Every October since 1952, a 52-foot-tall cowboy drawled those words of welcome to visitors to the State Fair of Texas. Sixty years later, Big Tex was silenced.
Big Tex started life in 1949 as Santa Claus in the town of Kerens (about 70 miles southeast of Dallas). Created by local merchants to attract holiday business, Saint Nick’s lure didn’t last. When the State Fair of Texas offered to buy the statue for $750, a deal was made. With a new identity, career switch, and change of wardrobe, the barrel-chested man was reborn as the state fair’s icon, as much a part of the fair as the Statue of Liberty is to New York Harbor.
Over the years, Big Tex underwent a few changes. His jeans and western shirt have been provided by Levi Strauss, H. D. Lee Company, and the Williamson-Dickie Company. Plastic surgery on his face corrected an odd wink and straightened his nose. He was given the ability to talk through a movable jaw. In 1997 a new steel skeleton improved his posture, allowing one hand to wave to passersby. Big Tex celebrated his 50th birthday in 2002 with his own AARP card and a cake.
My first encounter with Big Tex occurred in elementary school. Each year I saved my babysitting money to spend during Fair Day—an official school holiday. Riding the bus across town with friends from the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff, we entered the fairground gates and were greeted by Big Tex’s booming “Howdy.” Once inside, we headed for the Hall of State or the Women’s Building (free food samples!) or perhaps to the Automobile Building or Natural History Museum. Our parting words to each other would invariably be, “Meet me at Big Tex at noon.” That’s when we’d pause by the big guy’s size-70 boots for a Fletcher’s Corny Dog or a pink cloud of cotton candy before hitting the midway rides. The Wild Mouse, Tilt-A-Whirl, double Ferris wheel, Hammer, and Comet occupied the rest of our day. Big Tex oversaw it all.
So imagine my shock when I heard the sad news that Big Tex caught fire and burned, leaving only his steel skeletal remains. How could that have happened? Had someone carelessly thrown a lit cigarette at his blue jeans? Had a firework ignited his Western shirt? Or, as suggested by someone on Facebook, had terrorists attacked the symbol of the State Fair of Texas? Although autopsy results have not been released, the cause seems to have been much less dramatic. Fair officials believe an electrical problem sparked the fatal conflagration.
Fair officials vow to have an even bigger and better Big Tex in place for next year’s annual event. But to those of us who remember the original cowboy’s towering presence and booming welcome, a day at the fair won’t be quite the same without a “Howdy” from our old friend, the original Big Tex.
NOTE: Just a few weeks ago a group of Oak Cliff Baby Boomers met at Big Tex during a day at the fair. Pictures were taken and memories shared. They didn’t know they were bidding him farewell. Somehow it seems appropriate that these Baby Boomers gathered at the feet of Big Tex – a 60-year-old Baby Boomer himself.
Photo of Oak Cliff Boomers graciously provided by Mary Newton Maxwell
Photo of Big Tex (yellow shirt): Andreas Praefcke (Own work)
or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D,
via Wikimedia Commons
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