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Historic Waco Foundation in discussions to reopen Waco history museum
J.B. Smith ("Tribune-Herald," November 29, 2009)

Waco, USA - If you want to learn the story of Dr Pepper, the Texas Rangers, Texas sports, natural history, the Order of Red Men or Columbian mammoths, Waco museums can deliver.

But if you want the story of Waco itself, that’s another story.

The one museum devoted to local history — the Taylor Museum of Waco Life and History — has been mostly locked up for the past 11 years. It has no staff, no visiting hours and no new exhibits added in the last decade. Groups can take a self-guided tour by appointment, but only about 100 people visit per year, its caretaker said.

Historic Waco Foundation's executive director Don Davis says he would like to see the museum redeveloped and expanded to be more interactive and more reflective of Waco's diversity. (Duane A. Laverty photo)

The Historic Waco Foundation has said that it wants to reopen the museum but repairs to the facility would be costlier than the organization's budget currently allows. A fundraising campaign may be needed to pay for the work. (Duane A. Laverty photo)

A dress from the Waco Cotton Palace Pageant stands on display at the Taylor Museum of Waco Life and History. (Duane A. Laverty photo)

However, the museum could soon awake from its hibernation, if talks are successful between its founder and the Historic Waco Foundation.

Helen Marie Taylor, a Waco native who lives in Virginia, bought an old school at 701 Jefferson Ave. in the 1980s and opened it in 1993 as a museum bearing her name. She said she has spent $5 million on the museum since its beginning.

In 1998, her board of directors dissolved after Taylor demanded that board members raise funds to pay back a $2.5 million loan that she made to the museum.

Taylor cut back her support, and the museum ceased its regular hours. Since then, Taylor has continued to control and maintain the building.

Then, a few weeks ago, Historic Waco Foundation’s new executive director, Don Davis, paid her a visit and, over dinner, discussed the possibility of letting his organization reopen and run the museum.

In an interview last week, Taylor said she’s willing to negotiate. Taylor has known Davis for years and said she’s “delighted” that he is in charge of Historic Waco, which operates several house museums and promotes local history education.

She said she would offer to lease the museum to the organization for $1 a year and allow it to set up an education office and offer tours.

“This offers the opportunity we’ve all been waiting for,” Taylor said. “It seems a design of providence. . . . We think it is very positive.”

Davis said a functioning, accessible local history museum is a goal of Historic Waco Foundation, and he hopes to work out a deal with Taylor.

“This would be my first option,” he said. “There’s enough there, enough put into it, that it would be foolish not to try to work this out first.”

But Davis said it won’t be easy. The building needs costly repairs that Historic Waco can’t afford on its current budget, and Taylor does not intend to foot the bill.

Davis said his organization might have to do a capital campaign, but that hasn’t been decided.

Differing vision

While Taylor is offering to let Davis’ group reopen the museum and operate it in its current form, Davis has a different vision. He would like to see the museum’s exhibits redeveloped and expanded to be more interactive and more reflective of Waco’s diversity.

And those changes would have to be negotiated with Taylor, Davis said.

“Mrs. Taylor has her own opinions about the way things should be done,” he said. “She says she’s willing to let us be in control, but I’ve got to have it in writing.”

Taylor said she welcomes further development of the exhibits, but she’s not willing to relinquish all control over the museum that she founded and funded.

“We will not be unreasonable about it,” she said. “But I don’t want some fool telling me the whole second floor should be torn out.”

The museum largely reflects Taylor’s interests, especially her love of early American history and the U.S. Constitution, a theme that takes up half the first floor. The exhibit includes George Washington’s silk vest, a Revolutionary musket and a “rising sun” chair from the Constitutional Convention.

Taylor said she finds it exasperating when people question how early American history relates to the museum’s mission of presenting the life and history of Waco. Without the Revolutionary War and the Constitution, Waco would not exist as we know it, she said.

“Kids don’t stop being born, and people don’t stop needing to know about the Constitution,” she said.

The museum also includes documents from early Texas history, a recreation of the paleolithic Horn Rock Shelter Site on the Brazos River, a recreation of a Waco Indian hut and a log cabin built by Calhoun McLennan, relative of county founder Neil McLennan.

Upstairs, an old classroom still fitted with desks pays tribute to Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller and other black Waco residents. Another room is devoted to the 1993 Branch Davidian disaster, with a detailed scale model of the Branch Davidian compound, right down to jeans on a clothesline and leader David Koresh’s Camaro in the driveway.

Cotton Palace

Dominating the upstairs is an exhibit on the Cotton Palace and its annual fair that drew tens of thousands during Waco’s cotton era.

Among the artifacts is a 1922 poster touting a Waco Cotton Palace concert by John Phillip Sousa and a Verdi opera in Italian.

Davis said the exhibits are impressive and well-done, and he doesn’t propose to remove the early American exhibit, but the collection as a whole is incomplete.

There’s little or no mention of the Waco tornado, the Chisholm Trail or Waco’s rich educational history, which includes Paul Quinn College and Texas Christian University, as well as Baylor University.

Davis said he envisions scaling back some of the existing exhibits and developing others with the help of a community advisory board and local academics.

He would also like to provide space for the Waco History Project, a volunteer group devoted to preserving and publicizing neglected parts of Waco’s history. The group has an online presence at www.wacohistoryproject.org.

Need for diversity

Mary Duty, the group’s leader, said Waco needs a museum that reflects its diversity, including the stories of immigrants from Mexico and Europe.

“I think the community ought to be invited to discuss what the museum ought to look like, and it should be an inclusive story,” she said. “We need to make sure all those voices are heard.”

Duty said she’s glad Taylor is considering ways to reopen the museum to a broader audience.

“We’re losing sight of who we are as a community,” she said. “A museum gives us the chance to tell the whole story of what Waco is, and set the record straight.”

Tours of the museum can be arranged for groups of 10 or more by calling 752-4744.