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Cotton Palace

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The State Fair is a Texas institution, but during the first three decades of the 20th century, millions of people headed to the big doings in Waco each fall, not Dallas.

Now practically forgotten, the Cotton Palace rivaled the State Fair and showcased Waco for the world up until 1930.

The wife of a Waco lawyer-a later history identifies here only as Mrs. Joe Taylor-may have been the first person to articulate the idea of an event highlighting the cotton industry.

"Why not a Cotton Place at Waco, the Queen City of the Brazos?" she asked in a Waco newspaper on Jan. 23, 1890.

Mrs. Taylor and others had heard of a successful annual fair in Nebraska called the Corn Palace and thought the concept would work in Texas. Nebraska had plenty of corn, and Texas, especially Waco, had plenty of cotton. In fact, the fast-growing McLennan County city on the Brazos River (it nearly doubled in population from 1880 to 1890) was the largest inland cotton market in Texas and one of the largest in the South. Some 120,000 bales of cotton were sold in the city in 1893.
Waco, TX - Cotton Yard dated 1908

Waco, Texas Cotton Yard with bales of cotton
dated 1908
Courtesy Will Beauchamp Collection

It took the Cotton Palace idea only slightly longer to germinate than a good cotton crop. With an organizational structure in place by early 1894, plans were drawn for a palatial exhibition hall in Waco's Padgitt Park. The all-frame building would be 400 feet long and 300 feet across, with eight flagstaff-topped square towers at its corners surrounding a taller central dome. Waco businessmen raised $250,000 to pay for its construction.

The fair opened November 8 that year and ran until December 6. Gov. James Stephen Hogg came up from Austin for the inaugural ceremonies.

"Crowds lined the streets and Waco's first great undertaking, bidding for national prominence, started off with a whirr, hurrah and every accompaniment of a great jubilee," the Austin Statesman reported.

As hoped for by Waco civic leaders, the whole nation took note of the Cotton Palace.

"The mammoth Texas cotton palace was recently thrown open to the public…," the Wichita, KS Beacon noted, "and cotton now reigns as king in the Lone Star State. He is rather a cheap king just now and is doing business on a 5 cent [per pound] basis, but nevertheless thousands of his subjects are flocking to Waco daily to see him."

Even the highly opinionated journalist-orator William Cowper Brann liked the Cotton Palace. Brann, who later moved to Waco and gained national recognition with his often acerbic monthly "Brann's Iconoclast," told the Galveston News he wished the palace could be placed on wheels and displayed across the nation, especially New England.

"I supposed it was simply to be an exhibit of cotton and cotton products, but I find that it is to be an exposition on a colossal scale," he said. "The decorations alone are worth crossing the state to see. I found nothing so unique at the [1893 Chicago] world's fair."

The 1894 fair might have been the beginning of a long run except for what happened on Jan. 19, 1895: The ornate structure, a model of excessive Victorian architecture, caught fire and burned to the ground as "ten thousand Wacoans watched and wept."

Despite the success of the first exposition, it took another 15 years for the Cotton Palace to bloom again. This time, with an even fancier and much larger new palace and numerous other buildings covering a 12-acre site in Padgitt Park, the fair took root.
Texas Cotton Palace Exposition, Waco, Texas, 1912
"Texas Cotton Palace Exposition, Waco, Texas, November 2-17, 1912"
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/
Beginning in 1910, the fair ran every fall for the next 21 years, becoming one of the most successful such events in the nation. Attendance grew with the extent of events. In 1912, former Waco mayor Robert Ross, an old Indian fighter and Civil War veteran, brought a delegation of Huaco Indians to the fair from Oklahoma. The Indians set up their tepees on the fair grounds and performed dances on a regular schedule each day.

During World War I, with 10,000 soldiers at Waco's Camp MacArthur, the military offered sham battles and warplane flyovers. All time record one-day attendance came on Nov. 3, 1923, when 117,208 visited the fair.
Waco, TX - 2018 Camp MacArthur mess line
Camp MacArthur, Waco Texas 1918
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

The coronation of the Cotton King and Queen was the city's premier social event.

The annual Cotton Palace festivities went on until 1930, when the Depression wilted the cotton market and most other aspects of the nation's economy. The fair closed on Oct. 19 that year for the final time. An estimated 8 million people had visited the exposition during its 21-year existence.

World War II revitalized the state and nation's economy-Waco became the largest producer of military tents during the conflict-but the city's importance as a cotton center declined again after the war and the Cotton Palace was history. The only physical reminder of the fair in Waco is a monument in Cameron Park made from the cornerstone of the old palace. But the Cotton Palace lives on in memory with the annual Cotton Palace Pageant, which began in 1970.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 2, 2018

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