R. T. Dennis and Co. helped furnish the homes of Central Texas for nearly seventy years. Known for its exceptional quality furnishings, R. T. Dennis thrived in downtown Waco and served as the premier home décor destination. Unfortunately, the R. T. Dennis building, as well as the company, met their end when an F5 tornado leveled the building in May 1953.
R. T. Dennis and Co. was born out of the dream of two brothers, Robert T. Dennis and James K. Dennis, in 1886. The two brothers first moved to Central Texas in 1874 and worked as rail-splitters in Hillsboro for a short time. Robert then tried his hand in the grocery and dry-goods businesses, but his passion existed elsewhere. Robert joined the furniture business, taking a job in 1875 with W. P. Martin and Bro., Furniture as a delivery wagon driver. He saw promotions to salesperson and bookkeeper in the coming years. After twelve years of learning the trade, Robert felt confident to step out on his own, and he started R. T. Dennis and Brother with James in Gatesville. In 1889, they decided to move their operations to Waco, as the city was growing rapidly and taking off as a market center. In 1892, the Dennis brothers rented a building on the corner of Fifth Street and Austin Avenue constructed by Richard Coke, which they later purchased in 1904, and the scene was set for the expansion of their business.
What began largely as a coffin and funeral service business soon exploded into a vibrant retail and wholesale enterprise for all types of furniture and carpets. In the first six months of operations in Waco, the company’s net worth skyrocketed from $8,000 to $50,000. R. T. Dennis and Co. also opened stores in Hillsboro (run by James Dennis), Bryan, and Temple. This sudden rise to success made Robert Dennis an important man in the Waco community, and he soon became the director of the Farmers and Merchants National Bank of Waco and eventually invested in a number of business ventures in town, including the ALICO building. He also kick-started Dennis Manufacturing, which produced some of the furniture for his store. Robert even used a bit of pageantry to advertise his business and attract attention, sometimes putting the costumes from the local opera in his shop windows and always having an impressive display at the Texas Cotton Palace each year. By 1915, the Dennis brothers were able to buy out rival furniture store Stratton Furniture and further expand their reach in the Waco economy. Following World War I, R. T. Dennis and Co. purchased the Tom Padgitt Company building that abutted the store to use as a warehouse, making the entire block of Fifth Street from Austin Avenue to Franklin Avenue under R. T. Dennis’s ownership.
The 1920s brought further growth for the company but also the loss of its founder. In 1920, Dennis decided to incorporate for an impressive sum of $500,000, and the company became R. T. Dennis and Co., Inc. The same year, Dennis sold Dennis Manufacturing and dedicated the business entirely to retail and wholesale furniture. By 1924 the company had started a mattress factory and employed four traveling salesmen covering three states: Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. These men traveled with photographs and catalogs and allowed people to place orders for R. T. Dennis furniture from afar. This required the company to keep a large stock on hand, and as a result it purchased real estate around Waco to use as warehouses. One such purchase came in 1926 when R. T. Dennis bought Waco Dry Goods on Sixth Street and Jackson Avenue. The Hilton then tapped R. T. Dennis to furnish its new hotel in downtown Waco in 1928 (which later became the Roosevelt Hotel). This turned out to be Dennis’s last major business deal, as he died in June of 1928 of a prolonged illness. Treasurer Willard Robert Wigley, whose father, W. J. Wigley, had helped found R. T. Dennis and Co. and R. T. Dennis and Wigley Co. (Dallas), took over as president upon Dennis’s death and remained in that position until the dissolution of the company.
R. T. Dennis and Co. went on to weather the Depression of the 1930s quite well, marketing their products as necessary and practical. Robert Dennis’s nephew-in-law, Rush H. Berry, enjoyed a promotion in the mid-1930s from secretary to vice president, a position he held until his death. In the 1940s his own son, Labon E. Berry, filled the secretary position and become general manager, with business continuing steadily throughout World War II. In 1950 the company was named to the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers Guild, a guild reserved for only the highest-quality furniture companies.
Despite all its success, the end of R. T. Dennis and Co. came swiftly and suddenly. On May 11, 1953, a massive Category 5 tornado ripped through downtown Waco. The site of the R. T. Dennis building was classified as the “impact area,” receiving the full force of the twister. Both the R. T. Dennis and Tom Padgitt buildings were reduced to rubble. Of the thirty-one employees in the building, twenty-two were killed. Some employees sought shelter in the basement, only for the basement to flood when the debris punctured a water pipe. Rescue volunteers worked for three days straight trying to clear the rubble and recover the bodies of those inside.
Included in the deceased were Rush H. Berry, vice president and treasurer, and Labon E. Berry, secretary and general manager. President Willard Wigley stood as the only surviving executive of the company, and he was soon hospitalized in Dallas for leukemia. With all its leadership deceased or incapacitated, the R. T. Dennis Board of Directors decided to close the company for good and to liquidate the remaining stock in Hillsboro, Temple, and Bryan. In a somber address, the granddaughter of R. T. Dennis and chairwoman of the board, Mrs. William Sloane, broke the news to the public in October 1953 that R. T. Dennis and Co., Inc., would not reopen. The historical marker of the tornado is located near the former R. T. Dennis building location.
Though the memory of R. T. Dennis and Co. will forever be linked to the 1953 tornado, the company was a source of light and prosperity in Waco for decades through its dedication to the community and quality service.