, and 15 agents and three cult members were wounded. Koresh said that he was one of the wounded and his 2-year-old daughter was killed, according to the Waco-Tribune Herald.

“It was pretty early and it was pretty cold and we had bullets flying around for a while, and then it went up and they were flying around and it rained,” Aydelotte said.

During a 51-day standoff, Koresh gradually allowed about 30 followers to leave. On April 19, 1993, the standoff ended when the FBI began spraying tear gas into the complex, inciting the Davidians to set fires to the compound, which killed 80 members, including children and their leader, Koresh.

“We were the center of the universe as far as the media for quite a long time and then something else comes along,” Aydelotte said.

The compound as well as the city was the focus of the media, even though the compound was approximately 13 miles outside of Waco.

“It really had nothing to do with Waco, even though some of the people worked in town, but they kept to themselves,” Darden said, “It just seemed to me to be unfair that the town would be tarred with this.”

Darden said that the tragedy led to some infamy associated with Waco and the city’s name was turned into a verb, referring to the number of casualties caused by the raid and fire.

“They turned it into a verb, you know, ‘Don’t Waco us,’” Darden said. “When something like the FBI would get into a hostage situation, they would say, ‘Let’s make sure this doesn’t turn into another Waco’ and ‘Don’t Waco this and attack, and end up with a lot of casualties,’” Darden said.

The Waco siege was not the only tragedy to tarnish Waco’s reputation. A tornado outbreak in 1953 took the lives of 114 people in Waco and debunked an old legend that the land Waco is on is immune to severe tornados. One of the newer buildings at the time, now the ALICO building, was one of the only left standing, as well as the Dr Pepper museum, which sustained damages.

In more recent Waco history, on May 17, 2015, a dispute between biker gangs in a Twin Peaks restaurant left killed nine people and injured 18. Referred to as “the bloodiest motorcycle gun battle in Texas history” by an article in the Houston Chronicle, the dispute that caused the shootout is still unclear.

About 25 miles from Waco, President George W. Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch, where he entertained visiting dignitaries, gave Waco more of a positive attraction from residents and visitors alike.

However, the real change in Waco’s reputation came from a reality television show on HGTV. “Fixer Upper” began in 2013, starring Chip and Joanna Gaines, about home design and renovation based in Waco.

The popularity of the television show led them to create the Magnolia Silos location of their Magnolia Market and then later Magnolia Table, their first restaurant in 2018. All of their businesses now attract an influx of tourists from all over the world. They are even planning to open a coffee shop in the near future.

“It wasn’t until I think the rise of Magnolia and the success of not just Waco, but all the towns around I-35 when that started happening in Waco and New Braunfels and these other towns became a desirable place to live,” Darden said.