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McLennan History in The Palm of Your Hand

Carlos Morales
Stephen Sloan places one of the Waco History App signs inside Jasper's BBQ

Around Waco and McLennan county you’ll find lots of different museums – there’s the Texas Ranger hall of fame, the Dr. Pepper Museum, the Red Men Museum – the list goes on. But what’s missing is a site dedicated to local history. That is until recently - and it fits in the palm of your hand.

As I drive throughout Waco with Stephen Sloan, director of Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History, he’s quick to point out how he now thinks in “pins” –  like the kind you’d find on a map marking a specific spot.  

“I have this experience as I drive now, I see pins," Sloan says. "We just passed a couple of pins, we got a pin up here on the left we’re passing and we’re gonna stop at another pin just over the hill.”

The “pin” we’re arriving at is Jasper’s BBQ on Elm Avenue – It’s Waco’s oldest operating barbecue restaurant.  However, these pins aren’t your typical destination, they’re markers throughout McLennan County indicating historical locations. And they’re all part of a free app called Waco History. There’s even a companion website. Both – which were spearheaded by the Institute for Oral History and Baylor’s Texas Collection – serve as somewhat of a virtual museum. Both organizations along with students pre-populated the app with written histories, archival photos and audio clips on historic places throughout McLennan County.  On this day, Sloan is driving to several of these sites and posting signs indicating the location is part of the Waco History app. There’s a QR code on the corner of the sign that visitors can scan, taking them to that location’s entry on the website. 

“What’s great about a place-based app you can create an entry for buildings that aren’t extent anymore," Sloan says. "So the 1953 tornado changed downtown, now we can put some of those old historic structures that were wiped out back on the map.”

The impetus behind the app, Sloan says, is the lack of an area museum that specifically covers Waco and McLennan County history as its theme. The Waco History app launched earlier this spring and currently contains about 70 historic sites. Throughout the nation – there are similar apps – in cities like New Orleans, Cleveland and Baltimore. They’ve all been created by a platform Curatescape – “a web and mobile app framework that emphasizes storytelling”, according to their website. Waco and East Texas are the only Texas area sites with apps with the company. The app also incorporates related audio that’s been gathered through interviews done by the Institute of Oral History and the Texas Collection. Each entry serves as a window into the past, take this recorded memory of days gone by:

“Earliest memories was the playground and the cold springs – Proctor springs, being able to go down there and get that cold water coming down out of the hill, get into that little pool. We could take watermelons down there in the summer and put ‘em.”

The app also includes a section that offers curated tours, which take you through a collection of historic sties, like houses of worship. The app is available for both Apple and Android devices.