If you feel your arteries starting to clog and the fragrance of animal feces won’t leave your nose, don’t be alarmed; it just means the State Fair of Texas is almost here and your body is preparing. From Sept. 28 to Oct. 22, the State Fair magically transforms Fair Park from a dangerous murder trap to a slightly less dangerous murder trap.
It’s a time to celebrate all things Texas. It’s the one time out of the year when Texans from all over the state can finally take a break from eating clean vegan lifestyles and finally eat some deep fried meat batter. A time when every child is given a day off school to go, never taking into account their parents don’t work at the school, thus they're still required to go to their job instead of the fair.
In all those years the fair has been hanging up lights and rigging midway games, a lot has happened. The Dallas Observer’s official Historical Archives Department has found a few things you might not know about the State Fair of Texas. Is there anything we might have missed? Well then make your own paper, and include it in an article there.
A Beginning That Almost Wasn’t
On Oct. 26, 1886, the State Fair of Texas welcomed guests for the first time. An estimated 14,000 people were present for the first day, a small number compared with the average attendance of 92,000 people per day in 2017. By the last day of the fair’s inaugural year on Nov. 7, 1886, more than 100,000 fair-goers were estimated to have passed through the gates, just barely more than one day of business now.
It was a fair that almost didn’t happen, as two businessmen, W.H. Gaston and C.A. Keating, disagreed about everything. There was a dispute as to where the event should be, so in true Dallas fashion, they each made their own fair and both ultimately lost money on their individual ventures. Fair Park would ultimately become the site for the fair, and both men settled their differences by riding an oversized tandem bike, as was the custom in those days.
Sometimes the Show Doesn’t Go On
There have been a few years when the fair was canceled — and for the grimmest of reasons. The presence of World War I canceled the State Fair in 1918, and Fair Park was turned into an army encampment. Air Force volunteers would receive pre-flight training, and after completing the first phase, would be sent to Camp John Dick Aviation Concentration Center, or Camp Dick, to receive further processing.
During 1942 to 1945, the fair was also canceled while World War II raged on. The temporary closure didn’t cause anyone to forget about it, as the State Fair went on to do some of its best business in the years following the multi-year shutdown.
There was a time you could gather the family, go visit the State Fair of Texas and lose your mortgage betting on horse racing. Now if you bet on animals at the State Fair, they ask you to leave the petting zoo and “ban you for life,” but at the turn of the century, it was encouraged. In the first years of the fair, horse racing, as it was in many parts of Texas, was the most popular attraction. Horse racing enthusiasts would say it was about the sport of it, but when Texas banned gambling on horse racing in 1903, people seemed to lose interest.
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The new law was a major blow financially to a fair still gaining traction with crowds, removing the main revenue stream the event depended on. From there the promoters tried to replace the now gambling-free horse racing with other events, like rabbit races, where a rabbit would race a greyhound dog around the now vacant track. Eventually football filled the vacuum that horse racing left, and everyone agreed to never gamble on the sport.
Big Tex History
In 1952 the one and only highly flammable mascot Big Tex made his debut at the State Fair of Texas. When he was first built though, he was lot less cowboy and a lot more Santa Claus. The town of Kerens, Texas, built a 49-foot-tall Santa Claus to encourage residents to spend money in Kerens rather than make the drive to Corsicana. To be clear here, the rationale was to build a giant Santa Claus so people would stay in the town; not even necessarily as a tourist attraction, but as a way to get Kerens residents to not spend their Christmas dollars in nearby Corsicana. You can get most people to not go to Corsicana by saying, “Hey, do you want anything else at all?”
After the Santa Claus experiment ran its course, the State Fair bought the large character for $750, refitted him with some cowboy clothes, and history was made. Just think, if the lure of Corsicana wasn’t so irresistible to people, Big Tex might not exist. Legend is, if you tell Big Tex what you want for Christmas, on Christmas morning a corn dog will be in your stocking.
There was a Ku Klux Klan Day
On Oct. 24, 1923, the State Fair of Texas hosted a Ku Klux Klan day. Imagine a furry convention, but racist and horrifying. A crowd of 160,000 people were present for the infamously themed day, but there’s no definite number stating how many of those attendees were active Klan members, and how many never forget to check an events calendar before making plans ever again. That night, 25,000 people watched 5,631 men graduate to Klan members, with 800 women joining the auxiliary. The day was momentous for the Klan, as this was the largest initiation in the group’s history, and it was also the first graduation any of the members were able to attend.