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Crews unearth fountain from long-gone Waco neighborhood

June 27, 2017

WACO, Texas (AP) — An archaeological firm has started unearthing one of the last remnants of the long-gone downtown Hispanic neighborhood known as Calle Dos.

The Waco Tribune-Herald reports crews were chipping away and sifting 2 feet of fill dirt that for half a century has covered a neighborhood fountain at Jefferson Avenue and University Parks Drive, known as La Pila.

The partial unearthing shows that the concrete structure near Indian Spring Middle School is still largely intact, buoying the hopes of officials with the Waco Hispanic Museum for restoring it.

“I would like to see benches around the outside, some historical markers, maybe some art or something on top,” said Louis Garcia, an official with the nonprofit museum group.

The museum secured a $2,500 grant this spring from the Baylor Philanthropy and Public Service program to start the archaeological work. That money already has been exhausted, and Garcia’s group will be seeking more funds to finish.

Waco archaeologist Katherine Turner-Pearson, who is donating her time to the project, said she expects to analyze the debris collected from the dig and prepare an official report and a more general-interest history of the fountain and the neighborhood.

“Now I’m getting to where I can see things and how it’s constructed, but the bad news is we’re out of funds,” said Turner-Pearson, owner of Central Texas Archaeological Resources.

Turner-Pearson said she is studying how the structure drained and hopes to figure out its source, which apparently was a nearby artesian well.

“La Pila,” which means “the basin,” was the centerpiece of social life in the neighborhood along Second Street from the 1920s through the 1960s, when the neighborhood was leveled by federal urban renewal slum clearance measures.

Many residents in the neighborhood lacked indoor plumbing and depended on the fountain for bathing and domestic water.

“We used to come and take a bath here,” said Jake Moran, 85, who grew up in the Calle Dos neighborhood and moved away from Waco in 1950. “We were the cleanest kids in town.”

La Pila also served as a social gathering place and a point where day workers would wait to be picked up for picking cotton or other labor. The fountain served the neighborhood until about 1950, when it dried up, former residents recall.

“It was still here, but it stopped flowing,” said Joe Ortega, 88, who recently visited the site with Felipe Herrera, 89.

Garcia, with the museum, said the fountain later became unsightly and apparently was capped and buried around the time of federal urban renewal in the mid-1960s.

No one involved with the project has determined the origin of the fountain or why it would have been built in a neighborhood of shotgun houses and unpaved streets that was otherwise ignored by city officials.

But old newspapers provide some clues. The Waco Morning News reported on Jan. 10, 1915, that the city water board had authorized the construction of a deep artesian well at Jefferson Street and Riverside Drive, which is near modern-day University Parks Drive.

The water was to be piped to the new Riverside Treatment Plant, which is still operating today. The well was to be dug into the Trinity aquifer, which would see marked declines throughout the 20th century.

A 1933 Tribune-Herald story refers to a fountain at that location fed by warm water from an adjacent well. The article refers to another well and fountain near Riverside Treatment Plant at Shakespeare Park.

Herrera and Ortega remember that Calle Dos was a tightknit neighborhood, as primitive as conditions were.

“There were no toys,” Ortega said. “You had to make your own. The city dump is where the police building is now, and you could find a lot of toys out there. Some were still in pretty good shape.”

He remembers how the Brazos River would periodically flood the neighborhood, including an epic flood in 1936 that brought water to the doorstep of St. Francis Catholic Church.

“You got used to it,” Ortega said. “It would happen about every year.”

Ortega and Herrera were both working at the Frank Smith chicken plant, at the current site of the Indian Spring Middle School’s field house, when the deadly Waco tornado of 1953 came through.

“It lifted my house off its foundation and set it down right next to it, and my family was in there,” Ortega said. “Thank God they didn’t get hurt. It blew the windows out. I was working here at the chicken plant. We were looking out at the trees snapping. We didn’t know what a tornado was.”

Ortega said he appreciates the work Garcia is doing to preserve the memories of the bygone neighborhood and its gathering place.

“I think it’s a good idea to have a plaque for remembering it,” he said.

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Information from: Waco Tribune-Herald, http://www.wacotrib.com

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