Texas History, Texas Treasures

By Susan Bean Aycock

The McLennan County Historical Commission keeps history alive in Waco

There’s a dedicated group of people working hard behind the scenes to make sure that McLennan County history isn’t just written on the pages of a dusty ledger, but keeps alive the stories of people and events who have made this such a unique place.

Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock sat down with several members of the McLennan County Historical Commission recently to talk about the fabric of community and the role of historic small businesses; the importance of telling the full stories of real people in their best and worst moments; and the social responsibility to remember and honor the past.

You may not know them by name, but the members of the McLennan County Historical Commission (MCHC), which falls under the umbrella of the Texas Historical Commission (THC), are your pocket resources for learning about our area’s rich history. They’re a group of community leaders and members, business owners, researchers and librarians — who may also be your next-door neighbors — with one thing in common: a passion to keep history real and relevant in McLennan County.

The THC is the state’s agency for historic preservation — saving the places that tell the real stories of Texas through designated architectural, archeological and cultural landmarks. The Texas State Legislature established the agency in 1953 as the Texas State Historical Survey Committee to identify important historic sites across the state, but changed to its current name in 1973 with expanded protective powers, leadership roles and broader educational responsibilities.
The state commission preserves and leverages Texas history for the social and economic benefit of its citizens, empowering local, state and national partners to protect the resources that keep Texas history alive. It aims to teach communities how to use historic assets to create economic opportunities and a sense of place among its diverse populations.

Lest all that sound too buttoned up, MCHC Executive Committee Chair Clint Lynch put the local commission’s task into layman’s terms.

“Our job is to promote history,” Lynch said. “We’re strong believers that we have to know where we come from to know where we’re going. Really, we’re in the promotions business: here to educate the community as best we can on our local history,” he said. “We want the Historical Commission to be a resource — that’s a tremendous goal for us. When someone asks questions about the community’s history, I can talk to our librarian members Sylvia Hernandez or Sean Sutcliff. So many of our members are great researchers; we may not know every aspect of local history, but we can get you in touch with the institution or person who can answer your questions.” Lynch, whose day job is general manager of Oakwood Cemetery, was a member of the Taylor County (Abilene) Historical Commission for several years and when he returned to his hometown of Waco, wanted to get involved with the area’s history.

Historical Markers and More

“The [MCHC] wants to help promote and keep alive the history of the county,” said commission member Sylvia Hernandez, who serves as Certified Archivist of the Texas Collection at Baylor University. “We work with the state on historical markers, reviewing information to send to the state, and administer the Texas Treasure Business Awards. Other projects have to do with Waco and McLennan County; one of those is working to get William Decker Johnson Hall on the old Paul Quinn campus on the national register. As part of the commission, we learn things that most people aren’t aware of, especially on reviewing landmarks and historical markers and bringing them to light. We tell the history of the county, making sure that we know the entire history — the good and the bad,” said Hernandez.

There are more than 300 historic markers in McLennan County that include recognizing:

• The Bosque River Crossing of the 1841 Texas Santa Fe Expedition, documenting the company sent by Republic of Texas president Mirabeau B. Lamar to establish trade and expand Texas legal boundaries. After reaching New Mexico, the travelers were captured by Mexican troops and marched to prison in Mexico City. (China Spring)

• Texas Rangers and the Fence Cutters, dedicated to the Texas Rangers who were dispatched by the Texas governor in 1888 to enforce a new law prohibiting cutting farmers’ barbed-wire fences protecting their properties and crops. Cattle ranchers resented the fences as impediments to their longtime tradition of free grazing, and cattle losses in the drouths of the 1880s provoked such widespread fence-cutting that the Texas government made it illegal in 1884. (Entrance of the Texas Rangers Museum in Waco)

• The 1916 lynching of 17-year-old Black farmhand Jesse Washington, with the marker dedicated in February 2023 and reading in part: “The history of McLennan County, like that of Texas and the nation, clouded by racial tensions, is sometimes manifested in violence. From 1860 through 1922, 43 lynchings were documented here.” (Waco City Hall)

“Serving on the commission has really helped me to see more of the history around me that I had never had the opportunity to experience,” said Lynch. “For instance, some of the churches in our area are more than 100 years old, with congregations that are often much older than the buildings in which they meet. Working with some of these churches for historical markers has really opened my eyes to the true foundations of McLennan County.”

Carrying out the commission’s goal to encourage historical education, Hernandez chairs the Heart of Texas Regional History Fair, hosted by Baylor University, a competitive scholastic event for fifth graders through high schoolers to research and write on a historical theme; last year’s was “Turning Points in History.” Said Hernandez, “It’s critical that students learn the importance of primary source materials, to tell history in a way that’s accurate. Many of them are college-bound, and [through this competition] they learn research skills that leverage into further learning.”

Texas Treasure Businesses

So much of community history derives from the small businesses that have served as the lifeblood of the local economy, as well as a communal gathering spot long before there were internet and cell phones to connect people. To formally recognize those historic and longtime businesses, the Community Heritage Division of the Texas Historical Commission in 2005 passed Senate Bill 920, authored by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio and sponsored by Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson of Waco, to establish the Texas Treasures Business Awards Program. The program pays tribute to the state’s well-established businesses and their exceptional historical contributions to communities across Texas. Since the program’s initiation, more than 500 businesses across the state have been honored for their historic significance, from well-known establishments like H.E.B. to small-town bakeries, florists, building material companies, barbershops and more.

To qualify, businesses must have been in continuous operation for 50 or more years; operate for-profit; be an independent business; and have continuously offered the same or similar services over its lifetime. Businesses that have changed ownership or location may still qualify for the award, and there is a special recognition for family-owned businesses.

McLennan County Historical Commission member Shirley Woodlock, who has chaired the Texas Treasure Business Award Committee for the past three years, researches the businesses who apply for documented proof of their longevity and other qualifications.

“Proof may include copies of information such as handwritten ledgers, city directory listings, census and tax records, newspaper articles and advertisements,” said Woodlock, a retired hairdresser and business owner who is an active historian and genealogist, avid researcher and member of several lineage organizations. “The businesses applying for the award answer questions, such as how the business got its name or an interesting tidbit about the business itself, the building in which it is located or possibly a famous customer it may have served,” she said. “That proof along with a narrative of the history and the application is then submitted to the Texas Historical Commission.”

“On the county level, we submit documented information on businesses within the county whom we feel qualifies for a Texas Treasure Business Award designation. In other words, we do the legwork, and the State is the one who approves or rejects what we submit. Anyone can fill out an application and submit it, even the business itself,” Woodlock explained.

“Each of these businesses is part of the fabric of our communities,” said Lynch. “We patronize these businesses sometimes without even knowing how long they’ve served the community, or how their histories are intertwined with other businesses or our own personal histories. This recognition hopefully will help elevate these businesses within the community.”

At this year’s awards ceremony in May, 17 businesses not previously recognized were designated Texas Treasures.

“The program was resurrected after a period of not having it, when the previous committee chair passed away suddenly and the program kind of passed away with her,” said Lynch. “So this year, we recognized businesses who have not been recognized before, as well as those who hadn’t had a recognition ceremony in the interim. Another reason we had the reception is that we wanted to put ourselves out there, to let people know to look for businesses to recognize. We really want to push the work of the Historical Commission to the forefront.”

Said Texas Treasure Business Program Chair Woodlock, “I believe that the way a business presents itself is one way that assures it cares. Cleanliness and friendliness are oftentimes found more in a family-owned business than one which only wants a person’s money. They’re willing to wait on you when you come in, see that you are comfortable and thank you when you leave. I think the public appreciates knowing when a business is of a historical nature. It means they’re dedicated to the community, to their own lives and family, and they plan on being around for a while.”

One of the business award recipients this year was Kindler’s Gem Jewelers, established in 1972 and located in Texas Central Marketplace for the past four years, where it moved from 38 previous years on Bosque Boulevard. Owner Gerda McGregor bought the store from owner Eddie Kindler and has run it for 27 years, now alongside daughters Jan Skopik and Tammi Work.

“We are honored and delighted to receive a Texas Treasure Business Award and appreciate the Texas Historical Commission recognizing the rich legacy of distinguished entrepreneurs serving Texas for five decades,” McGregor said, adding that their clientele now extends to four generations of some of the same families.

“We are so grateful to Central Texas for supporting our journey,” said McGregor. “We’re blessed to count so many as our friends and patrons, and cherish our personal relationships that have grown through the years. We’re also blessed with a wonderful, talented and thoughtful team which takes great pride to provide excellent service. They’re a very special group of talented ladies committed to assisting our patrons to select the next perfect sparkle to become a beloved heirloom.”

“It’s the service behind the ownership [of the business] that’s important,” said Hernandez. “These businesses are generational hubs that people return to year after year; they’re natural community gathering spots. It’s important to have spaces in the community where we can not only do business but enjoy the company around us. People say, ‘They treated me well, so I’ll continue to patronize their business.’ Generations of people grew up on both sides of the counter, both business owners and clients. Expanding the business family brings that customer loyalty. This award is saying, ‘Your business is important and we want to recognize the service you’ve given to the community.’”

“History really means ‘his story,’ or on a broader basis, ‘his or her story,’” said Woodlock. “The object of our commission is to promote and tell those stories within the community. The Texas Treasure Business Awards are a way of saying ‘thank you’ to those longtime businesses serving our community.”

Texas Treasure Business Award Recipients

The following businesses were recognized at a ceremony held in May, awarded by the current committee of the McLennan County Historical Commission and covering 2021 to 2023.

Bellmead Funeral Home est. 1969
Bellmead Radiator Shop, Inc. est. 1963
Bird-Kultgen Ford est. 1936
Casa de Castillo est. 1921
Circle Hardware and Lumber est. 1948
Darden Building Materialses t. 1917
El Conquistador Restaurant est. 1969
Furniture Center est. 1960
James’ Barber Shop est. 1930
Kim’s Diner est. 1956
Kindler’s Gem Jewelers est. 1972
La Fiesta est. 1963
Lone Star Tavern & Steakhouse est. 1953
Mazanec Construction Company, Inc. est. 1969
Poppa Rollo’s Pizza Restaurant est. 1969
Sykora Family Ford, Inc. est. 1952
Trujillo’s Comedor y Cantina Restaurant est. 1978