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.

September 2003By Comments

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, and Fair Park was born. (It’s now a National Historic Landmark.) Dallas was Big D, and its growth paralleled the state’s transition from a farming economy to one driven by ranching, industry, and oil. Texas retained its pride in the past—as celebrated in the Hall of State, a cathedral devoted to its revolutionary glory—but looked firmly toward the future.

At the Centennial Exposition, as at all the State Fairs, celebrities abounded. John Nance Garner, of Uvalde, dropped by, as did his boss, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Fort Worth girl Ginger Rogers showed up too. Not all the talent was nearly that memorable or classy: In 1940 gawkers filed by Alice From Dallas, a 595-pound fat lady, and Mildred Dolly, “the only midget fan dancer in the world.” The State Fair musical was long a hot-ticket item; in 1947 it was Annie, Get Your Gun, starring Mary Martin, of Weatherford. Young men ogled the exotic dancers, such as Corinne the Apple Dancer, who performed clad only in apples, in 1938 and beloved stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in 1947. A far more shocking performance—in retrospect, at least—took place in 1923 on KKK Day, when Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans, a Dallas dentist, stood up to denounce Negroes, Catholics, and Jews. (I kinda wish ol’ Hiram was still around, so I could tell him that Fair Park’s African American Museum is already ten years old.) Occasionally, even mere ticket holders turned heads, as was the case with an Oklahoma trio in 1909: Mr. and Mrs. and Mrs. Quanah Parker (he left his other five wives at home).

Of course, since 1952 the single biggest celebrity at the State Fair has been Big Tex, the 52-foot-tall talking cowboy. He’s tough—he survived wind damage from Hurricane Carla in 1961—but also vain, having had plastic surgery on both his nose and chin. He loves clothes and dons a new Western shirt every year. He used to wear Lee jeans, but recently switched to Fort Worth-made Dickies (waist 284, length 185).

Big Tex points toward the entrance to the midway, the wondrously sleazy, cheesy ride-and-arcade row perfumed with the aroma of Belgian waffles, chili cheese fries, and corny dogs (introduced at the State Fair in 1942 by Dallas brothers Neil and Carl Fletcher). The roller coaster, which debuted at the 1888 fair, was soon joined by another carnival classic, the carousel of painted horses. (The current one, manufactured in 1914, is still around, and around, and around . . .). Most rides stayed fairly simple until after World War II, when technological innovation led to the Roll-O-Plane, Tubs-O-Fun, Midge-O-Racer, and lots-O-more. Especially memorable were the 1947 Comet, a 59-foot-high coaster (a record at the time), and the 1956 Monorail, the futuristic el that combined entertainment and transport. Today the big draw is the Texas Star, a 212-foot-tall Ferris wheel. It gives its riders such a phenomenal view that they almost forget to be scared.

What does frighten fairgoers, though, is violent crime. In 1985 alone the State Fair recorded 2 murders, 3 rapes, 28 assaults, and 24 robberies. In 2000 a worker heading home was shot dead in a parking lot, and in 2001—despite extra security measures after the terrorist attacks—a fair visitor was injured in another shooting. Nonviolent crime includes ticket scalping (which was made illegal in 1941, the first time the Texas-OU game sold out) and ticket forgery; last year shocked officials—and furious fans—discovered that thousands of tickets for the State Fair Classic football game between Prairie View A&M and Grambling State were counterfeit.

Still, like its famous Ferris wheel, the fair remains a Texas star to millions of Texans. And it’s a movie star to boot. In 1962 it was the subject of—what else?—State Fair, the third version, in which Texas has replaced Iowa. Hokey as the plot is, soigné Dallas buzzed about the heartthrobs in its midst—pop singers Pat Boone and Bobby Darin and curvy ingenue Ann-Margret. Naturally, Big Tex had a bit part, as did corny dogs, cotton candy, and the midway. And there were at least eight hundred pounds of comic relief—provided by Blue Boy, a happy, mud-wallowing hog.

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