Waco’s rapid development established it as one of the most significant urban centers of the South by the late nineteenth century. Home to one of the longest-spanning suspension bridges in the country, the once small frontier town owed a great portion of its success to the cotton industry. The strong agricultural tradition established by Stephen F. Austin and Waco’s earliest settlers in the mid-nineteenth century flourished into an international trade system. Farmers grew, ginned, and shipped this “white gold” not only throughout Texas, but also to Europe, South America, and India. Waco reigned in the South as the “King of Cotton” until the onset of the Great Depression.
By 1900, cottonseed was second only to lumber as the most important cash crop in Texas. Mills sprang up all over the state as Texas established itself as the leading processor of cottonseed in the nation, and one of the largest suppliers of cooking oil, vegetable shortening, margarine, and salad oil—byproducts of cottonseed oil.
On January 29, 1910, J. T. Davis established Brazos Valley Cotton Oil, Inc., in Waco. The main operations of the company took place at a mill located on the block between Webster Avenue and Jackson Avenue in the heart of Waco’s business district.
From its onset, the locally owned mill contributed enormously to the economic wealth of the city by purchasing thousands of tons of cottonseed annually from farmers, and employing up to seventy-five men. The railway ran adjacent to the mill, bringing in shipments of cotton from local gins in order to be processed. Workers then extracted oil from the cottonseed to be used for both culinary and industrial purposes. After the mill’s completely modernized machinery processed the seed, the oil was shipped all over the world. In order to prevent unnecessary waste, the mill sold unused meal as cattle feed.
Davis grew the company quickly, and by 1924 had already acquired a second company, the Valley Mills Cotton Oil Company. Though the Great Depression marked the decline of Waco’s cotton industry, business at the cotton oil mill continued for many years. The firm faced several setbacks in the mid-twentieth century, such as the fire which erupted in the mill in 1943, destroying the hull house and mixed feed plant. Yet operations continued, and even flourished. By 1950, workers completed construction on the two 120-foot-tall silos which today are noted as some of Waco’s most notable landmarks.
The latter half of the century saw a turn in the cotton mill’s fortunes. A serious drought followed by widespread Central Texas flooding in 1957 led to sporadic production, and in September the Small Business Administration granted the Brazos Valley Cotton Oil Company a disaster loan. However, the firm was unable to recover, and in July of 1958, stockholders sold the company to David C. Blintliff Interests of Houston. In the mid-1960s, ownership of the plant changed hands again, and the mill served as a storage facility for JPM Feeds. The facility sat vacant in the 1990s, although the Murphys, owners of JPM Feeds, retained ownership of the property.
In 2014, well-known television personalities and Wacoans Chip and Joanna Gaines purchased the mill from Gary Murphy with a vision to restore and repurpose the historic site. After receiving approval from the city, the pair began construction work on Magnolia Market, a $1.4 million project which was completed in October of 2015. Though the festival marketplace offers modern additions such as a retail showroom, a monthly antique and craft market, and a food truck court, the Gaineses are working to retain the historic integrity of the site through efforts such as the preservation of the original silos.
For nearly half a century, the mill bolstered Waco’s economy through its support of local farmers, provision of jobs, and international commerce. Today, the adaptive reuse and preservation efforts of the Gaineses ensure that the mill will retain this role at the heart of the city’s economic development for many years to come.