When Stephen F. Austin led the first Anglo-American settlers into Texas including areas along the Brazos River, they brought with them their strong agricultural tradition based on cotton-growing. From the period of annexation until well into the first few decades of the twentieth century, King Cotton retained its sovereignty over the agricultural landscape of the Lone Star State. In an effort to recognize the importance of this cash crop to its livelihood, Waco stylized itself as the Cotton Capital of the South, and its leading citizens organized an exhibition intended to celebrate the end of the growing season and cotton’s central role in the state’s economy.
The first exposition of the Texas Cotton Palace was held in November of 1894. The activities lasted a month, and it seemed that the Cotton Palace would become a permanent yearly fixture in Waco’s social calendar. Unfortunately, tragedy soon struck. In January of 1895, just a few months after the first celebration, a terrible fire damaged the Cotton Palace. The exhibition hall at Padgitt Park burned down, and the rest of the grounds were left badly damaged. The Texas Cotton Palace would not see further festivities for fifteen years.
The Cotton Palace reopened in 1910. The 1910 exposition was housed on a triangular-shaped twelve-acre lot surrounded by Clay Avenue, Dutton Avenue, and South Sixteenth Street. The Cotton Palace’s facilities were designed to be both eye-catching and practical. The main building had a central dome done in a striking palatial style, and the coliseum was capable of seating ten thousand people. The grounds featured automobile, poultry, floral, and machinery buildings with diverse exhibits. These permanent buildings were augmented by a racetrack, barns, and carnival grounds known as the War Path that included a Ferris wheel and a wooden roller coaster.
Cotton Palace organizers desired to provide entertainment that would appeal to people of varied age groups and backgrounds. Activities at the two-week-long exposition at the Cotton Palace included better baby contests, horse and automobile races, as well as canning, baking, and needlework competitions. Among the exhibits were farm products and manufactured goods from across Texas and neighboring states. In order to draw in more crowds, forty acres of park space and an athletic field with an eighteen thousand seat capacity were added to the original grounds. Perhaps the major events of the exposition were the coronation of the Cotton Palace Queen at the Cotton Palace Ball, a lavish gala attended by dignitaries and debutantes alike.
The Cotton Palace had a role on the home front during World War I, devoting several buildings to the war effort. For instance, one building was used to display a captured German biplane, along with other items of weaponry and equipment such as artillery pieces and shells. A record number of 547,242 people attended the exposition in 1918, although this record was likely due more to the patronage of personnel from Camp MacArthur than the appeal of war-themed attractions.
Twenty years after the reopening of the Texas Cotton Palace, the exposition came to an end for good in 1930 upon the decline of the cotton market and the economic crisis brought on by the Great Depression. In the early 1970s, however, the Waco Cotton Palace Pageant was created to keep the tradition alive.
The Texas Cotton Palace was very much one of the major landmarks and attractions for not only Waco but also for the Lone Star State. This two-week-long exposition provided a memorable experience for pleasure seekers and the subjects of King Cotton alike.