Travel

Christopher Muther

In Waco, an opportunity to live inside an episode of ‘Fixer Upper’

The interior of the Shotgun House from the TV show “Fixer Upper.”
Carol Embry/Picture It Sold
The interior of the Shotgun House from the TV show “Fixer Upper.”

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It was as if I had discovered a secret portal on the side of my television and was whisked into a tastefully appointed, perfectly staged world. Children here were called “kiddos.” I spotted an abundant number of metal signs made by a man named Jimmy Don with sayings such as “Today Is a Good Day for a Good Day.” People were lined up more than a block at a bakery that sold a $3.50 confection called Shiplap Cupcakes and wore baseball hats that said “Demo Day.”

I had arrived in the “Fixer Upper” promise land of Waco, Texas. Once primarily known as the birthplace of Dr Pepper and the Branch Davidians, Waco is now known for something other than pop and fringe cults: Chip and Joanna Gaines. The pair, and their phenomenally successful home improvement show “Fixer Upper,” have put the small city of Waco on the tourism map.

The Gaineses’ Silo District — an area which encompasses the couple’s massive Magnolia Market home store, along with the Twin Silos Bakery, plus a plant nursery, a park with games for the aforementioned kiddos, a row of food trucks, and a pair of elephantine rusty silos — is now one of Texas’s largest tourist attractions. Get ready, because a restaurant called Magnolia Table is slated to open next month. Wait times for breakfast at the soon-to-open eatery are already projected to be two to three hours.

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In 2017, the Alamo, the state’s biggest historic attraction, hosted 1.7 million visitors. The Waco Silo District had 1.63 million visitors. When reports came out of Waco that Chip and Joanna would be drawing more tourists than the Alamo, folks in San Antonio went on the defensive. At least for now, the Alamo is outpacing the Gaineses’ Silo District. Or, as I came to call it, Magnolia World. It’s like Disneyland for devotees of the show.

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Like millions of Americans, HGTV is my visual wallpaper. It’s usually playing in the background when I cook dinner (that is if I ever cook) or vacuum (ditto on that), so I’ve become intimately acquainted with its many home-renovating couples. But there’s something special about Chip and Joanna. So special that their show consistently breaks ratings records on HGTV and Waco is now the second-most on-the-rise travel destination in the United States, according to TripAdvisor.

More importantly for rabid followers, the charming couple built a small empire in Waco to give the show’s fans an opportunity to be a part of their homespun universe and Joanna’s decorating acumen, which I think of as farmhouse ranch boho. I’ve never seen anyone make some rusty bric-a-brac, bay leaf wreaths, kitchen islands the size of Nantucket, and, yes, shiplap, look so chic. Come to think of it, had anyone heard of shiplap before “Fixer Upper”?

I went to Waco because I wanted to see why fresh-faced young couples seemed to be moving from (fill in name of pricey city here) and settling in Waco each week. “Fixer Upper” makes it look quite tempting to buy a 2,000-square-foot house for $60,000, spend another $150,000 to renovate it, and coming away with a farmhouse boho palace complete with Nantucket kitchen islands.

In order to make sure I had the full “Fixer Upper” experience I rented the Shotgun House (season three, episode 14), which is a 5-minute walk from the Magnolia complex. Head to Airbnb and there are several “Fixer Upper” houses for rent. You’ll be able to tell it’s a “Fixer Upper” house because you’ll pay about three times more than any other house in Waco. I paid $325 a night for the one-bedroom Shotgun house.

Exterior of the Shotgun House in Waco, Texas. From the TV show "Fixer Upper."
Carol Embry/Picture It Sold
Exterior of the Shotgun House.
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I pulled up to the house and imagined the graceful Joanna and the goof-bucket Chip would be there for the reveal. “Are y’all ready to see your fixer upper?” Well, no, there was no welcome wagon. But there was a refrigerator full of Dr Pepper.

I had seen the Shotgun House episode often enough while not vacuuming and not cooking that it felt as if I was stepping into a TV set, like Mary Tyler Moore’s apartment, minus the M on the wall. I could feel the aura of Chip and Joanna. I even watched the Shotgun episode while I was staying there, sitting on the very sofa that Joanna had picked out. I probably shouldn’t have eaten a Shiplap Cupcake on that lovely sofa.

The interior of the Shotgun House in Waco Texas as featured in the HGTV show "Fixer Upper."
Christopher Muther/Globe Staff
The interior of the Shotgun House.

After looking over every inch of the house (Joanna arranged this pillow!), I made a beeline for Magnolia World. I knew the Gaineses were popular, but I had no idea just how popular. Two New York Times bestsellers, a soon-to-be-released cookbook, a quarterly lifestyle magazine, a line of goods for Magnolia Market, and also multiple collaborations with other companies. Their most recent collaboration is with Target. The list of projects and successes is longer than Joanna’s hair, and there are more in the pipeline.

The pair announced that the current season of “Fixer Upper” is their last (Joanna is pregnant with the couple’s fifth child), but they transcend the television show. These two are a walking brand, and people cannot get enough.

The interior of Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas.
Christopher Muther/Globe Staff
The interior of Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas.

At Magnolia Market, I saw a woman racing from display to display. I was afraid she might go into cardiac arrest from the excitement of it all. I was also afraid her husband might slip into a coma from boredom.

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“I love that they’re so genuine,” she told me while grabbing a vase for her sister back in North Carolina. I didn’t ask the excited shopper’s name because I didn’t want to take away from her retail time. “I know all the episodes. I know them all!”

Outside Magnolia Market is a large park with lawn games and bean bag lounge chairs. Families, the kind you might see buying a house on “Fixer Upper,” were tossing balls on the green turf, and couples sat at picnic tables with their crepes from the food trucks.

You can drive to Clint Harp’s furniture store when you’re finished at the silos, and also hit some of Joanna’s favorite antique stores. One of them is so busy that it has a hard time keeping enough product in stock and some days just doesn’t bother to open.

Customers relax and play on the green lawn at the Magnolia Silos in Waco, Texas
Christopher Muther/Globe Staff
Customers relax and play on the green lawn at the Magnolia Silos.

By now you’re likely thinking “What about the rest of Waco? Is there anything there aside from all that shiplap and inexpensive real estate?” I decided to put my investigative reporting skills to the test and find out. Which meant I bought a Diet Dr Pepper and a ticket for a tour.

I booked an afternoon outing through Waco Tours. The company was started by David Ridley, a former model who was dubbed Waco’s most eligible bachelor on his episode of “Fixer Upper.” Ridley’s episode is also the most-watched of the series. Sorry folks, he’s no longer eligible, but he still loves Waco and started the tour company with fellow “Fixer Upper” alum Luke Whyte. The pair started the company a year-and-a-half ago with one van. They’re now up to three Mercedes-Benz vans and a staff of more than 30. Not surprising, most of the people who take the tour are there for “Fixer Upper.” Business is up tenfold over a year ago.

“We try to give a holistic look at Waco,” Whyte said. “Waco was really one of the more prominent cities until the 1953 tornado tore through downtown. It got another bad rap with the Branch Davidians. But it has all of this untapped potential as a city.”

You will see plenty of “Fixer Upper” on the tour, but it’s not a “Fixer Upper” tour. You hear history, you see neighborhoods, eat hipster ice cream, and get a look at Baylor University, the Baptist university that helps sets Waco’s very Christian tone. It’s so Christian here that you’ll say a group prayer on the Waco Tours van before you depart, and the music in the Silo District is wholesome Christian rock. There are as many churches here as there are Walmarts in Arkansas. OK, maybe that’s a tiny bit of an exaggeration.

Part of what makes the Gaineses local heroes is that they’ve held on to their faith, and Waco, in the face of their success. This is the part of the story where I bite my tongue over the fact that I’ve never seen a gay couple on “Fixer Upper” and I try not to mention that the pastor of their church is vocally opposed to gay and lesbian marriage. He also promotes converting LGBT people into being straight. Again, biting my tongue. All of this may explain why Waco’s only gay bar is now shuttered.

Waco still has districts that I would politely call scrappy. The city is not always as lovely as it appears on HGTV, but then again, little in life is. However, I find it difficult to be snitty with any city that has a Dr Pepper Museum. Waco also has an impressive zoo, an arboretum, and a shuttle that will take you between the silos and a developing downtown.

Locals are noticing the changes. I talked with real estate photographer Carol Embry, who told me she moved to Waco against her better judgment in 2005. “Waco was not my idea of a happening town. I had never heard anything positive about Waco.”

“Houses would sit on the market until people basically gave them away,” she said.

But since “Fixer Upper,” she’s seen an uptick in the real estate market, along with an increase in eateries and stores. She’s also seen an increase in young couples moving here for the lower cost of living.

Another once unheard of phenomenon is taking place: Graduating Baylor students are sticking around and putting down roots in Waco.

But right now the machine that’s driving the city’s growth is the Gaineses’ empire and their impossible likability and charm. Even though the current season of “Fixer Upper” is its last, the locals don’t think the paint will be peeling off of Waco’s shiplap fame anytime soon.

“We all think they’ll be going on to even bigger things,” said Bobby Horner, an inspection supervisor for the City of Waco. “And I think Waco will continue to be a big part of those plans.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.