By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Throughout history, fairs have been held in every corner of the world. In ancient Rome and Medieval Europe, they were everything from religious celebrations to open marketplaces where farmers, merchants, and tradesmen would journey to sell their wares. Stalls were also established where food and drink could be purchased, and other entertainments were offered for amusement.
Over time, the basic premise of a fair hasn’t changed much, and you can still find many local fairs throughout the world. But I don’t think there is anything that conveys that sense of old-fashioned Americana better than a county or state fair. And the biggest (and in my opinion, the best) state fair in the United States is the State Fair of Texas. Don’t believe me? Sit back, relax, and read on. Besides, since the 2011 State Fair of Texas opens TODAY, how could I not talk about it?
Anyone who has visited the State Fair of Texas will tell you that there is nothing like being welcomed by a 52-foot tall talking cowboy who has presided over the State Fair of Texas since 1952.
From his 75-gallon hat to his size 70 boots, Big Tex is a beloved representation of the fair and its western heritage. When I first saw him back in the 1970s, and heard that deep voice say, “Howdy Folks, I’m Big Tex”, and then welcome patrons to the fair, I loved it. In fact, he reminded me of a caricature (of sorts) of actor Gregory Peck.
The origins of the State Fair of Texas are much older than Big Tex; in fact, it dates back to 1886 when a group of Dallas businessmen decided the city should host a state fair. Eighty acres of prairie were purchased just outside East Dallas. The site caused quite a stir because some founders felt the location wasn’t in an area that would be logistically fair (no pun intended) to everyone. To prove their point, they held their own fair in North Dallas that same year. However, a year later, the differences were resolved and the Texas State Fair and Exposition Association was established.
In 1904, due to financial problems and a desire to safeguard the property from developers, the Association sold the land to the City of Dallas. A provision was made whereby the Association would maintain the property and the State Fair would continue to be held there each year.
The fairgrounds, now known as Fair Park, experienced many changes over the years, but perhaps none as significant as the impressive facelift it had for the celebration honoring the Centennial of Texas in 1936.
Dallas-based architect George Dahl was contracted and, assisted by a young consulting architect named Paul Cret, not only designed stunning new Art Deco buildings, but older buildings were remodeled to provide a more cohesive imagery. Dahl was involved in every phase of construction, as well as the planning of murals and statues that would complement the overall design. The result was breathtaking and popular, so much so that most of these 1936 Art Deco buildings remain to this day. I’ve no doubt Dahl, Cret, and their team of artisans and builders, helped turn Fair Park into the National Historic Landmark it is today.
The Centennial Exposition was not just your regular fair, but a six-month long celebration. During that time over six million people attended the Exposition, including then President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Wearing a white suit, Roosevelt (pictured left; seated in the back seat) accompanied by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arrived by train at 9:30 a.m, on 12 Jun 1936, and rode in a touring car from the depot to Fair Park, then into the Cotton Bowl. He then gave a 30-minute speech to an estimated crowd of 50,000 people.
Among the Hollywood celebrities who visited the Centennial Exposition during its run was a beautiful RKO movie star named Ginger Rogers.
Some other famous entertainers performed, including a very young Roy Rogers (then billed as Len Slye), singing with a group he helped form in 1934 called the Sons of the Pioneers (pictured right). Can you pick Roy out in the photo?
A certain adorable seven-year old native Texan also made her professional singing debut. That little girl (pictured below with her two older sisters) was my mother.
She even had a solo where she got to sing one of her favorite songs, “My Pony Boy”, a cute little ditty originally written in 1909 (long before she was even born). Also pictured below is my mother’s 1940 admittance ticket to the State Fair as an Entertainer.
Known as The Tucker Sisters, their performance at the Texas Centennial Exposition launched a successful career. In addition to singing engagements throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada, they toured military bases with the USO during WWII, appeared on local and national radio shows, and enjoyed popularity as recording artists. However, they always returned each year to the State Fair of Texas whenever possible, both before and after World War II. You see, during WWII, from 1942-1945, the fair was cancelled. But when the war ended, the State Fair returned—to the delight of everyone.
For me, the State Fair of Texas and its home, Fair Park, has always provided a glimpse back to the Texas Centennial. Many of the beautiful Art Deco buildings from 1936 have been carefully preserved. Among them are the Embarcadero Building (originally called the Food Exhibit Building), and its architectural twin, The Food and Fiber Pavilion. Centennial Hall (also known as the Exposition Building) dates back to 1905 and was one of the structures remodeled for the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936.
One of my personal favorite buildings from 1936 is the Hall of State at Fair Park, originally called the State of Texas Building (pictured below).
Made of Texas limestone, the exterior features Texas-themed designs on its bronze doors, a frieze around the top of building in which are carved the names of 59 Texans, including two well-known men who lost their lives defending the Alamo -- Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. In front of the building, framed by 76-foot tall limestone pillars is an 11-foot tall statue, made of bronze and covered with gold leaf, of a Tejas Indian (pictured below). The blue tiles behind the statue symbolize the state flower of Texas, the bluebonnet.
An impressive room inside the building is the Hall of Heroes which features six bronze statues sculpted by Pompeo Coppini. The Texas heroes—selected by the general public to be honored in this hall—are James W. Fannin, Mirabeau B. Lamar, Sam Houston, Thomas Jefferson Rusk, William B. Travis, and Stephen F. Austin.
A famous point of interest located in Fair Park is The Cotton Bowl. Since its opening in 1932, when it was originally called Fair Park Stadium, the Cotton Bowl has hosted the popular football game between college rivals, the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma.
It has been the home of other football teams as well over the years, including the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 to 1970. In addition, the Cotton Bowl has been used as a venue for concerts. A very historical concert in 1956 involved a 21-year old singer named Elvis Presley, who filled the Cotton Bowl to capacity.
For movie fans, in 1962, STATE FAIR was filmed, in part, at Fair Park in Dallas. Based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical, the movie starred Pat Boone, Ann Margret, Bobby Darin, Tom Ewell, and Alice Faye. The film premiered in Dallas on 04 Apr 1962, and the opening scene offers viewers a time capsule glimpse of the Dallas skyline at that time.
Since 1886, visitors to the State Fair of Texas have enjoyed a variety of exhibits, from livestock shows and contests, livestock auctions, and a variety of agricultural demonstrations, to numerous contests in the creative arts that include food, art, quilts, needlework, ceramics, model making, doll making, and photography. Another favorite attraction is the Auto Show, first held in 1904, and which now is housed in two enormous buildings.
Among other sights and sounds you will see are numerous marching bands and top name performers in concert, an Illumination Sensation that involves music, lights, pyrotechnics, and dancing water along the 700-foot long reflecting pool. The Midway, always a popular destination for many fair enthusiasts, offers over 70 amusements, including 212-foot tall Texas Star (pictured below), the largest ferris wheel in the western hemisphere.
And, of course, it would be remiss of me to not mention what may be the biggest draw for many people -- FOOD. Although my appetite steers more for the traditional fair offerings, each year there is a great interest as to what new food will be deep fried. In fact, there is a State Fair of Texas Fried Food Award each year where a prize is given in two categories: Most Creative and Best Taste. In case you’re interested, the 2011 Most Creative Award went to “Fried Bubblegum” -- a bubblegum flavored marshmallow dipped in batter, fried and lightly drizzled with icing then covered in powdered sugar. Oh, and let’s not forget the tiny pieces of gum that serve as a garnish.
The 2011 Best Taste Award went to the “Buffalo Chicken Flapjack” -- a buffalo chicken strip dipped in flapjack batter, then rolled jalapeno bread crumbs and deep fried. Served skewered, it is accompanied by a side of syrup. I think I’ll pass on both and stick with my personal favorites -- Fletcher’s famous corny dog, roasted corn on the cob, fresh lemonade, and homemade fudge. Yum!
Texans certainly aren’t bragging when they say their fair is the biggest. In fact, the State Fair of Texas has officially been recognized as the biggest state fair in the United States, and 2011 marks its 125th Anniversary. It opens today, September 30th and will close October 23rd.
As for those 80 original acres purchased in 1886, they became the cornerstone of a 277-acre park, (now under the jurisdiction of the Dallas Parks Department). When Fair Park isn’t hosting the State Fair of Texas, it is the year-round home for the Museum of Nature and Science (which includes an IMAX Theatre), The Women’s Museum, the Museum of the American Railroad, the Children’s Aquarium, the Texas Museum of Automotive History, the African-American Museum, the South Dallas Cultural Center, and the Texas Discovery Gardens.
Fair Park also offers the Gexa Energy Pavilion (an outdoor amphitheatre that since 1988 has hosted concerts by such entertainers as Elton John, The Police, Brad Paisley, Coldplay and Santana. The prestigious, elegant Music Hall at Fair Park (pictured below), was built in 1925 and serves as a venue for the opera, ballet, and Broadway touring companies.
I hope you enjoyed learning about our great BIG fair, its history, and the story of Fair Park as well.
And now…guess what…I am off to the FAIR!
Thanks for stopping by. ~ AKB
For more information about the State Fair of Texas, visit: