The State Fair of Texas is coming up, and we can almost smell the deep fried turkey legs and funnel cake from here. If you’ve never been to The State Fair of Texas, then there’s a whole world of Texas history and culture that you’re missing out on. The fair traces its roots to 1886, a scant 41 years after Texas became a part of the United States.
The State Fair of Texas is the biggest event held in the Big D each year, and it’s kicked off on opening day with a parade that goes through the heart of downtown Dallas. The Cotton Bowl adjacent to the fair grounds hosts the annual Red River Rivalry game between the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma during the fair, which also draws a lot of crowds.
Even folks who have never been probably know about the innovations in fried foods at the Big Tex Choice Awards and the big guy we all know and love as “Big Tex”, but did you know that Big Tex started out life as a famous mythical figure? Here are 10 things that even experienced state fair goers may not know, beyond the oreo beer and crawfish lollipops.
The Texas State Fair started out as two events
When it was first proposed in 1886, the board of directors couldn’t agree on a location to host the fair. Rather than come to a compromise, the two factions split and hosted the Dallas State Fair and Exposition on the original 80 acres now held within the 277 acres of the current Fair Park, and the Texas State Fair and Exposition, which was located just North of town.
While both events drew heavy crowds, neither one was able to cover operating costs, and ended up losing money. The loss prompted the stubborn fair officials to begrudgingly join forces for the next year. From 1887 onward, the fair was held in its current location.
Big Tex used to be Santa Claus
Big Tex may be the most iconic figure at the State Fair of Texas, but he didn’t join the event until 1952. Prior to that year, he had been touted as the world’s tallest Santa Claus in Kerens, Texas, where he’d been standing and making his trademark friendly wave since 1949. In 1951 State Fair President R.L. Thornton purchased the Kerens Santa Claus for $750 (about $7,200 in today’s money) and had him converted into a cowboy.
The fair once hosted horse races
When it first opened, one of the main attractions of the fair was the horse races. However, gambling on horse races was banned in the state of Texas in 1903, which put a damper on attendees’ excitement over the event.
When the fairgrounds began hosting car racing in 1954, it became one of the most popular attractions. It’s even featured in the 1962 musical “State Fair”, where Pat Boone races a Devin Triumph.
The State Fair put an end to car racing in 2009, when the racetrack was in need of $400,000 worth of repairs and to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Attendees can still test drive new Chevy vehicles at the fair though.
The State Fair of Texas is a nonprofit organization.
The State Fair of Texas is actually a privately run 501(c)(3) organization, and despite the mass quantities of cash spent there, they really don’t rake in as much profit as you’d think. In fact, last year’s financials show that, after operating costs, the fair spent about $50 million and made about $54 million, for a profit in the range of $4 million.
The fair hosts free educational events such as the Farm Day at the Fair for elementary aged kids, and even gives away free tickets to students and teachers. Also, the state fair has a scholarship program for Dallas area youths. In addition to this, they encourage attendees to bring canned goods in exchange for discounts at the ticket box. The food collected gets donated to the North Texas Food Bank.
Elvis and The Beatles performed at the Texas State Fair grounds one time
There’s always a great lineup of musical acts at the state fair, Maren Morris is opening the 2017 show, but did you know that Elvis and The Beatles also played there? In 1950 The King played to a sold-out crowd at the Cotton Bowl, and in 1964 the Beatles performed a show at the State Fair Colosseum ahead of opening day. They’re even included in some fair artwork for that year.
Big Tex’s current boots are Lucchese boots
Big Tex has changed a lot through the years. From being converted from his Santa Claus roots, to having grey hair and wrinkles added in 2002. His biggest transformation, however, came after the catastrophic electrical fire in 2012, when he burned down in front of fairgoers eyes, who then all posted the tragic moment to social media.
After the fire, Big Tex was rebuilt sturdier and three feet taller than he used to be. He now stands at 55 feet tall, and for good measure, they made him able to withstand hurricane-force winds. The boots he wears are a replica of a pair of official 1949 Lucchese boots – a nod to the year Big Tex was born.
The fair has attracted several presidents.
In 1909 President William Howard Taft visited the fair, and Woodrow Willson showed up two years later in 1911. In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the centennial celebration of the fair a stop on his election campaign, and even Richard Nixon stopped by, albeit back when he was still the Vice President. Lyndon B. Johnson attended the fair with Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and other politicians in the 1950’s when he was still a United States Senator. George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush attended the fair together when W was still a gubernatorial candidate for the state.
The Red River Rivalry isn’t the only football game during the fair.
Every year since the 1980s, the Cotton Bowl has hosted the annual game between rival historically African-American universities Prairie View A&M and Louisiana’s Grambling State University. The game is a popular event for the small schools, and presents attendees with an incredible battle of the marching bands during halftime.
You can bring a cooler of food, but leave your selfie-sticks at home.
Though most folks probably look forward to the outrageous fried dishes available on the midway, if you don’t have a stomach for deep fried beer, are not into new foods, or just want to save some money, you’re welcome to bring a cooler of food and nonalcoholic drinks inside. However, selfie-sticks are not allowed.
There’s more than one Big Tex.
Last year Big Tex got a little brother. Neon Big Tex, as he’s known stands 38 feet high, and lights up with neon gas in the shape of, well, you guessed it, Big Tex. He used to sell booze at Centennial Liquor, but he changed his ways and now he hangs out with his big brother at the state fair grounds.
To learn more about what you need when attending the State Fair of Texas, check out guidelive on the Dallas Morning News.