A couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend and I were visiting my home state, Texas, from New York, where we both live now. I wanted to show him my old stomping grounds — I went to Baylor University, in Waco, for college; since he'd grown up in Denver, he'd never been there before. Back then, people didn't think much of Waco, but I loved it, because it epitomized a college town to me — because it was so small and the college such a big part, we ran around like we owned the place. While people may think I spent my formative years in "boring," small-town Texas, I realize now that we were lucky to have it all to ourselves.
Lucky, because today, Waco is the home base of a little HGTV show you might have heard of: Fixer Upper. The charming home renovation showaired its first episode in 2013, a year after I graduated, so I was getting ready to leave Waco, Chip and Joanna were setting up to slowly take over the town. As their TV show gained in popularity, they transformed two massive grain silos in downtown Waco into the Magnolia Market and Silos, which can be best described as a Fixer Upper theme park, complete with the now iconic silos, a design store and gift shop, Joanna Gaines' bakery, and a huge lawn for children (and dads who get dragged along) to hang out and play games. People are obsessed. I watch the show, too, though it's from more of a personal standpoint (I used to live there!) as opposed to someone who's looking for a great farmhouse sink (I highly doubt one would fit in my NYC kitchen).
So when I visited recently, I wanted to see old haunts, drive down familiar roads, eat at all my favorite places, and toss tortillas into the Brazos River (a bizarre Waco tradition). I was in for a whole different experience.
The first place we stopped was Schmaltz's Sandwich Shop, one of my favorite places to go back in college. It was a tiny hole in the wall with the best buttery, garlicky bread. I was pleased to see that it felt the same; I even recognized some of the people working behind the counter. I ordered my blue plate special and found a seat at one of the plastic picnic chairs scattered throughout the sunny room. Then things got weird. A woman and a man walked through the door, one wearing a fanny pack and the other toting a huge camera. They were holding Waco, Texas brochures. A few minutes after they arrived, a group of women filed in holding brown bags emblazoned with "Magnolia" — the name of Chip and Joanna's business — and gazed curiously at the Schmaltz's letter board. It was a surreal moment for someone who once lived in this sleepy own. These were Waco, Texas tourists.
In college, it was hard to get even my friends to visit me. When I told people that I went to school in a little town called Waco, Texas, their response was almost always, "Didn't that cult thing happen there?" The answer is, yes — before Waco was famous for Fixer Upper, it was known for being the site of the Mount Carmel Center, home to a group of people who had separated from the Seventh-day Adventist Church and called themselves Branch Davidians. In 1993, a 51-day siege led by the FBI ended in a massive fire, potentially started from the inside, which burned the place to the ground and killed 76 men, women, and children. So that was our reputation. And once the media interest in Mount Carmel died down, people couldn't imagine a more boring place to be — to them, Waco was the small bible belt town you passed through to get to big cities like Dallas and Austin, with nothing to do and nothing to see. But I knew that the charm of Waco was hidden down the back roads, in college bars and antique stores, and in the wide open spaces that nobody else seemed to care about.
Now, it seems people were choosing to vacation in Waco. When I tell people where I went to school, their eyes light up as they realize it's the city that the Chip and Joanna Gaines are transforming into a Texas paradise, one Pinterest-perfect farmhouse at a time. Waco went from just another town in Texas to a shiplap-lined, open floor plan-filled utopia in just a few short years. I hadn't been oblivious to this; I'd been watching Fixer Upper, but that afternoon in modern Waco was still a strange experience.
Since when did my humble college town become an mable hotspot and, frankly, somewhat of a theme park? Sure, I knew about people who would go hang out around the silos during college, but I didn't really know what they were there before Chip and Joanna got their hands on them. There are information kiosks scattered throughout the city, even tour buses! There's a massive farmers market, new and unique bars and restaurants in the downtown area, and a bevy of bed and breakfasts and boutiques for those visiting. According to the Waco Tribune-Herald, Waco visits tripled from 6600,000 in 2015 to 1.9 million in 2016, and hotel revenues grew by 19% — more than any other city in Texas. A huge part of that is thanks to Magnolia Market at the Silos, Chip and Joanna's city within a city. And while it's weird to see your former town become a bit of a spectacle, it's impressive to see a place you love become somewhere everyone loves. I can feel a sense of pride in that, even if I no longer live there. A part of me feels like laughing and saying, "I told you Waco was cool, I told you!"
But these people who visit Waco for Magnolia Market (and I concede — I did take a pilgrimage to the holy silos of Magnolia and got a shirt that said #shiplap) won't know the Waco that I knew. There is so much to Waco that Fixer Upper fans will never see. They'll get the perfect shot in front of the Magnolia sign (I know I did), but they probably won't cliff dive off the rocks at Lake Whitney or go eye to eye with the giraffes at Cameron Park Zoo like I did. They probably won't sit on the floor and eat Vietnamese food at Clay Pot or drive just out of town to wander through vintage clothes at Style Station and pick up kolaches in West, Texas, Waco's small town neighbor. I'm curious to see if what I loved will stay a secret.
I would have never thought that Waco would ever be glorified the way it is today. It was always just…Waco. And now that people are literally moving across the country to live there, I'm not sure how I feel — though it is fun to see people get a glimpse of the Waco that I, and probably Chip and Joanna, always saw. And I do know that the pride Chip and Joanna have for the town is a clear component of their show. In fact, their insistence on using local artisans seems to be part of the reason they've had such a hand in transforming a whole city. At the end of the day, they love Waco as much as I do — for the pre-Magnolia Market reasons — and they, like I, seem happy to see that little town thrive. Underneath all the shiplap, I believe they know as much as I know what really makes it special.
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