Cemetery tour brings Waco history to life

Halloween brings fun and historical events to Waco. You can take a historical walking tour through the Oakwood Cemetery. Photo illustration by Emileé Edwards | photographer

By Julia Pearl | Reporter

Combining the tradition of oral histories with the rich and complex lives of prominent figures in Waco history, the Heart of Texas Storytelling Guild is hosting their annual Walking Tales event Saturday at the Oak Wood Cemetery.

Vivian Rutherford, president of the Heart of Texas Storytelling Guild, said she founded the organization after realizing that Waco lacked an organization of the kind.

“We love talking about our history,” Rutherford said. “So many times, little bitty trivia things about different individuals are not in the history books. This is a way to kind of humanize historical figures and make them more palatable.”

Terri Jo Mosley, a historical interpreter for Walking Tales, said that there are a number of vibrant people buried in Oak Wood Cemetery whose stories wouldn’t be heard if it weren’t for the Walking Tales event. She said one of her favorite stories is about a man named Telemachus Johnson.

“There’s a real sort of eccentric, over-the-top rich guy who’s buried there,” Mosley said. “He’s got this great name, Telemachus Johnson. This guy, allegedly, was buried at a poker table with a pistol in one hand and whiskey in the other.”

The walking tour includes both professional and amateur storytellers. The “tellers,” Rutherford said, can share the stories of those buried in Oak Wood in a number of ways.

“We’re standing there, many of us in period costume,” Rutherford said. “People come up, and they can either interact with us as the actual person, first person, third person like ‘I know that person. He was my neighbor. She was my friend.’ Or we can just do factual trivia questions and answers.”

Mosley also has a passion for the stories and people that make up Waco’s history. She said she takes on the character of Kate Friend, the woman who started the local humane society.

“To me, it’s fun because once a year, I get to play dress-up as Miss Kate Friend,” Mosley said. “I think this year it is going to take on a special edge because it is one of the few fall events that can still go on as normal. It’s always been outside, and people generally keep their distance.”

As president of the Guild, Rutherford said that she is excited that Walking Tales will still be able to take place normally. She said he event represents an important link between the past and present.

“I think it’s a great connection, history meeting the present,” Rutherford said. “It’s a way to communicate Texas history because we in Texas are very proud of our history and don’t mind bragging about it.”

Walking Tales takes place each year in Oak Wood Cemetery. Clint Lynch, the general manager of the cemetery, said there are a number of prominent historical figures buried there. Not all of them are who you would expect to be important in Waco’s history, though.

“The one person you won’t find in the books is Mollie Adams,” Lynch said. “Mollie was Waco’s most prominent Madam. Waco had legalized prostitution prior to World War I. What a lot of people don’t realize, you know, ‘It’s Baylor; It’s Baptist,’ but [prostitution] was taxed. The girls were given check-ups, to make sure they were healthy. A lot of the funding for city streets, city sidewalks came through prostitution.”

He said the partnership between the Heart of Texas Storytelling Guild and Oak Wood is special because of its impact on the perspective of people who visit the cemetery.

“It gets people out here that don’t have somebody that they’re burying,” Lynch said. “It just brings people out walking around, exploring. It gives people historical perspective.”