Tom Padgitt Inc.
by Thomas Klinger
Perhaps no other business can claim to have as large and long-lasting a role in Waco as Tom Padgitts and its owners have had over its many decades of business. The business and especially its owners have exerted this influence quietly, diligently and with dignity. They concerned themselves not just with the success of their own business but with the success of Waco itself. Tom Padgitt was the founder and namesake for the business which carries his name to this day and he first arrived in Texas when his family came to Houston from Gallatin, Tennessee. It was in Houston that Tom Badgitt learned the saddlery trade from an uncle and would help make saddles for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In 1867 Tom Padgitt would start his own saddlery company in Bryan, Texas when he was just 21 years old. He chose Bryan because at the time it was the terminus for the Houston and Central Texas Railroad, Padgitt and the business which bore his name would follow the railroad’s construction as it moved through different towns before finally settling in Waco in 1874 for the rest of his life. The first location of Tom Padgitts Company in Waco would be a small shop on Bridge Street known at the time as Rat Row. The business would not stay there however as Tom Padgitt’s business would grow over the decades into one of the largest saddle companies in America. By 1880 the company had moved into wholesale distribution and in 1883 the company moved from Rat Row to a location on Austin Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Street before finally constructing in 1890 a large building on Franklin Avenue and Fifth Street. In 1922 his operation would occupy two building on four floors and a basement in the Franklin Avenue location. Padgitt’s company would grow so large and recognized for its quality that during World War One the company was chosen by the French and British governments to fill out large orders for their militaries, selling 130,000 dollars worth of leatherwork to the French in 1914 and 50,000 bridles to the British in 1915. Eventually for eighteen months during World War One the Tom Padgitt Company would set aside all private work to fulfill the military orders for the British and American governments.
World War One would also help change the course of the Tom Padgitt Company when Tom Padgitt’s oldest son, Captain Ross Padgitt, died in San Mateo, California in an automobile accident while on duty for the military. With Ross Padgitt’s death Clint Padgitt, as Tom Padgitts second oldest son, would now be heir to the Tom Padgitt company. Though the automobile obviously reduced the need for saddlery, Tom Padgitt’s quality work and business connections ensured that it remained profitable in 1924 employing 110 people in its factory on Franklin Avenue and Fifth Street with a further 8 employees constantly traveling the country as salesmen. The company was not just nationally recognized but did business supplying foreign countries with saddlery especially in Latin America. Padgitts worked with the United Fruit Company supplying bridles and other leatherwork for use on its plantations in Latin America through its operating house in New Orleans.
Tom Padgitt would also participate in helping to develop Waco beyond his business success. He would be the first director of the First National Bank of Waco and its oldest depositor and was succeeded by his son Clint as director. Several blocks of land in Waco that Tom owned would become known as Padgitt’s Park as he opened it to the public for entertainment and civic events. In the 1890s Tom Padgitt would give Padgitts Park to Waco in order that the Texas Cotton Palace, an iconic landmark, could be built on it this included supplying water to the Cotton Palace from Padgitt’s artisanal wells. Padgitt would also in 1890s use the newly discovered artisanal wells to create a natatorium and what is credited as the first indoor pool in Waco. Padgitt would also help create the first fire department in Waco and served as its first assistant chief in 1873, in 1883 Tom would pay for Waco’s first fire alarm system out of his own pocket because of opposition from the town council. The town council would be so pleased with the system though that they reimbursed him less than a year later. Tom Padgitt would also start a tradition for the Padgitt Company owners by being an avid sportsman, having an enthusiasm for racing horse buggies.
At the age of 79, in 1926, Tom Padgitt would pass away after being ill for some months and the business would pass on to his son Clint Padgitt. Clint Padgitt would immediately expand his fathers business by adding luggage, sporting goods and other toys for sale, and by 1937 the majority of business would be from his wholesale and retail trade in these items though the company still offered leather goods and saddlery. The business would thrive and become recognized throughout Central Texas for its products and service. Perhaps one of the reasons Clint Padgitt decided to go into the sporting goods business was his own great love of sports. Clint would generously fund and support not just the Baylor football program but also many local tennis, golf and bowling events. Clint’s support for the Baylor football program would help it win its first Southwestern Conference Title in 1922 and again in 1924 when he came to head an association in 1920 to help boost the football program. Clint Padgitt’s generosity would extend beyond sports as he would give money and support for the improvement and development of parks and civic buildings in Waco and support for his alma maters Waco High School and Baylor University. Clint Padgitt would also help preserve the history of Waco by donating valuable items to the Baylor Texas Collection.
In 1945 Clint Padgitt would pass away at the age of 61. Tom Padgitts Company would pass on to his widow Mrs. Camilla Padgitt and Wilton Lanning Senior who ran the business as co-owners with Wilton Lanning Sr. as active manager. In 1948 Camilla Padgitt would fall sick and remain in hospital until her death in 1954 and ownership passed fully to Wilton Lanning. Wilton Lanning Sr. was a banker at the First National Bank of Waco and like Clint Padgitt a sporting enthusiast, which perhaps explains his interest in running Tom Padgitts. Wilton Lanning, Sr would bring in his son Wilton Lanning, Jr to work both in Tom Padgitts and at various banks around Waco. Both Wilton Lannings were graduates of Waco High School and Baylor University. It was under the leadership of the Lannings and especially Wilton Lanning Junior that Tom Padgitts would move into becoming a wholesale and retail photography and audio-visual business dropping entirely saddlery, sporting goods and luggage.
In 1953 a catastrophic tornado would rip through downtown Waco and destroy many historic buildings and businesses. One of the buildings destroyed would be Old Tom Padgitts on Franklin Avenue and Fifth Street. Tom Padgitts as a company would survive this catastrophic event for Waco because Wilton Lanning Sr had moved operations to a new location on 9th and Austin Avenue around 1950. The business under Wilton Lanning Jr. experienced success and would expand to become the largest audio-visual center in Central Texas, expanding its store on South 13th Street several times as well as opening up a branch store at 101 Lake Air East in 1973 with the two stores combined employing 30 people.
Wilton Lanning Jr. would continue the tradition of civic engagement that the owners of Tom Padgitts had always shown. Wilton Lanning Jr. would serve in leading roles on a variety of business and community associations over his life such as the Rotary Club, YMCA, Texas Audio-Visual Dealers Association, Central Texas Professional Photographers Association, Waco Convention and Tourism Advisory Board, and the Waco Chamber of Commerce. Wilton Lanning Jr. would also become president of the Dr. Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute and is seen as the man responsible for its creation helping to raise the money from the Waco Motel and Hotel Association and the Dr. Pepper Corporation itself. This effort was done not just to raise money from tourist attractions but also because of Wilton Lanning’s love of history and Dr. Pepper, Wilton having had a large collection of Dr. Pepper memorabilia which was displayed on CNN in 1985. Lanning Jr would also help Baylor Texas Collection and Waco Heritage and History collect rare historical photos from Central Texans in 1984. Lanning and Tom Padgitt’s Inc. would also help in designing classroom and lecture halls including the Baylor Science Building. In 2005 Wilton Lanning would sell Tom Padgitts and it still operates today on 5054 Franklin Avenue. Wilton Lanning Jr. passed away in Janurary of 2018.
Tom Padgitts and its owners were extremely active in creating and renewing Waco over its decades of operation not just by creating and transforming their businesses over the years to remain successful and profitable but by participating and driving forward projects that would help Waco as a community. Though lured by the profits promised from a railroad once Tom Padgitts put down roots in Waco it stayed there through sometimes difficult circumstances surviving wars, depression, and changing economic landscapes.
Waco Tribune Herald 11 July 1937 pg 22, pg 23
Waco Tribune Herald 28 june 1936
Waco News Tribune 10 March 1927 pg 6
Waco News Tribune 25 May 1924 pg 1, pg 53, pg 29
Waco News Tribune 5 May 1924
Waco News Tribune 21 Dec 1924
The Eagle (Bryan Texas) 20 Oct 1926 pg1
Waco News Tribune 29 Jan 1922
Waco News Tribune 25 March 1923 pg 23
The Austin American 31 Oct 1914 pg 3
The Houston Post 14 August 1918 pg 3
The Miami News 12 July 1915 pg4
Waco News Tribune 19 Feb 1947 pg 9
Waco News Tribune 5 Feb 1954 pg 27
Corsicanan Daily Sun 14 August 1963 pg 13
The Waco Citizen 27 Feb 1969 pg 30
The Waco Citizen 13 Nov 1984 pg 4
Waco Tribune Herald 3 Nov 1969 pg 14
The Waco Citizen 22 April 1986 pg 2
Waco Tribune Herald 12 Dec 1973 pg 10.
The Waco Citizen 4 Dec 1969 pg 14.
Waco News Tribune 1 March 1973 pg 22.
The Waco Citizen 15 Dec 1989 pg 3.
The Waco Citizen 17 Jan 1989 pg 3.
The Waco Citizen 10 May 1985 pg 1.
The Waco Citizen 14 March 1986 pg 1.
Ibid 15 April 1983 pg 2.
Ibid 1 March 1988 pg. 15
Ibid 19 Dec 1980 pg 14
Ibid 17 Nov 1989 pg 1.
Ibid 9 September 1988 pg 31
Waco Tribune Herald 5 July 1953 pg 41.
Waco Morning News 26 April 1894 pg 4
1st sound clip: Interviewer Sielaff, Steven, Title: Oral Memoirs of Wilton Lanning Jr, (Series 3) Interview date: August 12th 2012 in Waco Texas
2nd sound clip: Interviewer Stingley, Jim, Title: Oral Memoirs of Wilton Lanning Jr. (Series 4) Interview date April 11, 2014 in Waco Texas