Robert Thornton Dennis
Robert Dennis was born in Alabama on November 10, 1859. The family moved to New Orleans when he was seven years old and they remained there for eight years before again relocating to Virginia when he was fifteen. Shortly thereafter, Robert and his brother Jim moved to Texas. It must have been tremendous to Robert, coming across the Suspension Bridge in 1874(just four years after its construction) as a teenager filled with hope for prosperity in a fledgling but rapidly growing city.
The prosperity would come but not immediately. Struggling to find work, Robert and his brother went to Hillsboro where they found a job railsplitting for a man named Thomas Varnell. With a little money in his pocket, Robert returned to Waco and found a new job with Martin Brothers, a furniture store. For twelve years, Robert worked at various levels with the Waco Furniture Company run by the Martin Brothers until he saved up enough money and formed a business partnership with his own brother, Jim, in 1886. Their store opened in Gatesville originally and operated there for three years. On August 18, 1888, R.T. Dennis became a mason at Gatesville Lodge 197. He then transferred his membership to Waco Lodge 92 one year later. In those early days, Dennis’ business focus was as an undertaker/funeral director selling coffins but he also sold other kinds of furniture such as cabinetry and mattresses. In April of 1889, Dennis purchased a lot in Waco at the corner of 5th and Austin Avenue from J.W. Johnson for $4,500. Here, he would build a legacy.
The Dennis Brothers opened a wholesale and retail store on Austin Avenue and it immediately flourished. The company’s worth grew from $8,000 to $50,000 in just six months. In 1891, the company expanded by adding a carpet and upholstery department. Around 1892, Dennis became a director of the Farmers and Merchants’ National Bank of Waco and he also was operating another company, Dennis Manufacturing, which was likely the production agency for the retail store. To attract customers, Dennis used the show windows of his store to display a variety of interesting things. This included the first set of judicial books ever made for the McLennan County Courthouse(by Brooks and Wallace, a local outfit), costumes from popular opera performances in town, and more. This eye for showmanship was further developed with the annual Cotton Palace Expos at which Dennis was a perennial contributor of exhibitions.
By the turn of the 20th century, Dennis’ business had grown into being one of the leading furniture companies in Texas. His name is found as an investor on countless other enterprises in the area including the ALICO Building project. In 1915, R.T. Dennis bought out local rival Stratton Furniture and liquidated their inventory. In April of 1920, Bro. Dennis sold his manufacturing company and the warehouse which was located at 916 South Ninth Street to John B. Cooper, thus ending the run of one of Waco’s first major manufacturers of any kind, but his massive retail store still pushed forward. During this time, phonographs and radios were some of the Dennis’ top-selling products. In 1928, the Dennis Company provided the brand new, much anticipated Hilton Hotel with its furniture.
Brother Dennis died June 18, 1928 at 5:40 pm.
R.T. Dennis’ furniture company continued to flourish in the years after his death. The family maintained ownership and oversaw an impressive navigation of the economy through the Great Depression and World War II. In 1950, the Dennis Furniture Company was named to a short list of national furniture companies leading the industry. Sadly, just three years later, the infamous Waco tornado struck the 8-story R.T. Dennis building. The entire structure collapsed and many people died in it. The company was closed as a result and now, the Waco Tornado historical marker can be found near the old R.T. Dennis building location. These days, most Wacoans think of that devastating tragedy when they hear Dennis’ name but few remember the pioneering businessman who helped develop the city after arriving as a teenage boy full of hope across the brand new Suspension Bridge in 1874.