Before Waco was founded in 1849, “Lamartine” was pushed as a name for the city, and before the bear was chosen as a mascot for Baylor University, the ferret was a contender.
The city also has a direct tie to the story behind the first teddy bear, thanks to a cowboy who led a bear hunt for President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902.
And the tallest building downtown, the ALICO Building, was the first skyscraper in Texas and was once mentioned in a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” newspaper column, said Ashley Bean Thornton, with Act Locally Waco.
These pieces of trivia, intertwined with stories of the town’s founding not long before the Civil War and its path to modern times, are some of the elements in the newest way for visitors and residents to learn about Waco’s history.
Despite chilly weather, about 20 people attended the first official Waco Downtown History Walk on Thursday, a new fundraising effort for Act Locally Waco.
The idea came to Thornton after she hosted a spooky Halloween tour in Waco and attended a similar history walk in Cincinnati, she said. She wanted to find a way for Wacoans and visitors to listen to stories they may have never heard, while also raising money to keep efforts by Act Locally Waco going, she said.
Thornton said she held a few practice tours to get her stories straight, and she is hoping to continue with two stories a month and raise about $5,000 a year. There is no cost to attend, but $15 donations are welcome, she said.
“Waco’s a really interesting place. It kind of has a rowdy history, and what I think is fascinating about it is the contrast,” Thornton said. “There’s this religious element and this Wild West element, and there’s this very sort of educated culture element and also there’s Six Shooter Junction.”
Armed with a headset and a sense of humor, Thornton took bundled-up guests from the McLennan County Courthouse to the city’s famous Suspension Bridge and other locations, detailing important events spanning the past 170 years along the way.
She also touched on the love story behind the naming of Dr Pepper, which was created in Waco, and gave some suggestions for current downtown attractions.
And as she took the small crowd around Heritage Square, she spoke about the destructive 1953 tornado that killed 114 people and damaged or destroyed about 190 buildings in downtown.
The ALICO Building swayed 12 feet the day the tornado struck. Those on the top floor were thrown against walls, but the building did not collapse. Workers had dug 40 feet down to the bedrock to build the foundation and used massive steel beams to form its skeleton, Thornton said.
Melissa Mullins, a Baylor University environmental education specialist who has lived in Waco more than 20 years, took the tour with family visiting for the week from out of town. The tour helped clarify her understanding of some well-known stories and added a new understanding of the city, Mullins said.
“I knew something about them, but I didn’t necessarily have the details right,” she said. “Like when she was talking about the tornado, I had always heard it didn’t get to the ALICO or lifted over the ALICO. I didn’t know the things about the structural construction of the ALICO.”
She attended one of Thornton’s practice runs and made sure to bring her relatives from Baltimore, Los Angeles and Kentucky to learn a little about the town she loves, she said.
Thornton’s tours so far have averaged about 10 people, but she hopes she can get to a point where she has a crowd as big as Thursday’s on a regular basis, she said.