There’s more to see in Waco than the Magnolia Silos. Just off the beaten path are some hidden gems: old-school barbeque joints, dance halls built by Czech immigrants, and a general store that carries everything from pearl-button shirts to the licorice-flavored chewing gum introduced way back in 1884.
Waco’s cowboy culture traces its roots all the way back to the post-Civil War era when it was one of the stops on the Chisholm Trail, which enabled Texas ranchers to drive their cattle overland from ranches in Texas to railheads in Kansas for shipment to stockyards in the east.
Central Texas barbeque? You can thank the Czech and German immigrants who began arriving in Texas to improve their economic prospects in 1852 for that. Many of them were farmers who opened butcher shops where they smoked leftover meat to preserve it. Customers couldn’t get enough of it, and before long those butcher shops had become restaurants specializing in barbeque.
“I think I’ve written more about Waco than anyone alive,” says Robert Darden (’76), emeritus professor of Journalism, Public Relations, and New Media at Baylor University, who points out that while there may barbeque steak in Kansas and pork in Memphis, in Texas it has to be beef that’s been hand-rubbed and smoked for hours. His favorite barbeque joint is Jasper’s in East Waco, which has been around since the Dust Bowl. Bonnie and Clyde were customers.
“You’re likely to see men in cowboy hats,” Darden said, “not business suits.”
In the mood for a little boot scootin’ on a Saturday night? Texas is famous for its historic dance halls, and two of Darden’s favorites are in the town of West: SPJST Elk and SPJST Linden. SPJST, an acronym for Slovanska Podporujici Jednota Statu Texas (Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas) was chartered in Texas on July 1, 1897. Most people, says Darden, use a mnemonic device to remember the acronym: “Sweet Potatoes Just Outside of Town.” A lot of these fraternal lodges hosted dances where Czech and German bands that were touring the state played polkas and waltzes. Since then, thousands of people have done a little two-stepping on those old wooden floors.
If you’re willing to make the drive, the historic Sefcik Dance Hall in Temple—you might see a polka band or a country act—holds dances every Sunday, from 6 to 9 p.m. Before she died in June at age 91, owner Alice Sefcik could be coaxed onstage where she sang songs in Czech and accompanied herself on sax.
Texas has the largest Czech-American population in the country, and each year Czech celebrations and events are held in cities all over the state, from Houston to Temple to La Grange. Closer to home, the town of West celebrates the area’s Czech heritage on Labor Day each year with Westfest. There’s live music, arts and crafts, carnival rides, a polka mass, a Taroky tournament (card games played with tarot decks), and authentic Czech food like Kolaches (sweet pastries made with fruit jam and poppyseeds).
Synonymous with the state’s western culture, the cowboy hat officially became the state hat of Texas in 2015. Ranchers own at least two: a straw hat for everyday use and a dress hat made of felt. At Standard Hat Company in Waco, you can get both. The company has been in business since 1915, when Hungarian immigrant William Gross (he learned the hat-making trade in Budapest as a boy) opened a storefront at 622 Washington Avenue where he began crafting hand-made hats.
Over the years, Standard Hat Works has changed hands and locations a number of times. Waco native Cameron Morris bought the shop in 2013, and relocated to 1304 North New Road. Their forte is felt hats, which are customized with hat bands, sweat bands, and hat liners.
“If you find something you like in the shop, we can have it ready for you that day,” Morris said, “but if we don’t have the color or size you want, it’s a three- to six-month wait.”
Morris ticks off a list of celebrity clients: Miranda Lambert, John Schneider (Bo Duke on Dukes of Hazzard), country music group Midland, singer-songwriter Wade Bowen (he and Morris grew up together), American outlaw singer and songwriter Cody Jinks, and Johnny Lee, the country music singer whose 1980 single “Lookin’ for Love” became a crossover hit. Lately Morris has been working with singer-songwriter Lainey Wilson, who will plays a singer named “Abby” on Yellowstone.
When he wants to hear a little homegrown music from local artists, Morris heads over to The Backyard Bar Stage & Grill.
“They book a lot of musicians from Texas who play real country music, not pop, like Wade Bowen and Josh Ward, who was born and raised in East Texas,” he said. Morris is also looking forward to the Heart of Texas Fair & Rodeo (October 5–15). Darden thinks it’s “more cowboy than the State Fair and Rodeo in Dallas” with a wide spectrum of “true country artists” onstage each night.
When friends of his from New York City visit Waco, Darden likes to take them to Atwoods Ranch and Home to get “the real experience.” His favorite location (there are two now in the Waco area) is the one on the north side of town, between Waco and West. “If you need a new pearl-button shirt or a pair of cowboy boots, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for,” he said, “but they also have candies you remember as a kid.” If the names Pop Rocks, Charleston Chew, Black Jack Chewing Gum, Zagnut, or Sugar Daddy ring a bell, you’re in for a treat.
Want a glimpse into Waco’s past? Darden suggests paying a visit to the Dr Pepper Museum. While you can sit at the soda fountain and enjoy a cold Dr Pepper, which was invented in Waco, you can also see photographs taken from 1905 to 1940 by Fred Gildersleeve, who was Baylor University’s contract photographer for five decades.
“He took thousands of glass plate photographs that are on display there,” said Darden, “and they are extraordinary.”