It’s not just a Texas-size fair; it’s the largest state fair in the world, and has been ever since it was launched in 1886. From the beginning, its founders, eight Dallas businessmen with not only money but also vision aplenty, were determined to make the State Fair of Texas an eye-popping, jaw-dropping marvel. They succeeded admirably, and their successors haven’t let them down. The fair still boggles the mind and dazzles the senses. It takes up every bit of the 277 acres of Fair Park, the handsome, manicured grounds that grew from eighty acres of soggy, “hog wallow prairie,” as it was once referred to by its own directors.
And indeed, the word “fair” is hardly a fair description of the event. It includes the clamorous, colorful midway, where, for three weeks a year, carnival rides beckon to kids and grown-ups alike, spinning and dipping and sailing. They have ranged from basic bumper cars to the late lamented Comet roller coaster to the Texas Star Ferris wheel, an enduring favorite (it was introduced in 1985) that lifts fairgoers 212 feet, 6 inches into the air for a panoramic view of Big D. Better wait till after those stomach-churning rides to sample the fair’s famed junk food, such as Belgian waffles; nut-crusted, chocolate-covered ice cream cones; and the number one pick for more than half a century, the corny dog.
But that’s only one section of the fairgrounds. There are also many more attractions: the traditional (and huge) livestock show, with almost every breed of critter imaginable, as well as concerts galore (past performers have ranged from Elvis Presley to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Cooking competitions are a classic too (this year there’s a Spam-off on September 30). The exhibits invariably include replicas, such as this year’s re-creation of the White House in its Christmas finery; past handiwork included, in 1887, a replica of the Washington Monument made out of human teeth and, in 1909, a copy of the Alamo chapel that drew reverent throngs.
Below are fifty entertaining tidbits of information about the State Fair of Texas, gleaned from its 117-year history. Most of these nuggets came from the astonishingly trivia-packed volume The Great State Fair of Texas: An Illustrated History. The author, Nancy Wiley, was the perfect person to write the book: She has worked for the fair’s public relations department since 1971. Among the hundreds of acts Wiley has helped lure to the fair, two are her favorites: The Trinidad and Tobago steel drum band, which wowed audiences in the mid-seventies, and the Tiger Island exhibit of the mid-nineties, which was an actual island set up in the esplanade and inhabited by Bengal and Siberian tigers. However, Wiley has words of comfort for fairgoers who feel they’ve barely sampled the sights at day’s end: “Even we who work here usually don’t manage to see it all in the whole three weeks—there’s hardly enough time!” And she also likes to tell a funny story about her pre-fair life: “The year before I started working here, I brought my six-year-old son to the fair, and he fussed and whined the whole time. I said, `So help me, I’m never setting foot in this place again.’ Never say never.”
Fifty fairly interesting moments from the State Fair of Texas:
1887: Carlo, a local dog who became famous when he saved a woman from drowning, loses fans when he gets loose at the fair, kills two white rats and a mockingbird, and is finally captured while consuming a prize-winning cockatoo.
1889: A Tyler man showcases his multipurpose invention, which simultaneously churns butter, rocks a baby’s cradle, and shoos flies away from the table.
1891: The fair features a two-headed woman, Millie Christine, who is actually a pair of Siamese, or conjoined, twins.
1897: Two animal oddities on display are an 80,000-pound whale, preserved in a sea of embalming fluid, as well as the oldest living Confederate war horse.
1900: Former slave and prominent black educator Booker T. Washington speaks to crowds on Colored People’s Day, the one time during the fair that African Americans are allowed to attend.
1900: Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, featuring the famed sharpshooter Annie Oakley—along with six hundred horses, a herd of buffalo and dozens of other acts—attracts 70,000 fans.
1905: Visitors are agog over Igorrote Village, an encampment of 32 Philippines in huts identical to those of their homeland, because the native people dine on dog meat and receive three large animals as daily fare.
1909: William Howard Taft becomes the first president to visit the State Fair of Texas.
1909: Prince Nicholi, a Russian midget who stands only 22 1/2 inches tall, appears at the fair and widely broadcasts his desire to marry a rich Texas heiress. He fails in his quest for love, but in a sudden dramatic turn, is nearly stolen by a someone who tries to stuff him into a topcoat pocket. He escapes, and the wannabe kidnapper is never found.
1915: Female fairgoers are dismayed to discover that every ladies’ room in the fairgrounds has been equipped with coin-operated toilets.
1919: Jazz makes its debut at the State Fair.
1922: Linz Jewelers of Dallas creates a breathtakingly elaborate and expensive display that depicts Alexander Dumas’ hero the Count of Monte Cristo in a cave filled with real diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and pearls. Security guards are posted at the site to protect the $250,000 worth of gems.
1929: The hydrogen-filled Goodyear Balloon explodes and hits a power line, cutting all electricity throughout the fairgrounds for thirty minutes. No one is injured.
1929: A popular exhibit is a near-life-size replica of a battleship, the U.S.S. Pomelo, created entirely from grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes, and kumquats.
1932: An actual Seminole Indian village is transplanted to the fair, but visitors receive an unexpected authentic glimpse into Native American culture when the chief, Tom Billy, dies unexpectedly, launching the tribe into mourning.
1934: A performer named Bob Roberts makes sword swallowing look relatively easy in comparison by sticking an entire Ford automobile axle down his throat (and surviving!).
1935: After the State of