All’s Fair

With its corny dogs and carnival rides, the 117-year-old state fair exhibits the down-home side of Texas' most sophisticated city.

It’s fitting that the typical visitor to the State Fair of Texas looks happier than a pig in mud. After all, the site of the fair, which debuted in 1886, was dubbed a “hog wallow” by its organizers because its eighty acres turned into gumbo with the merest sprinkle of rain. The State Fair is only two miles from Dallas’ concrete canyons, but it represents the fun, unguarded side of Texas’ most sophisticated, self-assured city. During the fair, Dallas-ites prefer squealing in delight to looking down their collective snoot.

Well, maybe they’re even a little snooty about the State Fair, and who can blame them? It’s the original Textravaganza, a combination of parade, carnival, livestock show, music performance, museum, and assorted weird stuff that now sprawls over 277 acres. During its three-week run every fall (September 26 through October 19 this year), it attracts more than three million people—mostly Metroplexers these days, given the proliferation of theme parks in more-distant cities. In its 117-year history, the fair has showcased everything from Elvis Presley to a life-size butter sculpture of a milkmaid and her cow, from a tribute to the toothpick to the 45-carat Hope Diamond. Sure, some things have changed—general admission has jumped from 25 cents to $12—but some haven’t: Attendees have complained about problems with parking since 1900, when late arrivals had nowhere to tie up their horses.

Dallas was only 45 years old when its pioneer founders decided to create the fair of fairs, and they reached for the brass ring. This would be no piddling county fair but a huge shebang worthy of the nation’s biggest state. The eight directors each put up thousands of dollars and borrowed even more to create the Dallas State Fair and Exposition Association, in which they bought stock. They then built stables, an arena, exhibit buildings, and—most important—a mile-long track for horse racing. They established more than 1,200 categories for ribbons, diplomas, and cash prizes (up to $1,500), persuaded railroads to offer ticket discounts, and lined up eye-opening, jaw-dropping spectacles, including a trapeze artist who performed while suspended from a hot-air balloon five hundred feet above the ground and an “Indian Encampment” of one hundred Comanche, Kiowa, and Delaware, with “ponies, bows, tents, [and] Squaws,” who, the organizers promised, “will be fresh from their Reservations, and for the first time in their lives be quartered in peaceable relations with the white man in a white-man city.”

The first fair was a smash—except it ended up more than a hundred grand in the hole. But as one-time fair president J. T. Trezevant later opined, the directors were full of “the spirit of never-surrender.” They carried on with plans for 1887 and lost even more money, then faced a steady stream of other calamities. In 1888 a fairgoer died in an accident on a newfangled ride that had generated much buzz, a wooden roller coaster. Fire destroyed the principal exposition building in 1890 and the racing stables in 1891  four years later the restaurant row burned. In 1900 the bleachers at the baseball park collapsed, and—although Trezevant sniffed that “the highest seat from the ground was not more than 45 inches”—dozens of visitors sued for problems such as “ovarism damages,” costing the fair some $10,000 in legal settlements.

But the directors were dealt their greatest blow in 1903, when the Legislature banned racetrack betting. (Horse racing was then the equivalent of today’s football, so you can imagine the outcry.) Thoroughly disheartened, the directors approached municipal bigwigs with an offer to give the city the fairgrounds if it would pay off their debt of $80,000. Dallas, which has always known a good deal when it sees one, agreed.

The city eventually expanded the competition categories to almost two thousand. Until the mid-1910’s, one of them was “Old Ladies Work,” such as a “netted lace specimen” (an escapee from the lepidopterists’ display?). Other needlework categories for ladies of all ages included “infant’s wardrobe, most sensible and neat” and “fine shirt, hand made, unwashed” (!). Good cooks might hope to prevail with pickled mangoes or homemade chowchow or White Mountain cake (whatever the heck that is).

Livestock long dominated the fair, as befitted a state that was then almost exclusively agricultural. For ten years the stables and pens were just inside the main entrance, despite complaints to president Trezevant about “odors, flies, and general uncleanliness.” Hundreds of breeds ranged from the predictable Hereford cattle to the amusingly named Dorking chickens. Crops were almost as laureled as livestock, and the fair board wisely awarded prizes for cotton, wool, and corn by area, thus ensuring the return of exhibitors from Arkansas, Louisiana, Indian Territory, and so on. Even manufacturers and craftsmen had a shot at a ribbon or certificate, in categories ranging from best collection of velocipedes to best display of artificial limbs.

Despite its location in a big city, the fair retained its homespun, pioneer feel up through about 1917. The next year the fair was canceled because of World War I, but it was relaunched in 1919. Homecoming soldiers had missed their football, so in 1921 Dallas built its first football stadium on the fairgrounds. The all-wood structure, which seated only 15,000, was woefully inadequate, and within two years the city began planning another one three times bigger. Soon the Cotton Bowl, as the new stadium was dubbed, began hosting the annual Texas- OU clash, which is still the highlight of the State Fair (frequently providing extra drama when the Sooners threaten to move the game out of Dallas).

The presence of the Cotton Bowl gave Dallas an extra boost when it began to lobby the state to host the highly anticipated Texas Centennial Exposition, a jewel also coveted by Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. When a new generation of Dallas businessmen drummed up $5.5 million in donations, the tide turned in the city’s favor. By 1936 that money, along with some $25 million in state funds, had bankrolled 21 permanent buildings in what their architect, Dallasite George Dahl, termed a “Texanic” style,

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