Almost 20 years after mostly shutting its doors to the public, the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco Life and History may be heading into a new chapter of its own history.
The museum, housed in the former Barron Springs Elementary School at 701 Jefferson Ave., has been closed to all but private tours since 1998 when museum founder Helen Marie Taylor and its board split over repayment of a loan she made to the museum. The board disbanded, Taylor cut her financial support and the museum closed its doors.
Those doors may reopen to the public, said Barbara AllinBloom, who is serving, with Taylor’s approval, as director and secretary of the museum foundation. Like Taylor, she has a passionate vision for the museum and its potential to educate a new generation of Waco students, from the importance of the Native American tribes and cultures that preceded white settlement to the roots of the U.S. Constitution and various contributions to Waco history and culture.
“We have amazing things here. … This is a treasure. It really needs to be utilized,” AllinBloom said.
The museum flirted with reopening in 2009 when newly elected Historic Waco Foundation director Don Davis and Taylor discussed an agreement that would create a working relationship between the foundation and the museum. That discussion was shelved, however, over issues of finances and control.
Still, Davis sees the important role a Waco history museum could play.
“More power to them,” he said. “We need a history of Waco museum, and that’s the best chance of getting one.”
At the same time, a new Waco museum would face some of the same challenges the 50-year-old HWF and museums in general are facing, Davis said. The cost of building maintenance and utilities are rising, there is a shrinking pool of volunteers, and it remains a challenge to convince potential visitors and supporters of a museum’s relevance, he said.
AllinBloom, 63, a former McGregor resident and daughter of Ruth and Fred Williams, accepts this as her latest challenge. She returned to McGregor, where her sister and mother still live, after several years in El Salvador working with poor youth and their communities and some time with the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Flipping through an old address book, she came across the number for Taylor, whom she remembered from her time in Waco some 20 years ago, and decided to call Taylor at her home in Virginia. Around the same time, positive comments in a Waco History Facebook group about the museum and memories of past visits caught the attention of Taylor, now 93 and a loyal viewer of “Fixer Upper.”
Passion for history
The two women found they share a passion for history and the need to teach a younger generation. Soon, Taylor agreed to let AllinBloom see what she could do to jump start the museum to new life.
“The wonderful thing is that Barbara has agreed to work as director. She’s heaven-sent,” said Taylor, speaking by phone from Richmond, Virginia. “This is a hinge moment, and she offered to help me. And she’s not charging us a dime.”
Taylor considered AllinBloom’s call providential in its timing and, her eye sharp for detail, noted a coincidence.
“She’s at the age I was when I started (the museum),” Taylor said.
She then mentioned the museum is located on what’s believed the site of a Waco Indian village, leading her to a lengthy account that included the Spanish explorer Coronado, Waco founder Jacob Cordova, city surveyor George Erath; Katherine Ross, the first child born to white settlers in Waco; Taylor’s grandmother, who she said remembered the Indians; William Brann, editor of “The Iconoclast,” shot some blocks away from her grandmother’s house; the role her great-grandfather played in the first city cemetery; the personal influence of Bobby Barnes in preserving Waco’s historic homes; Waco historian Roger Conger; and, finally, her reason for the museum — “I wanted to give a gift to Waco in memory of my grandmother.”
AllinBloom, who has worked with youth in Russia above the Arctic Circle, violence-torn Ghana and poor communities in coastal El Salvador through the nonprofit Heart To Heart Global Youth Coalition as well as running a retreat outside Austin, knows the size of the task ahead.
The sprawling live oaks outside the Taylor Museum, thought to be hundreds of years old, need branches trimmed for the safety of museum visitors. The building’s roof leaks and needs repair. Several rooms and their floors have water damage, and the wall at a second-floor window is cracked.
The museum’s audio cassette-driven multimedia exhibits need an upgrade into the digital age, as do the picture-tube-type TV monitors. Some of the museum’s records are on computer floppy discs while others exist only in paper form.
Those are physical problems requiring money. There’s also the challenge of building a volunteer pool to man tours and other museum functions; marketing the museum to pull in visitors from Waco and beyond; organizing relationships with area schools and other groups; and creating a revenue stream to pay the bills on an ongoing basis.
AllinBloom hasn’t tallied the amount needed to accomplish the repairs, nor does she have a figure on how much it will take before the museum can reopen to visitors.
“I have no idea where I’ll get the money, but that’s what I’ve been doing all my life,” AllinBloom said. “We’re basically starting from scratch.”
Despite some water damage and items affected by the lack of climate control, the Taylor Museum contains much of what it did when it closed some 20 years ago.
“The Don Dwyer Freedom Exhibit ‘We The People,’ ” still has artifacts dating from the writing of the U.S. Constitution, including a George Washington vest and the Rising Sun chair Washington used during the Constitutional Convention.
There’s the bed in which President Zachary Taylor, a relation of Helen Marie Taylor, died. A Cotton Palace pageant exhibit displays bejeweled and ermine-trimmed gowns and capes worn in the elaborate pageant celebrating Waco’s glory days as a cotton industry hub. A room dedicated to the Branch Davidian siege and fire features photos, books and a visitors log with the recent signatures of some surviving Branch Davidians.
Another room looks at the Native American presence in Central Texas and Waco’s early pioneer days. There’s a bell from a ship on which Waco World War II hero Doris Miller served. A former classroom serves as a naturally lit art room. There’s also an auditorium with 200-seat capacity, a kitchen and gift shop.
AllinBloom envisions even more: outdoor replicas of Waco Indian grass shelters with an accompanying garden, a pioneer garden and more exhibit and classroom space wrapped around the present building.
The collection is an eclectic one for a museum dedicated to Waco history, but AllinBloom, like Taylor, defends it as providing a base to educate young people.
“We’re all Americans. It’s not goofy these things are here,” she said.
Her time in El Salvador, for instance, showed her how fragile a government can be and the need to inform a younger generation in the values behind America’s.
“Freedom is a living concept,” she said.
A repaired, reopened Taylor Museum would find plenty of company in Waco, where the Museum Association of Waco counts 21 member institutions.
“In general, Waco has a vibrant museum community,” said Charlie Walter, director of the Mayborn Museum and museum association president. “Each museum has a great niche and provides a great service. That’s the ultimate recognition: If a community sees you relevant to their interests, people will vote with their feet.”
What a museum has in its collection may not matter as much as a sound business plan and a way of connecting to a supporting audience, Walter said.
Community support, Taylor acknowledged, will be the key to the Taylor Museum’s future. In AllinBloom, she thinks she has a person with the drive to build toward that. AllinBloom, too, believes the power of positive thinking and energy will write the next chapter of Waco’s history museum.
“If you have a good purpose and the passion to see it through, it will happen,” she said.