How the State Fair of Texas in Dallas became the largest annual Fair in the World

How did the State of Texas get so big?  Why is in even in Dallas? –  GD

It does seem odd that something like a Fair which is so closely associated with all things rural is held in the Texas City that views itself as the state’s most cosmopolitan city.  And that the largest annual Fair in the World is held in the City that also has the World’s largest Arts District.  But the State Fair of Texas(simply known as the Fair to locals) is study on contrasts.

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Called Secular Cathedral of Texas the Hall State Building is one of the nation’s best examples of art-deco architecture in the nation

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Also fried food

  • It is home to perhaps the largest collection of fried foods in the world, but also one of the largest collections of architecturally significant art-deco buildings in the world.
  • More prize winning livestock is sold at the Fair then anywhere in nation, but there also have been  years when famous New York City art galleries sell more art at the Fair than they do the entire year at the NYC galleries.
  • John Deere will sell as many tractors at the Fair as Subaru will sell earth conscience eco-friendly yuppie movers.
  • There are arguably more “carnies” per square foot on the fairgrounds then anywhere, but also three straight weeks of sold-out Broadway musicals and operas running throughout the Fair.
  • The Fair hosts the state’s most important and one of the nation’s biggest football games, but the Fair grounds are also home to the state’s first organic botanical gardens.

But let’s get to the Fair’s history, why it’s held in Dallas and why it’s so massive.

The first “State” Fair in Dallas was held in 1886 when a group of Dallas business leaders came together to put on the “Texas State Fair and Dallas Exposition.”  It was held on land owned by good old Colonel Gaston (Gaston Ave.) on the present day Fair grounds in South Dallas.  A rival Fair was held in North Dallas that same year, but the two fairs merged shortly thereafter.

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You’ll see later on why the woman are featured on this ad

Dallas because of its banking community and location on two major rail lines was well suited in the late 19th century to act as a showcase and clearing house for livestock and produce.  The City, because of large mercantile class and influx of European craftsmen from the La Reunion settlement was also well suited to be a marketplace for the latest consumer goods.  Both are big reasons why the early Fair in Dallas thrived.

But a big reason, perhaps the biggest reason that the State Fair in Dallas went from being a state fair to The State Fair, was that the early backers of the Fair released that providing entertainment and attractions for all walks of people was paramount to the Fair being successful.  The early backers of the Fair brought in family friendly events like hot air balloon demonstrations, they brought in wholesome all American speakers like uber-wholesome William Jennings Bryan.

W_j_-Bryan-Cross-Of-Gold-Painting-e1325306097592When people draw you bearing crosses, you know you’re wholesome

For those looking for high culture they had concerts the likes of John Philip Sousa.  (Note: I don’t mean concerts featuring the music of John Phillip Sousa; I mean concerts featuring the actual man John Phillip Sousa.)  But while the rancher may enjoy the musings of WJB, and his kids marvel at the hot air balloons while his wife enjoys the music of JPS, the ranch hands that helped get the prized heifer to Fair, the one who was just paid a month’s worth of pay after selling that cow, yeah he’s not looking for sweet wholesome highbrow stuff.  And though horse racing and gambling were big early attractions of the Fair (both were legal), it’s another big entertainment option that’s perhaps a better story.

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These guys aren’t entertained by balloons and marches.

There is a story relayed from author and Times Herald columnist John Rogers that dates from the 1890’s about one of the biggest backers and promoters of the State Fair, banker and real estate developer, J.S. Armstrong.  A woman came into Armstrong’s bank seeking a loan.  She meets with a young morally chaste loan officer, who promptly took her request for a $5,000 loan to cover additional labor to Armstrong for denial.  Or so he thought.   When Armstrong asked his loan officer what line of work she was involved in, the loan officer said that she was a madam in one of Dallas leading brothels (prostitutions was legal in Dallas till 1913).  Armstrong then asked when she would need the money and the young loan officer, aware of his boss’s involvement with the Fair, sheepishly replied that she needed it for the duration of the Fair.  Armstrong immediately signed off on the loan and seeing the shock on his young new employee’s face, told him it was merely a business decision.  And her line of work did good business during the Fair.  Armstrong was right, and as the story goes, she paid him back in full.

2939354578_5ba3d72274See what  I mean

All of this helped turn a state fair in Dallas to the Texas State Fair by the turn of the century.  By 1905, more than 300,000 people attended the Fair.  In 1909, President Taft visited the Fair.  Two years later, President Wilson did.  The Fair continued to evolve in its first 50 years.  To court the highbrow crowd the Fair built the beautiful Fair Park Music Hall as an opera and concert venue in 1925.  When it became apparent that saddle makers and carriage  builders were being left behind in the wake of cars, the Fair started hosting its annual Auto Show, which is still so popular that the big three American companies (Chevy, Ford and Dodge) routinely roll out their new model year trucks at the Fair.  When the state moved to outlaw both gambling and prostitution, the Fair replaced those attractions with others.  Car racing became a big draw, not to mention a major plot in the 1962 movie about the State Fair of Texas called State Fair, staring Pat Boone and Ann Margaret.  The Fair built amusement park rides, including the largest Ferris Wheel in North America and installed a 50 foot tall Texan, named Big Tex for people to sacrfice their babies to and for the X-Men to battle around.

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I quote from the comic “Emergency – All X-Men to the Cotton Bowl”

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Please god of Texas, accept our sacrfice, don’t destory yourself in fire again

Football also became big.  Texas-OU first played their annual Red-River Rivalry Game on the Fairgrounds in 1929 and moved to the Cotton Bowl in 1934.  The game and the weekend is worth a post in of itself, but more beer is consumed that weekend in Dallas than any other, and during the game in 1968, the Fairgrounds swelled with more than 380,000 people making those 277 acres temporarily the 32nd largest city in the nation.

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Texas-OU is the most entertaing day to go to the Fair.

But perhaps the one event that helped establish the Fair in Dallas as an annual celebration of all things Texas was the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition.  The Exhibition was an event designed to be a massive celebration of the 100 birthday of Texas.  It was courted by R.L. Thornton and held in Dallas rather than San Antonio or Houston almost solely based on his salesmanship of Dallas and the Fairgrounds (The joke in Texas goes, they started the war in San Anton, finished it in Houston, and held the party in Dallas).  Planned and held during the great depression, it benefited from the numerous federal works projects.  Most of the iconic buildings, art deco mural and statures in Fair Park where built, designed or commissioned  through the WPA, the CCC  or other Great Depression era work programs.  The building and art programs, along with the Exhibitions was such a success that President Roosevelt showed up along with more than 6 million other visitors.

girls498Most came for the exhibits on new farming methods

Without much of those buildings, the Texas State Fair would have likely hoped around from city to city, showcasing different cities in the State.  Luckily it stayed, and continues to thrive.  Texas, despite increasing urbanization, still has more land dedicated to livestock and agricultural production than any other state.  So there are still plenty of farmers and ranchers who head into to town to show off their prized bulls and sell them to the highest bidder.  Dallas also still maintains its reputation as a leading marketplace for the newest and best consumer goods.  And the Fair still provides expansive entertainment options, whether it be highbrow (the musical this year I believe is the Lion Kong), wholesome (last year an entire museum’s exhibits were dedicated to the Girls Scouts) or rambunctious (take your pick from the midway games, to the rides, to the Texas-OU game and two more football games at the Cotton bowl).

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You show your livestock

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Admire the latest trucks

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And for the Texas-OU game

It’s difficult to explain the State Fair of Texas.  That annual three week tradition held in early September and late October at historical Fair Park in South Dallas. The collection of people and cultures is as unique as anywhere in the world.  In fact, I would say that nowhere in world will you find as diverse mix of people located within the same 277 acres.  It’s a rural, urban, white, ethnic, rich, poor, high-brow, folk culture, football crazy, opera watching mass of humanity for three weeks in the early fall.

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