In April 1894, Waco was described by E.G. Senter, Managing Editor of the Fort Worth Gazette: "Waco has finally waked up. It has entered the Texas hurdle, not for second or third place but for first money and it is as confident of winning as a young Kentucky thoroughbred." This praise was earned primarily as a result of the economic boom that cotton brought.
Waco was an agricultural community long before the white settlers of McLennan County arrived, as the Waco Indians farmed a handful of different crops in the area, but the "white gold" really brought a new meaning to success for Waco. Cotton was farmed pretty immediately after white settlers moved to the area, although they were initially hesitant of the black, alluvial soil. Once farmers realized its nutrient-dense properties, they sought to implement the Southern plantation economy in Waco. That economic style didn't flourish as well here, due to the restrictions put on the number of slaves per farm prior to the Civil War, and there was no easy way to transport cotton once it was harvested. During the Civil War, production slowed, too, because most Wacoans left to fight for secession.
The post-Civil War era really brought the industrialization of Waco. With the coming of the railroad and the construction of the Suspension Bridge, people and goods were moving much more quickly than they had before. Cotton created a hierarchy among workers, since there was only a certain amount of land that was able to be farmed, and owners of that land turned to sharecropping to succeed. The conditions of workers were probably still very poor, though, leaving the bottom of the hierarchy a very undesirable place. Overall, by 1894 Waco really lived up to the standard Senter described.
At the same time, annual fairs were on the rise, so the founders of The Cotton Palace looked to precedents like the "Corn Palace" in Omaha, Nebraska. Early in 1894, a board of directors was elected, and money was raised for the first annual Cotton Palace. The first Cotton Palace Exposition opened on November 8, 1894 and ran for about a month, and thousands of visitors attended. There were elaborate cotton decorations, a frieze inside the wall of the Coliseum depicting chariot races from Ben Hur, an eagle with a twenty-foot wing span crafted from red and yellow corn, and the stage curtain painted by a local artist depicting plantation life in the South. The Exposition featured demonstrations, fortune tellers, rides, and refreshments, and the first King and Queen of Cotton were crowned. Overall, it was considered a tremendous success. The plan was for the event to run annually, but in January 1895, the Cotton Palace building caught fire.
Several years passed, and it wasn't until 1910 that the Cotton Palace Association purchased the plot of land behind Padgitt Park, giving the fair grounds about twelve acres. The Cotton Palace Exhibition of 1910 opened on November 5 and ran until November 20. The exhibition featured a parade, addresses from the President of the Cotton Palace, Mr. Albert T. Clifton and keynote speaker, Senator Joseph Weldon Bailey, as well as "the Indian Ball," considered a prime social event, a flower carnival, and various exhibits. 98,000 people attended the Cotton Palace Exhibition of 1910, and it gave momentum for 20 years of Cotton Palace Exhibitions.
Waco was nicknamed King Cotton for its fortuitous cotton, and the crop really did rule a lot of life in Waco. Bankers gave loans against cotton crops, socialites attended events celebrating cotton, and everyone from plantation owners to enslaved workers survived based on cotton. In 1930, cotton prices fell as a result of the Depression, and the Cotton Palace Exhibition no longer took place every year, but a lot of what we prize as Waco's history today revolves around the "white gold" that put it on the map.
Sources: Barnes, Lavona Jenkins. The Texas Cotton Palace: Waco, Texas, Heritage Society of Waco, 1964.; Ames, Eric S,. Images of America: Waco, Arcadia Publishing, 2009.; Waco Tribune-Herald; Waco History