Cotton Palace

Original Airdates: April 26, 27, 29 (2011)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

In the late 1800s, cotton was the driving force in Waco's economy, and the city wanted to implement a fall festival to celebrate the white substance. With a newly built exposition hall, Waco held its first Cotton Palace in 1894, and it was a great success. The building burned shortly after the month-long event but was rebuilt and opened again in 1910, and for two decades the Cotton Palace drew people from all over the state with sights and sounds galore.

Helen Geltemeyer, who grew up in the Bell's Hill area, describes the festival in the 1920s:

"And they had horse races at the Cotton Palace. Then right in the middle was the football field. Then they had all these other barns, like [Helmut] Quiram. Mr. Quiram there on Burnett had all these horses for you to go ride them. They had motorcycle races there; just everything they could try to do. Mr. [Benjamin W.] Cheaves, C-h-e-a-v-e-s, was the manager of the Cotton Palace. The main thing is—where we had fun—is going in the display of all the women putting their clothes and their canning in the woman's building. It was wonderful and—because they had these big, glassed-in things where you couldn't touch it."

She recalls how the festival involved local schoolchildren:

"Because every little school would be in the Cotton Palace. At the end, we'd have all these little dances up in that coliseum. See, that coliseum wasn't little; it was big. And that—the stage part—they left the stage there for years and then put the swimming pool there. But it was such a big thing. And I remember being in little dances, our school represented."

Geltemeyer describes one year she and her sister attended:

I'll never forget: some men came—Masonic men came to our house. They were visiting. And my sister and I were begging Mama to give us some money so we could go to the Cotton Palace. And these men gave us a quarter apiece, I think it was. But when we got down there at Fifteenth and Ross where—that was one of the gates close to our house—instead of on Flint and Cleveland, it was Ross. We would go through this gate to go to school and everything else. They took my quarter—our quarters to get in, and then we didn't even have any money to ride anything. We were so defeated because we didn't have enough money. (laughter)"

Martha Emmons came to Waco in 1914 to attend Baylor and recalls her experiences at the Cotton Palace in a 1978 interview:

"We used to come to ballgames and to other things out there, and I remember one time I was with a group that sang. Now laugh that off all you want to, but just the same I was. The streetcars would stack up at that end of the line. And the midway was the big show, you know, where you'd have, oh, the rides and all that sort of thing. And then the exhibits were in the exhibit hall. And the queen's ball was a big feature and beautiful, magnificent gowns."

The Cotton Palace held its last festival in 1930 because of the depression that was ravaging the country. But Waco residents breathed new life into the tradition in 1970, and the Cotton Palace continues today as a yearly stage production that tells the history of Waco.

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