This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the public square in downtown Waco—the space around city hall—was the center of activity for the city and surrounding areas.
Wilford Naman explains how important the square was to local cotton farmers:
"Buyers representing many foreign concerns—English and Japanese—had their offices on the square. And they had men out on the square buying cotton. Of course, they were getting by telegraph the prices that were being paid in New Orleans—was the center of the cotton market—and New York also."
Naman describes how local National Guard members brought some pizzazz to Waco:
"I remember driving with my father and mother in a buggy on summer evenings when I was a boy and watching them on the square drill, and that was before and after the war with Spain in 1898."
Mary Sendón shares her memories of the Waco square of her youth:
"That was the parking lot for cowboys and farmers. And you could go down, buy your produce on the square from off the wagon. Now, many times my grandfather would go down and buy a whole load of watermelons, and he'd have the man drive him home. He'd—they'd pull up front of the house on this wagon, you know, was a flat wagon—flat-top wagon. And he'd bring a bunch of watermelons in. But that's how they got a lot of good produce: by trading on the square. But they said the cowboys would bring bedrolls and sleep in the wagons or put it under the wagon and sleep under the wagon."
Sendón remembers the predecessor of the current city hall building, which stood in the square for four decades, from 1888 to 1928:
"And old city hall was an old-fashioned building. Looked like one of our old-fashioned schools. You got lost—I went in there one time with my dad. I remember you wound all the way around trying to find—and that's where the police department was. And our policemen would be stationed on the square and everybody on a block, everywhere. And the policemen wore different outfits then. They wore kind of—it almost looked like a band uniform jacket, you know, kind of a military type of jacket. And they wore these hats that looked like—oh, what do they—what'd they wear in the jungles? You know, those type of hats? They had the funny-looking dome-shape hats."
Interviewer: "Like a pith helmet."
"Yes, yes. That's what it was. That's what it looked like."
The square featured several restaurants, as well as street food, as Sendón explains:
"But the men would have little carts that opened up like a box, you know, and inside they would have something to keep them warm. I don't know how they did it. But they had tamales, real tamales. They were good tamales. And they would have a stack of newspapers sitting by, and they would put your tamales in a piece of newspaper. And you would see coming—people coming down the street with newspaper with grease coming out of it. (laughter) My grandfather would go and buy those and bring them home, you know. Bring home hot tamales."
Public squares in most towns gradually began to lose their prominence in the twentieth century. In Waco, the tornado in 1953 certainly did not help matters and was the death knell for many of the structures around the square. The tornado abruptly changed downtown forever.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For full transcripts of the interviews featured in this segment, or for more information about the Institute for Oral History, visit baylor.edu/livingstories.
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