Have you ever seen the Mailander House in Waco? Or the Gorman House? Surely, you’ve seen the Magnolia House. Each was renovated by Chip and Joanna Gaines on the HGTV show Fixer Upper.
The Mailander house in Waco, renovated in Season 1, is beautiful and highly regarded, I am told by everyone. Before going to Waco, I told all my friends in Dallas who are Fixer Upper fans I was staying in the Mailander House. And each person's reaction was the same: “Can I come?”
Now that I've been there, I know what to tell them: “Go take a picture of that Highland Park house with the elephant statue in the front yard. It’s better.”
The Mailander House has three bedrooms, 1.5 baths and doors that have a hard time shutting. In fact, the bathroom door in my bedroom didn’t close at all.
The lavatory was the size of an airplane bathroom. I couldn't change clothes there or even move around. There was barely any room for your feet while squatting on the toilet.
The home has been renovated by reality-television celebrities, but it’s still an old house. You walk on the wood floors through the home, and the squeaking floorboards remind you the home was built in 1910, when the population was just 26,000 and Waco was known nationally as the location of infamous lynchings.
I traveled to Waco for one reason. A public-relations firm reached out with an offer to check out the town and the houses remodeled on Fixer Upper, with an overnight stay in one of the homes included. A group of about 10 journalists from all over the country signed on for the trip.
I cared less about the homes and more about the town. I wanted to find out if Fixer Upper was really making Waco, population now 130,000, a city worth visiting.
The PR firm wasn’t selling Waco or even the TV show. It was selling a car, the 2017 Chevrolet Tahoe. It loaned me the Tahoe to drive around Waco. The PR firm’s selling point was that the Gaines family drives the Texas-made Chevys, and it said the vehicle's designer got some of her inspiration from the Fixer Upper homes.
This claim required a presentation from the car designer to explain the design similarities. As far as I could tell, there was no shiplap. She said the interior of vehicles should look like the inside of homes because people spend increasing amounts of family time in their cars.
When I first arrived in Waco, I checked into the Gorman House, which is where half of the journalists stayed. I immediately began looking around the house. This was one of the houses so many friends had dreamed of seeing. This is why people are traveling to Waco from all over the country and the world. It turns out to be just a house, one that the owners just rent to tourists.
The Gorman House is a nice house, to be sure. But it's a mansion surrounded by homes that are falling apart. It’s like if you took that Highland Park home with the elephant statue and plopped it in the middle of a rough Oak Cliff neighborhood.
But I wasn’t staying in the Gorman House. I was staying in the Mailander House, still bearing the name of the original owners. After checking in and seeing both houses, we were given time to explore Waco and some of Chip and Jo’s favorite spots.
The couple are the squeaky-clean faces of HGTV's Fixer Upper. The story goes that the two Baylor grads combined their expertise to begin a business of flipping houses. Chip had the construction background, and Joanna had the design touch. In 2003, the first Magnolia Market opened, but it was a much smaller shop in a different area. They closed down the shop to focus on raising their four kids and expanding their home-flipping business.
After HGTV made them stars in 2013, they decided to reopen Magnolia Market. In 2015, the downtown Waco store opened. Later, the couple opened Silos Baking Co. and the Seed and Supply gardening center. They have a book, a spinoff show, a magazine, a furniture line and a paint line, and they plan to open a restaurant in Waco. To say they have taken this brand and run with it is an understatement.
In Waco, everyone called them Chip and Jo, like they were old friends. Some even went for more folksy familiarity, calling her JoJo.
I had heard good things about Common Grounds, a coffee shop across from Baylor, so I wandered there and ordered an iced Cowboy Coffee. I asked the barista if the shop had seen an increase in tourists.
“For what?” he responded.
“The show Fixer Upper?” I asked, his confusion confusing me.
Memory refreshed, he said people from out of town have been coming in and that the coffee shop sees a lot of people from Australia. Australia. Once tourists are in Texas, he says, people make the drive to Waco to see some of the homes from the show. So Waco is an added bonus to an itinerary, not the centerpiece of a state tour.
Caffeinated, I began my self-driving tour of the Fixer Upper homes that intrigue so many Australians. First up was the German Schmear House, then the Harp House, which is next door to Harp Design Co., which Joanna Gaines frequently visits on the show. My tour handbook, provided by the PR firm, said to pick up some of those “famous wooden candleholders” at Harp Design Co. I didn’t believe the famous part until I overheard a woman in the shop referencing the show. She told the cashier she was from Michigan.
Then I visited the Magnolia House. When I drove up, there were five people standing outside the white home, taking pictures like they were in front of the White House. They told me they were from California and Oklahoma and were big fans of the show.
The tourists were just excited to be near the Fixer Upper brand. Their enthusiasm was understandable, since they went out of their way to come here. But the excitement was matched by people from Waco. Everyone on the suggested tour seemed programmed to say they not only love the city, but they love the show, the hosts and the impact it's had on the city's image.
The impact is real. As the show gained in popularity, so did the number of visitors. Convention and Visitors Bureau staff said they expect 2.2 million visitors this year. In 2015, Waco had about 660,000 visitors, and in 2016, it went up to 1.9 million. Magnolia Market, the Gaineses' downtown store, saw 1.2 million of those visitors.
I ended my tour and headed back to the Mailander House for group appetizers. There, two women from the Waco CVB told us everything Waco had to offer.
“You just can’t do Waco in one day,” one said, straight-faced. Any trip, to them, needs to be rounded out by trips to other draws like the small zoo, a law-enforcement museum and paddleboarding.
The CVB women said they are truly thankful for what Chip and Jo have done for the town. The Magnolia Market has completely transformed the area, and the Fixer Upper homes that have turned into Airbnb locations have increased tourism.
“Yeah, but weren’t Chip and Jo mad that the homeowners were renting out the homes?” I asked.
“I think they were just hurt,” one of the ladies said. “And I get it.”
In 2016, Chip and Joanna Gaines released a statement saying they would be more careful regarding contracts with owners of the homes they were renovating. What started as a well-intended move to rent the homes to tourists started to overshadow the intent of the show: to remodel houses to be someone’s actual home.
The Mailander House — the one with three bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms — goes for $250 per night. To put that in perspective, a stay in the Sheraton in Dallas goes for $229 per night, and you get a cleaning service and a bathroom bigger than a shoebox.
Chip and Jo have faced numerous rumors and some controversies since their show premiered, but nothing has deflated their fan base. For instance, in late 2016, BuzzFeed published an article pointing out that the Gaineses' church pastor in Waco is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage. Headlines read that the couple were “anti-gay” and that they were “under fire” from the backlash. But the comments on the article sang a different tune.
“This is the dumbest story I have ever heard,” the most-liked comment read. “It’s like a witch hunt for their beliefs, to try and stir the oil from a pot into the flames of the stove. This kind of article is exactly what is wrong with the media. Don't go reaching out for a reason to hate people. The Gaines[es] seem to be a wonderful couple and unless they are hurting anyone why does it matter.”
The two women at the CVB told the group of journalists that Fixer Upper fans are diehard.
“I think people just love Chip and Jo because they are unabashedly Christian,” one of the ladies said. “And I think Americans need that right now.”
It's unclear whether America needs the clean-cut image of Chip and Jo, both Baylor alumni, but it sure doesn't hurt Waco. The town isn't a stranger to controversy. The 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound that began with four slain federal agents and ended in 83 cult members' deaths, was international news. The reputation stuck.
The news had been positive for a while, with new stadiums and television shows easing the stain of violence. Then, in 2015, motorcycle gangs and police engaged in a shootout at a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco. Nine bikers were killed and 18 were injured, making it Waco's deadliest event since the Davidian siege. And the national press covered it, at least for a while, with fervor.
In 2016, more negative news arose. Baylor University made national headlines when victims came forward to accuse members of the football team of sexual assault. The football coaches and university leaders did not take action or seek punishment for the star athletes and faced lawsuits. A suit filed this month stated that 31 football players committed 52 rapes in three years.
I called Waco Sheriff Parnell McNamara. Because he's lived in Waco his entire life, he's seen the highs and lows of the town. As an elected sheriff, he's naturally careful not to say anything bad about the town.
He's seen Waco completely transform because of the Magnolia Market, but he was quick to point out there are other great businesses that are also thriving. He said Waco's reputation regarding the Branch Davidians was unfortunate, mainly because it wasn't even in Waco — it happened about 10 miles outside of the town. He contends Chip and Jo have helped turn all of that around, but the recent news about Baylor stings deeper.
"It's not a good thing that happened, but Baylor is a very, very good school," McNamara said. "I graduated from Baylor. My family did. My wife did. And Baylor is very resilient. It's going to get through this because the good of Baylor will overshadow the bad, and anytime you have something like that happen, it's a bump in the road or a hiccup, but you try to pick up and go on full-speed ahead."
There was hardly any acknowledgment of Waco's rough reputation from the two CVB women as they spoke to the group of journalists. They were more focused on all the good things Waco has to offer, like paddleboarding and television show renovations. After their spiel, they handed each of us a gift bag. Inside was a signed copy of Chip and Jo’s book, The Magnolia Story.
“We gave them about 400 to sign, but they didn’t sign them all because they got tired,” the woman said. “Y’all are lucky to get one.”
The man serving us drinks during dinner was truly Waco’s biggest fan. One second I was asking for a glass of wine, and the next I was hearing his entire life story.
“Waco sucked and then Waco sucked me in,” he said twice during the evening, leading me to believe that was his official catchphrase.
He told me he had a job lined up to be a marine biologist in Alaska but turned it all down to pursue a career as a mixologist in Waco. And he loves it. He loves the little town. He said I have to come back and try several restaurants.
After dinner, it was back to the Mailander House. There were framed pictures of Elvis sitting on a mantel in my room. The door had a sign on it that read, "Emergency use only. This door leaks air and is caulked to keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Please open only if you have to."
The other people in the home talked to one another about how beautiful the house was while I sat in my bedroom eavesdropping. I think they kept saying it out loud to convince themselves. There is a specific person who enjoys paying $250 per night for an Airbnb in Waco, and I'm clearly not that person. Then again, none of the journalists paid to stay there.
The next morning, after a fine sleep in my small bed with Elvis watching over me, I headed to the Magnolia Market and Silos Baking Co. The market opened in 2015. The couple own the store, and Joanna Gaines serves as the lead designer. Parking was limited in downtown Waco, leaving me to pay $10 to park in the First Baptist Church’s parking lot.
When I arrived, the store was still not open, and I had a feeling similar to the feeling you get before Disney World opens, if Disney World was a home-decor shop. And replace the excited kids with excited middle-aged women and their glum husbands.
The Magnolia Market, along with the nearby Silos and the food trucks, makes a nice area, especially on a Tuesday morning in May. People sat on beanbags outside the market, eating from the trucks or munching on cupcakes from the bakery.
Before the shop opened, people lined up outside the store doors to wait. Once inside, it was a free-for-all. I looked around and saw candles, signs reading “Home,” an area designated “Chip’s Corner,” clocks, flowers, the couple’s book in audio form and T-shirts. I asked a store worker, who looked to be a freshman in college, what the most popular shirt was. She said the most expensive one, so I bought the second-most-popular shirt, which symbolized two things for me: One, I had indeed been to the Magnolia Market, and two, I never wanted to go back.
But something was missing. I needed to go back to experience Waco without the PR team directing me. This time, I saw a slightly different Waco, one seeded with dark history.
To be fair, I wanted to explore the places the CVB women praised, but that didn't fit the Fixer Upper itinerary. So my first stop was the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. The museum was small and old. There were only a few rooms, and it didn't take long to see the entire thing. When I was there on a Saturday morning, a lot of couples who appeared to be in their 60s occupied the museum. I got the sense the women were in Waco for the Magnolia Market and their husbands wanted to make at least one part of the trip enjoyable for them.
The woman working at the museum's gift shop confirmed this hunch, but with a caveat. She told me that since Fixer Upper aired, she's seen a lot more women wander into the museum alone.
She moved to Waco in 2002 for a man.
"It definitely wasn't the place you wanted to go in Texas," she said. "But it grows on you."
Next to the museum was the Waco Tourist Information Center. Inside stood a life-sized cutout of Chip and Jo. A magazine with Chip and Jo on the cover sat on the counter, and a lone woman worked behind it. I asked her my standard question: "Have you seen more tourists since Fixer Upper became popular?"
"Yeah," she said. And that was it. I could tell by the curt response and body language that she wasn't in the mood to chat. Soon, an older woman walked into the center.
"Excuse me," she asked the woman. "Where is the Texas Ranger museum?"
"Over there," the worker replied, barely raising her hand to point toward the door.
"Which parking lot do I use?" the older woman asked, seemingly unaware of the worker's disinterest in her questions.
"You use this parking lot. You can try parking closer if that would help you."
It was hardly a warm welcome from a woman working in a tourist information center, but maybe working for Waco's tourist information center isn't thrilling work.
Not so long ago, I'm sure, that woman was answering questions about the deadly siege of the Branch Davidian compound. Waco has long been associated with fringe groups, and in 2011, Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson released the song "Wacko From Waco," forever cementing the phrase.
I knew a trip to Waco wouldn't be complete without a trip to the site of the Branch Davidian siege. I had done plenty of research beforehand, like watching a documentary on the ordeal and looking up how to get there. But I was still nervous to go. I thought the grounds that once housed a cult would be spooky or haunted, but I was determined.
The Branch Davidian compound is about 10 miles outside of Waco in Mount Carmel Center. Once I exited Interstate 35, I was in what felt like the middle of nowhere. I drove on a two-lane freeway for several miles, and once I nearly reached the compound, I spotted several crows eating roadkill. It was eerie but somehow fitting.
Soon, the GPS led me off the freeway and onto a gravel road. I approached a white open gate with a "no trespassing" sign on it. I had the only car and was the only person visible within thousands of feet. I slowly drove in and approached the memorial with the list of people killed in the siege. Ahead, a small church sat on a hill, the location of the infamous compound. But the memorial was the furthest I was willing to go, considering the sign on the gate.
I spotted cult leader David Koresh's name on the memorial. It sat in the middle, right where it was supposed to be alphabetically, perfectly blending in with the others. The Branch Davidian compound felt like a completely different world compared to the cheery and bright world of the Gaines family.
When I mentioned Waco to anyone older than me (born three years before the siege), the person included that fatal time in the conversation. Anyone younger than me wanted to hear all about the homes featured on Fixer Upper. Magnolia Market was now the face of Waco.
After the compound visit, I headed to Magnolia Market. It was a few weeks after my initial visit to the store and was a Saturday. Nothing could prepare me for the amount of people wanting in on the Fixer Upper action.
Parking was, of course, even harder to come by, and the line for Silos Baking was about 40 people deep. The cupcakes are good, but not that good.
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The fake lawn, nearly empty the first time I visited on a Tuesday morning, was filled with fathers and sons tossing footballs. Magnolia Market workers plastered on smiles and constantly surveyed the area, making sure everyone was having the best time. People bought overpriced sandwiches from the food trucks that don't move from the area.
Inside, people attempted to browse the store, but they were stuck trying to move at all. It was so crowded, people stood nearly shoulder to shoulder. If you had never visited the Magnolia Market before and just wanted to browse, there was no real chance of that.
The phoniness is blinding. The market, which is supposed to be representative of Jo's rustic, rare and thrifty finds, is a warehouse full of manufactured goods that middle America wants to put in homes. There were fake white rose stems for $6 each, fake pears for $4 each, a rustic wooden water pail for $14 and plenty more to begin questioning America's sanity.
People want to pay money to buy things that look like they were once old and tarnished but have been made new. They bought these mass-produced items in a giant warehouse, but that doesn't matter. What matters is marketing and public perception. Even with its overt artificial feeling, the Waco of Chip and Joanna Gaines is most definitely better than David Koresh's. The real Waco, scars and all, is not fit for mass consumption.