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Dallas History

The Long, Troubled, and Often Bizarre History of the State Fair of Texas

The State Fair is on. Let's take a look back at all the strange, dark, and wonderful things that define its existence.
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Author and Dallas Times Herald columnist John Rogers once told a story that, during the 1890s, a woman went to the powerful Dallas business leader John Armstrong looking for a $5,000 loan to pay for additional labor at her business. It didn’t take long for Armstrong to surmise what the woman did. She was a madam of a brothel in downtown Dallas.

Prostitution was legal at the time, but the oldest profession was still frowned upon by the polite and ardently religious social circles of upper crust, of which Armstrong belonged. The banker and real estate developer asked the woman when she planned to pay the money back. After the State Fair, she said. Armstrong promptly signed off on the note. The State Fair, he knew, was good business for Dallas and he would likely see a return on his investment. Sure enough, after the run of the fair, the woman returned Armstrong’s money with interest.

The State Fair of Texas has long embodied many of the civic and social paradoxes that define Dallas. The State Fair is the ultimate celebration of Texas culture, tradition, food, and kitsch—the place where all the iconic stuff of Texas life, from football to cattle to music to truck sales, come together. But over the years it has also been the setting of protest, confrontation, shrewd haggling, political struggle, and social progress. As we settle into the 133rd edition of the fair, we look back at the long, strange trip of the State Fair of Texas.

Fair Park’s Esplanade, circa 1936.

1870s: Before the Beginning

Dallas was only a fledgling hamlet on the Trinity River when the first State Fair was held in 1870 on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou in Houston. The event was an immediate success, and two years later, organizers moved to a larger site north of the city and built a grandstand and racetrack. Houston built a streetcar line to trolley Houstonians from downtown to the event’s front gate, but the event folded after an economic downturn and a yellow fever epidemic in the late 1870s.

1880s: Two Rival Fairs in Dallas

Dallas business leaders knew an opportunity when they saw it. In 1886 a consortium of Dallas’ early mega-developers—including William H. Gaston, Thomas Marsalis, and John S. Armstrong—decided to yank the State Fair from Houston.

However, disagreements among the businessmen quickly arose. Gaston purchased 80 acres in East Dallas for the fair, but other organizers wanted to hold the event at a spot north of town. Unable to reconcile, 1886 saw charters filed for two fairs. Gaston’s Dallas State Fair opened on the site of Fair Park on October 26. The rival Texas State Fair and Exposition opened the day before in present day Uptown. Although both fairs attracted crowds, neither covered expenses, so the following year the two organizations merged to become the State Fair of Texas. They held the event on Gaston’s land in East Dallas. Through the 1880s, fairgoers were entertained by reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg and Custer’s Last Stand, a machine that killed fish with electricity, and 15-pound yams. 

Segregated City, Segregated Entertainment

In 1889, Fair organizers created “Colored People’s Day,” which set aside one day during the run of the fair to allow African Americans to attend. The segregation of the fair reflected a segregated city, and the fair would continue to serve over the decades as a setting for expressing symbolic civic values and an arena of social protest. In 1910, Colored People’s Day was eliminated. In 1923, the fair held Ku Klux Klan Day, and attracted 160,000 Klan members and saw a record 25,000 new members inducted into the white supremacist group. African Americans would not be allowed back into the fair until the 1936 Texas Centennial.

Mishaps, Crises, and a Land Swap

Top attractions, ranging from Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley to John Philip Sousa and Booker T. Washington, drew thousands to the State Fair in its first few decades. But by the turn of the century, mishaps and catastrophes stole the headlines. In 1900, a grandstand caught fire during a firework display and collapsed. In 1902, a fire burned the fair’s main exhibit to the ground. The worst blow, however, struck in 1903 when the Texas Legislature banned gambling on horse racing. Gambling served as the primary source of income for the fair, and without it, the fair would go bankrupt. Organizers hatched a plan to save their bottom line by convincing the city of Dallas to purchase the fairgrounds, shuffling off the burden of maintaining the property to taxpayers’ pocketbook.

Presidential Visits and Expansion

The reorganization of the State Fair was successful, and during the second decade of the 20th century, attendance reached the million visitors mark. President William Howard Taft and Comanche Chief Quanah Parker visited the fair in 1909. Woodrow Wilson followed in 1911. By the 1920s, the park was expanding. The Music Hall was completed in 1925, and after the racetrack was converted into the Cotton Bowl, the Red River Shootout between the University of Texas and Oklahoma University moved to the fair in 1929, with UT winning 21-0. Aside from a one-year hiatus in 1916 during World War I, the State Fair continued to grow.

The Hall of State at Fair Park. Photo by Josh Blaylock.

The Texas Centennial

Around 1900, Texas began considering hosting a massive celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Texas Revolution. Although Dallas wasn’t founded until after the revolution, the city managed to beat out potential hosts of Houston and San Antonio by offering $7.8 million to the organizing committee. They money would go revitalize the fairgrounds for the centennial. The modern era of Fair Park was born with the construction of a massive campus of Art Deco buildings. Most of the buildings, murals, and statues added to Fair Park were built or designed as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal work programs. During the six-month exhibition, six million people flocked to Dallas. Many witnessed the “Cavalcade of Texas,” a historical pageant that depicted four centuries of Texas history.

The Negro Hall of Life

The 1936 Centennial marked the first time since 1910 that African Americans were allowed into Fair Park. Among the improvements to the park included the construction of the Hall of Negro Life, which housed exhibitions that comprised the first official recognition of the contribution of African Americans to American history and culture by any fair in the United States.

The George Dahl-designed Hall of Negro Life was organized by Dallas’ most influential early civil rights leaders, including Eugene K. Jones, chair of the federal Negro Advisory Committee; Jesse O. Thomas, a prominent educator and the first director of the Southern Field Division of the National Urban League; and Antonio Maceo Smith, the first executive secretary of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce. After its dedication on Juneteenth, about 400,000 people visited the exhibit, around 60 percent of whom were white. Each received a free copy of W.E.B. DuBois’s What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas and they saw exhibits interpreting African American contributions to education, agriculture, medicine, business, industry, and art and culture.

When the exposition was over, the Negro Hall of Life was the first building to be razed by the city.

Photo by Jason Janik.

The Golden Age

During World War II, the State Fair suspended operations. When it returned, the fair entered a golden era. A record two million visitors poured into Fair Park in 1949, where they ate Fletcher’s Corny Dogs. In 1950, performers at the fair included a young singer from Memphis named Elvis Presley. In 1952, the State Fair hosted the first modern chili cookoff, and an oversized Santa Claus statue that once sat atop a department store in Kerens, TX was refitted with jeans and a cowboy hat: Big Tex was born.

In 1956, the fair unveiled the first commercially operated monorail in the United States. And in 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon lead the opening day celebrations. During the 1950s, the fair introduced an international livestock competition, and the Dallas Museum of Art hosted an annual exhibition of Texas artists.

The extent to which the pomp and pageantry of the State Fair of Texas had pervaded the popular imagination was captured by the 1962 Rogers and Hammerstein musical State Fair, staring Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, and Pamela Tiffin. And in 1964, the Beatles played the State Fair Colosseum the night before opening day.

Grounds for Protest

In 1955, a teenage girl who performed at the fair with a high school marching band from tiny Memphis, TX fell to her death from the Ferris wheel. It was the same year that Juanita Craft, the leader of the Dallas NAACP Youth Council, staged a protest and picket line against the fair’s “Negro Appreciation Day.” Craft wanted African Americans to be allowed to participate in the fair every day, and she urged the black community to boycott the fair. Two years later, the fair would drop the word “Negro” from the event, and the fair ceased segregating attendance in 1961.

But even as the fair began to allow African Americans to attend throughout its annual run, fair organizers worked to buffer the fairgrounds from the surrounding community. In 1966, the State Fair created a report that explicitly laid out plans for the fair and the city to acquire homes—at less than market value—around Fair Park in order to build massive parking lots. That 1966 report found that visiting Fair Park created “intense emotional discomfort in middle-class white residents of Dallas,” and concluded that “The solution for all of these conflicts, at least in terms of Fair Park’s location, is simple. All that is required is to eliminate the problem from sight. If the poor Negroes in their shacks cannot be seen, all the guilt feeling revealed above will disappear, or at least be removed from primary consideration.”

The seizing of the predominately African American community sparked outrage, and in 1969, civil rights leader Peter Johnson helped organize local homeowners. They would blockade the annual Cotton Bowl Parade unless mayor J. Erik Jonsson agreed to meet with South Dallas homeowners and hear their demands.

South Dallas homeowners and civil rights leaders huddled in the basement of a nearby church. They received bomb threats but were determined to hold out. Late into the night, Mayor Jonsson finally called them to City Hall to negotiate. The following day, one of the community leaders, Al Lipscomb, rode with the mayor in the parade. Although the resistance would not be enough to stop the decimation of South Dallas, the fair helped galvanize activists. Through the 1970s, Lipscomb would lead anti-apartheid protests and helped to push the fair to end its annual “South Africa Day,” which celebrated that country’s apartheid regime.

Freak Shows, Funnel Cakes, and Fun

During the 1970s the fair till featured a mix of more unsavory attractions—including freak shows and other oddities—along side the rides, games, food, and entertainment that defines the fair today. The 1980s saw the introduction of the Texas Star Ferris wheel, at the time the tallest west of the Mississippi.

Midway accidents in 1979 and 1983 inspired the introduction of a ride safety program that has been modeled by much of the amusement industry. The fair was extended from 17 to 24 days, eventually growing to be the largest in the United States. In the 1980s, a second historic rivalry moved to the Cotton Bowl when Grambling State and Prairie View A&M moved to the Cotton Bowl. The opening Saturday of 1985 was designated “Eddie Robinson Day,” after the Grambling coach who became the winningest coach in college football history. In 1986 Fair Park was designated a national historic landmark, and the fair celebrated its hundredth anniversary with a 31 day celebration that attracted nearly four million visitors.

Fried Food Heaven

In 2005, the State Fair established the Big Texas Choice Awards to celebrate the variety of fried food concoctions introduced each year. The first year’s winner was a fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The next year saw the introduction of fried Coke. Over the years, creative food venders at the fair introduced the world to fried cookie dough, fried butter, fried beer, and fried bubblegum. But the most perfectly Texan of all Big Texas Choice Awards winners had to be fried Frito pie.

Financial Success—Concerns

Through the first two decades of the 21st century, the State Fair raked in record coupon sales and regularly drew between 2 and 3 million visitors per year. That success helped fuel enthusiasm for an effort to expand the fair’s operations throughout the year. In 2012, the State Fair spent $30 million to launch Summer Adventures, but the summer season failed to attract visitors and was shut down in 2014.

“Got a rather tall cowboy with his clothes burned off,” the dispatcher called out.

As the fair reported record sales, it faced increased scrutiny from city officials and community members who questioned the organization’s investment in its home at Fair Park. A 2017 audit found that the city was not monitoring how the fair was reinvesting its obligated contributions of excess revenues into Fair Park, and the investments the organization made in Fair Park were often limited to facilities it used during the run of the annual event.

The audit also found that at least three of the other businesses operating at Fair Park—including Dallas Summer Musicals, the Dallas Historical Society, and the foundation that operates the African American Museum—were losing money. The State Fair responded by investing $8 million in Fair Park, but the audit increased calls to change the way Fair Park and the State Fair were managed.

Animation and art by Brian K Jones.

‘A Tall Cowboy With His Clothes Burned Off’

On October 19, 2012, an electrical malfunction in the mechanical neck of Big Tex caused a fire that quickly engulfed the iconic talking cowboy in flames.

“Got a rather tall cowboy with his clothes burned off,” the dispatcher called out. The entirety of the former Santa Claus was incinerated before firefighters arrived on the scene. The following year, the State Fair introduced a new and improved Big Tex. He was taller, heavier, and constructed to withstand winds upwards of 100 mph. Big Tex also came with a new voice, and while many of the former voices of Big Tex—Al Jones, Jim Lowe, Bill Bragg—were all local celebrities in their own right, since 2012, the fair has kept the voice behind the giant cowboy secret.

A Private Future for Fair Park

In 2014, Mayor Mike Rawlings created the Fair Park Task Force to address Fair Park’s crumbling infrastructure, underuse, and future potential. State Fair organizers turned the park over to the city at the beginning of the 20th century. Now the task force recommended the city turn park operations over to a private entity. A private group headed by oilman and philanthropist Walt Humann initially stepped forward with a proposal to operate the park, but some members of the Dallas City Council pushed to open the process to a public bid. The city attorney agreed, triggering several potential private operators to submit plans. In 2018, the city signed a contract with Spectra, a venue management and entertainment company with clients throughout the world.

Critics of the State Fair long cited its large footprint, demanding schedule, and inadequate reinvestment in Fair Park as reasons for the city asset’s underutilization. As Spectra begins to operate Fair Park, it remains to be seen how that will impact the future impact of the fair.

Will the State Fair agree to change its footprint or adjust the length of time it requires to set-up and break down the annual event? Will Fair Park be able to be used for more events? How will they address the issues of connectivity with the surrounding neighborhood? After all, this problem was created by the city and the fair after eminent domain led to a moat of excessive parking around the neighborhoods that is only in use for a few weeks a year. But it impacts the community year-round.

The State Fair extended its contract with the city around the same time the city signed the new deal with Spectra. What we know is this: after 133 years, the State Fair of Texas is here to stay. That means plenty more years of butter sculptures, prized livestock, tractor sales, Fletcher’s dogs, and fireworks. Let’s hope Spectra and the city can solve the problems of its past.

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