Big Tex, a Little History, and the State Fair of Texas

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A Little History on Big Tex as the State Fair of Texas Kicks Off

As the saying goes, “Everything is bigger in Texas.” Nobody fits this mantra better than the official mascot of the State Fair of Texas. Big Tex is a common sight and landmark at the State Fair; however, most aren’t aware of his humble (and peculiar) origins.

In 1949, the original man-like structure was erected in a small town by the name of Kerens, Texas. Kerens sits about halfway between Corsicana and Athens. Every year, the citizens of Kerens got together to decorate the town for Christmas. The Secretary of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, Eugene Howell Brister, had a different idea - something much, much bigger. After all, everything is bigger in Texas.

Eugene was the 1940s version of the man on your street who spends thousands of dollars on front yard Christmas decorations. He decided that a monstrously large Santa Claus needed to be displayed in the center of downtown Kerens to attract those from all over to their Christmas market. He wanted to create a sight that would encourage visitors to spend money at the local Christmas shops (and boy did he succeed).

This Santa Claus was equal parts impressive and scary. He was 52 feet tall and to be frank, looked like something that would give your kids nightmares. Eugene modeled the Santa Claus after a local grocer named Hardy Mayo. The man was a few inches over six feet tall and weighed approximately 270 pounds. Eugene decided the statue would be 8.5 times bigger than Mr. Mayo.

He constructed the Santa using oil field pipes and paper mache. They claimed he was the world’s largest Santa Claus. I’m assuming this is how large Santa Claus would actually be after eating all those cookies the kids leave for him. The promotion was a huge success. However, there was something that Eugene failed to account for - how to take the Christmas decorations down. A 52-foot Santa isn’t exactly something a town wishes to leave up year-round. 

They didn’t know what to do with him. After all, a giant Santa Claus is quite the storage issue. Two years later, the town was quite ready to be done with the oversized Santa that made their city famous. They ultimately sold him to the State Fair of Texas for $750. If one accounts for the 882.9% inflation that took place in the United States from 1951 to 2019, that would cost approximately $7,371 today. Still, a pretty good bargain if you ask me.

It’s quite humorous to imagine how they transported this giant statue from one location to another. I’d love to be stuck behind that 18-wheeler on I-45. The reality is that the moving team disassembled the pipes that created the structure, only to recreate the assembly in Fair Park - with a few changes.

The President of the State Fair hired a famous Dallas artist by the name of Jack Bridges. Jack was tasked with the challenging feat of turning this 52-foot Santa into a 52-foot Cowboy. Thus, the history of the 52-foot Santa was complete. Eugene Howell Brister was made famous for his creation in Texas. On his gravestone, he wears the badge with honor. It reads, “Would like to be remembered as the creator of Big Tex.”

One short year later, the Big Tex we know and love was officially unveiled wearing his famous boots (size 70) and 75-gallon hat. The Lee Company (the same company that makes jeans today) donated a giant part of denim jeans and a plaid shirt to complete the image. 

The fashion reconstruction was complete; however, Jack Bridges still had a lot of aesthetic work to do. It was now time for him to reconstruct Big Tex’s face - what a challenging task! As the future mascot of all things Texas, how do you choose a face that most embodies a man who represents such a large state? He did what any man would do in that position - he decided to model Big Tex after himself. 

He decided he might get in a bit of trouble if he created a spitting image of himself. To quote Bridges, “We took the ugly features of me, the ugly features of an old farmer friend -- the composite of that was the first Big Tex.” The President of the State Fair indicated to Bridges that he didn’t like the look, so another makeover was needed in the following year.

Bridges added the best features of famous actor Will Rogers because he claims, “They wanted a pretty boy.” He cut less than half a foot off the nose, opened his eyes a tad more, and made his ears look less like the poster boy of Mad magazine. They decided they would store the old head of Big Tex in a warehouse and forget about him.

More than 40 years later, the original “ugly” head of Big Tex was sold at an auction. A Dallas collector bought the former head for approximately $1,300. It’s unclear what he plans to do with the head outside of storing it as memorabilia. If he had done something big with it, I think we might’ve seen the giant head by now.

In 1953, they placed loudspeakers inside the Big Tex structure so that he could say “Howdy!” to the thousands of visitors at the State Fair. In 2000, Big Tex received a mechanical arm that he could wave to the millions of visitors at the State Fair. 

However, in between this 47 year period, there were countless events and outfit changes necessary to keep Big Tex looking mighty fine. For example, our man in boots received a makeover by the Lee Company, who recognized a marketing opportunity in a new pair of clothes for the big fella.

In 1961, Hurricane Carla tore his clothes off. We would love to make a joke at this but there’s nothing anyone could possibly add to make the fiasco funnier. In 1970, his huge shirt was being transported in the back of a pickup truck when it was stolen.

He even switched his brand loyalty from the Lee company to Dickie’s, who made him a shirt that was over 600 times larger than the shirts they actually sell. It took 8 employees over 2 weeks to construct the outfit.

He was broken down and rebuilt in different cities numerous times. Big Tex traveled to multiple college graduations in the 1950s and even ended up as far away as Minneapolis. The State Fair Committee decided to officially stop transporting him a few years later.

As many of us already know, Big Tex caught on fire in 2012. The entirety of the structure was destroyed in just a few minutes. The fire was started because of an electrical panel in his right boot. The panel powered the air compressor that keeps the large structure inflated. The fire was a terrible sight for many Texans who held Big Tex, and memories of the State Fair, closely in their hearts. 

The State Fair made no announcement regarding his reconstruction. In actuality, they instantly hired a private company to begin repairs (at the hefty cost of $500,000). Big Tex was going to come back bigger than ever!

The San Antonio company that won the contract used steel frame to rebuild him. To create a more lifelike Big Tex, they used silicone for the skin of his face. Before the incident, he weighed 6,000 pounds. The revamped Big Tex weighs in at 25,000 pounds! This allows him to encounter hurricanes like Carla and Rita with an increased ability to survive the night. He can withstand winds of 100 miles per hour.

They also added three feet to his height - because after all - everything is bigger in Texas, including Big Tex.

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