Fair’s Fair

The State Fair has seen it all, from a model of the Washington Monument made entirely out of human teeth to a visit by King Olaf V of Norway on Norweigian Day.

September 2003By Comments

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 Texas taps Dallas to be the site of the Texas Centennial Exhibition, the fair is canceled in preparation for the six-month extravaganza the following year. Nonstop preparations result in the muddy fairgrounds morphing into beautifully landscaped Fair Park, which has 21 permanent structures designed in a bold art deco style.

1936: Violet Hilton, one of a pair of conjoined sisters, is married in the Cotton Bowl in front of 4,500 well-wishers. Her maid of honor is, not surprisingly, her twin, Daisy.

1938: A popular attraction is Bozo, the mind-reading dog.

1942-1945: The fair is suspended during World War II.

1947: One exhibit in the Health Museum are Adolph and Satan, two goats who survived the atomic test blast on Bikini Island.

1948: Fourteen people are hospitalized with food poisoning, and health inspectors subsequently discover five hundred pounds of contaminated meat at various food kiosks.

1950: A frightened dairy cow breaks away from its handler and fatally tramples an elderly man.

1951-1952: Fair president R. L. Thornton purchases a gigantic used Santa Claus from the small town of Kerens, near Corsicana, where it had been used to lure shoppers at Christmas. Thornton then hires Dallas artist Jack Bridges to turn the white-bearded, red-suited figure into a giant cowboy, who is dubbed Big Tex and who quickly becomes the ultimate icon of the State Fair of Texas. He stands 52 feet tall, wears size 70 boots, and sports a 75-gallon cowboy hat.

1955: During the height of the Red Scare, right-wingers demand that the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, which was then located in Fair Park, remove from the “Family of Man” exhibit all works by Russian photographers. The museum refuses, and the exhibit organized by Edward Steichen appears in its full and acclaimed glory.

1956: Big Tex acquires a pet, a twelve-foot-tall model of a Hereford steer with a hollow interior holding a variety of displays such as how milk is produced and how a calf is born—processes that, as Nancy Wiley puts it in her history of the state fair, are “significant accomplishments for a steer of any size.”

1957: Elsie the Borden Cow visits.

1957: As the Cold War gets ever chillier and the space race continues to heat up, the Army allows two Nike missiles to be put on public view, and the Navy okays the release of a scale model of a surveillance satellite.

1958: R. L. Thornton, who has now been fair president for fourteen years and Dallas mayor for three, proposes adding to Fair Park a western-themed amusement park called “Grand Ol’ Texas,” which will include a replica of the Alamo, an oil boomtown, a Wild West saloon, and more. It never gets off the ground.

1962: One of the lagoon paddleboats explodes into flames, apparently from leaking gasoline. Twelve riders are burned, one critically.

1964: Belgian waffles, topped with strawberries and whipped cream, are the year’s junk-food craze. They have already won over fairgoers in Seattle and New York.

1965: Exceptionally rowdy high jinks after the Texas-O.U. game land 371 people in jail.

1967: Dallas Cowboys owner Clint Murchison, Jr., shocks Dallasites and loyalists by announcing he will move his team out of the Cotton Bowl and into a new stadium in the city of Irving. The move is completed in 1971.

1968: For the first time, the State Fair of Texas attracts three million visitors over its three-week run.

1969: Eighty-seven-year-old Georgia Crockett (hometown unnoted) is awarded a blue ribbon for her afghan, the first top award she has won since age seven, when she took first prize in the children’s quilt division.

1973: Former governor John Connally’s Santa Gertrudis bull wins the blue ribbon for that breed.

1974: For the first time in forty years, the state fair includes a rodeo, complete with barrel racing, calf roping, and bull riding.

1978: After management attempts to prevent members of the Hare Krishna sect from pestering fairgoers for donations, members of the group obtain an injunction forcing officials to allow them to continue their activities as an expression of their religious freedom.

1979: Two cable cars fall from the eighty-foot-high Swiss Skyride onto the midway, killing one man and injuring fifteen other people. Some 85 riders are stranded until rescuers can safely extricate them.

1982: King Olaf V of Norway visits on Norwegian Day.

1984: Rain falls on 17 days of the fair’s 24-day run, severely damaging both finances and fun.

1986: Pig races become a standard (and hilarious) feature of the fair, taking place in an area quickly christened Pork Chop Downs.

1989: The wooden Comet roller coaster, a beloved State Fair fixture since 1947, is torn down. Fortunately, Metroplex residents have a knockoff in Six Flags Over Texas’ Judge Roy Scream coaster, which was built in 1980.

1995: A thirty-year-old Dallas woman goes into labor while waiting for her husband and son to finish a boat ride and gives birth to a healthy five-pound, twelve-ounce baby boy.

1997: The State Fair of Texas purchases 47 acres of property adjacent to the fairgrounds for use specifically as parking.

2000: The Women’s Museum, which focuses on pioneering and trailblazing women in politics, sports, literature, art, music, and more, opens in the renovated 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition Administration Building. The new museum is a far cry from the old Women’s Building, which had focused on cooking, sewing, and other once-traditional feminine skills.

2001: Fairgoers sample fried cheesecake for the first time.

2002: Fairgoers try fried Twinkies.

2003: To U.T.’s dismay, O.U. expresses (not for the first time) a desire to move the schools’ famous football clash to a venue other than Dallas’ Cotton Bowl, where the game has been played since 1929. After prolonged negotiation, the universities sign an agreement to continue holding the Red River Shoot-out in the stadium until at least 2006, with a year-to-year option to cancel or change the agreement.

2003: For a temporary change of pace, the State Fair announces that instead of putting butter sculptures on display, it will offer pumpkin carving.

Anne Stover assisted with the research for this article.

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