Well before Chip and Joanna Gaines, the Branch Davidians or Dr Pepper, Waco was home to the Huaco Indians. The Huacos arrived in Central Texas some time in the 1700s and resided along the Brazos River. An account written by Spanish settlers details an encounter with the Huaco Indians as early as 1772, but not until the mid-nineteenth century did western explorers establish permanent residencies in the area. A soldier and surveyor, George B. Erath, laid out the first town block in 1849 and convinced local property owners to call the new town, “Waco Village” in honor of the area’s original inhabitants.
Due to the spread of cotton along the Brazos and Waco’s proximity to the Chisholm Trail, Waco grew quickly over the next couple decades and became a popular stop for cattlemen. The town’s economy boomed after the Waco Suspension Bridge opened in 1870. Between the opening of the bridge–at the time, the only bridge across the Brazos–and the construction of two railroads the following year, Waco’s fame grew. Among the many travelers that passed through the city were settlers bound for the West, cattle herders and cowboys with a knack for gun fighting, earning the town the nickname “Six Shooter Junction.” As the century drew to a close, Waco stood as one of the most important cotton markets in the South and the cattle capital of Central Texas. By the 1900s, the city rivaled Dallas in size.
The 20th century saw a massive influx of growth followed by one of the city’s most devastating tragedies. Cotton remained a leading industry within Waco, but insurance businesses also began to flock to the city. Waco boasted the tallest skyscraper south of the Mason-Dixon when construction of the iconic 22-story ALICO building was completed in 1911. Local innovators Grover C. Thomsen and R. H. Roark created the original red cream soda called “Sun Tang Red Cream Soda,” known today as Big Red.
In 1953, a devastating tornado ravaged downtown Waco, killing 114 people and leaving a scar on the city that is still felt more than half a century later. The F-5 tornado wiped out nearly 200 buildings downtown; 396 more were destroyed so badly that they later had to be demolished. Though the community rallied around each other in the aftermath, the city was dealt a hard blow as many of the surviving businesses of once-vibrant downtown Waco emptied out in the years that followed. The few buildings that withstood the 260 mile-per-hour winds, like the ALICO building and Roosevelt Hotel, remain standing today as iconic symbols of Waco’s resilience.
The Waco of today stands in stark contrast to the Waco of even five years ago. As new restaurants and businesses flock to downtown and bring revival to the heart of the city, one thing remains unchanged: Waco is home to a thriving community of creative entrepreneurs, passionate fans, and above all proud citizens. If you ever get a chance to visit, make sure to grab a burger at Dubl-R and take a hike in Cameron Park…just maybe not in that order.