Exploring Magnolia … and a city with a soul

It was early December and we were decorating the Christmas tree. But, as has become customary on Tuesday nights in our house, everything came to a screeching halt when I shouted, “Shiplap!”

With that, Tammy, Maya, Willow and I all piled onto the couch and clicked the remote. We kinda dig watching Chip and Joanna work their magic on every new episode of HGTV’s Fixer Upper. For us — and clearly a WHOLE LOT of other people across the country– it’s television gold. It’s equal parts design and preservation, led by a couple with the most infectious personalities.

But, on this day, things got real in a hurry. About 10 minutes in, the show returned with an arial shot of the rusty silos Chip and Joanna turned from the biggest eyesore in town to THE beacon of tourism and economic development. In that moment, Tammy or I said,

“You know, we should do a family road trip to Waco. Let’s go to the silos … over spring break.”

On the road to Magnolia

All four of us had a vision in our heads of what it would be like to actually set foot on the Magnolia grounds in downtown Waco. On the morning of March 19, the day had finally arrived. We tossed our suitcases into the car and headed south, through Arkansas, Oklahoma — a few Native American reservations — and into Texas. And, finally, the main attraction.

The Magnolia property is every bit as amazing as whatever you’ve imagined in your head.

Chip and Joanna Gaines have turned what was essentially a crumbling, 100-year-old cotton seed operation/farm into a turn-back-the-clock oasis in the heart of downtown Waco.

To give you an idea of the magnitude of what they’ve created, an estimated 25,000 people from across the country visited Magnolia in a single day the week prior to our arrival. While that was off the charts, Waco residents will tell you they see 25,000 tourists flock to Magnolia over the course of any given week.

Without hesitation, we hopped into the long line at the Silo Baking Co. to sample the cupcakes, shopped Joanna’s Magnolia Market, made a few purchases at the Seed+Supply shop, perused the gardens and more. As amazing as all of that was, the thing that stood out above all else was how so many people spent the better part of the day just hanging out there. As in playing catch with footballs and frisbees on the turf-c0vered commons area. Gliding back and forth on the swings that now hang from the old cotton seed distribution piping. Lounging in bean bags, moving only to sample the gourmet grilled cheese, crepes or straw-tapped watermelons from the many food trucks on the backside of the Magnolia property.

In that moment, I realized this was about a whole lot more than a TV show. This place — situated in the shadows of those glorious, history-filled, rusty silos — has essentially become a playground at the heart of a community. It’s like Waco’s Central Park.

The TV show and celebrity is what draws folks in, but they end up staying because what they find is the kind of environment every one of us wants more of.

Chip and Joanna could have torn down the crumbling structures and eye-sore silos — or at least given them a fresh coat of paint. Instead, they embraced that slice of character and history, turning it into a gathering spot that has quickly turned Waco into one of the hottest real estate markets in the entire country. People come to take their photo in front of the silos, peruse the shops, do cartwheels and take naps on the lawn … and absorb a slice of Waco hospitality.

Paint the walls

As we ventured beyond the gates of Magnolia, we discovered Waco had shots of personality, history and character around just about every corner.

We seriously spent the better part of a day walking the streets of downtown Waco, admiring and snapping photos of all the cool wall art, murals and funky doors. The photos speak for themselves.

Did you know?

Did you know Waco is the birthplace of Dr. Pepper? The Dr. Pepper Museum itself could use some refreshing, but there’s so much history packed into that place. And all of the other unexpected little nuggets … like the fact, at one time every pack of Skittles and about 75% of Snickers bars and Starburst were manufactured in Waco.

Mammoth discovery

Speaking of unexpected, who wanders into Waco, TX expecting to happen upon an actual excavation site with the bones of 65,000-year-old Columbian mammoths exposed? Seriously. It’s all there, protected within the grounds of Waco Mammoth National Monument. In fact, this paleontological site represents the nation’s only recorded discovery of a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths — and just the third such discovery of its kind in the world.

Hey, Sugar

The exploring was just beginning. On a stroll down Austin Avenue in downtown Waco, we popped into a historic theater that had recently been converted into a dinner theater where movies, live music acts and theatrical performances take place. A few doors down, we happened upon Hey Sugar, the great little turn-back-the-clock ice cream parlor and candy shop.

Follow the Brazos

Several bridges span the Brazos River in the heart of downtown Waco— including this one, which ranchers from all over led their cattle across in order to get to market decades ago. Follow the river east, and you run into the gorgeous campus of Baylor University. Follow the river — or the bike and running trails — west, and you end up in a giant, wooded city park, complete with giant bluffs, hiking, frisbee golf, paddle boating and views for as far as you can see.

Off the beaten path

I spent an evening photographing the old railroad tracks of Waco, and admiring the twisting limbs of all the oak, pecan and magnolia trees. And a trip to Texas wouldn’t be official without barbecue, right? So the whole family set out to find and enjoy Waco’s most storied barbecue joint, Tony DeMaria’s (because we were warned everything sells out well before the posted hours of 9am-2pm). I even had the opportunity to chat with the namesakes of Mama & Papa B’s Bar-B-Que (storefront shown in photo below) about our shared love for the art of barbecue.

… and all of that was just on our own.

Waco Tours

One afternoon, we climbed aboard a bus operated by Waco Tours, which is actually owned by David Ridley, the bachelor who Chip and Joanna flipped a house for. Remember, the one with the volleyball and basketball courts in the back yard?

The tour pointed out several of the homes from Fixer Upper episodes, including a stop at one where we had the opportunity to sit on the front porch. We hopped off for an ice cream cone at a local creamery, and a cup of joe at a popular little coffee shop near the Baylor campus. We even passed through the doors of Harp Design Co., which fans of Fixer Upper will recognize as the place Joanna goes any time she needs a dining table custom created for one of her projects.

East Waco

Perhaps the most fascinating bit of info — and even more proof that one television show has the power to spark the economic revitalization of an entire community — was that the deserted streets of East Waco are quickly coming back to life.

The photo at left is one of the main streets in East Waco, just the other side of the river from the heart of downtown Waco. Looks like a ghost town, but the fact is nearly every building in this photo has recently been purchased and is slated for renovation.

One example is Lula Jane’s, a local bakery shown in the photos below. The owners repurposed an abandoned building in East Waco to create their business, where they now serve up incredible oatmeal, cookies, cakes, coffees and more. Lula Jane’s has even taken its farm-to-table concept to the next level by turning the open lot beside the property into its own ingredient garden.

It’s so much more

We set out to experience the Magnolia Market grounds and the iconic rusty silos. But what we found was more than the site of a popular TV show. We found an oasis that draws visitors from far and wide.

Waco is now associated with the Fixer Upper phenomenon, rather than David Koresh. On any given week, 25,000 visitors not only flock to Magnolia, but to Lula Jane’s, Harp Design Co. and more. The show has led to Waco becoming one of the hottest real estate markets around. It’s the reason David Ridley has been able to create Waco Tours, and it was the spark necessary to turn the eyes of investors to the revitalization of East Waco.

It’s the reason families like mine ended up in Waco during spring break and fell in love with the wall art across the community. It’s why we’ve already talked about planning a return trip to Waco in a few years, just to witness the magical transformation that we’re certain will continue to happen between now and then.

As the wall mural below claims, Waco truly is a city with a soul.