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Dallas, Texas


National Historical Landmark

by Clint Skinner

14. Big Tex Circle

Big Tex Circle lies in front of the Tower Building. Throughout most of the year, it is landscaped with various plants and bushes. During the months of September and October, however, the area changes as it becomes the home to Big Tex, the infamous statue of the State Fair of Texas.

Dallas Fair Park - Big Tex
Big Tex
Photo courtesy Steve Rainwater

The story of Big Tex begins all the way back to 1949 in the little town of Kerens, located in the northeastern region of Navarro County. The chamber of commerce was looking for a way to attract more customers to the downtown area during the Christmas season. Its leader Howell Brister came up with the idea of making a giant Santa Claus statue for all to see. The other members liked the notion and got the local citizens to make it a real a reality. They used pipes, steel rods, chicken wire, paper mache, rope, and cloth to make for the project. After building the body, they used the profiles of residents Ottis Franklin Spurlock and Hardy Mayo as references for the face. Once all this was completed, the Santa Claus statue was moved to its spot on Colket Avenue. The figure stood at a height of forty-nine feet, leading the town to claim that it was the tallest Santa statue in the world.

Big Tex as Santa

Big Tex in Kerens

Photo Courtesy Webmaster, www.kerens.com

All the effort paid off. Holiday sales dramatically increased and the town gained plenty of press attention, even from far away places like Australia. However, the novelty wore off the second year and the chamber of commerce decided to sell the statue. Robert L. Thornton, the president of the State Fair, purchased the statue for 750 dollars with the intention of using it to help celebrate the Christmas season. He then began having second thoughts on the matter and decided to turn Santa into a cowboy.

Dallas Fair Park Big Tex Circle
Fair Park Big Tex Circle
Photo courtesy Clint Skinner, February 2016

Thornton hired local artist Jack Bridges to conduct the transformation. This included changing the statue's head, which he did using photos of himself, Will Rogers, and a rancher named Doc Simmons. Bridges also added a mischievous wink instead of a regular eye and increased the height to fifty-two feet.

The first rendition of Big Tex wore a 75-gallon stetson hat and boots with a size seventy. The H. D. Lee Company, which had its headquarters based in Kansas, donated a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans. The shirt required 6,700 yards of thread and 100 yards of cloth while the pants needed 72 yards of denim. Made out of real leather, the belt had a length of twenty-five feet. All of this was completed in time for the 1952 season of the state fair.

Throughout his first venture at the fair, Big Tex had no voice and officials decided to do something about it the following year. They gave the statue a hinged jaw which moved, thanks to the installation of a recipromotor. To magnify the voice, a 75-watt loudspeaker was places inside his mouth. The person who provided this voice was Al Jones, the disc jockey for classical music radio station WRR. In addition to making Big Tex speak, management decided to straighten the the statue's nose and remove the wink.

In 1955, the H. D. Lee Company provided Big Tex's first change of clothes. The fair provided a companion named The Champ the following year. It was a plastic model of a steer, standing twelve feet high and nineteen feet long. Despite being advertised as Big Tex's new friend, the two did not spend much time together in public view. The cowboy spent most of his time alone greeting visitors and getting the majority of attention. It didn't take long for fair officials to completely remove the bovine companion.

That same year, radio announcer Jim Lowe became the new voice of Big Tex and remained at his post for the next thirty-nine years. In 1958, the statue's paper mache exterior was replaced by fiberglass. This was followed by the installation of a device that automatically moved its mouth in accordance to the speaker's voice the following year. A more modern version of its hat was provided in 1966. During the year of 1997, Big Tex had a new skeleton installed. Composed of 4,200 feet of steel rods, it gave him a new posture and the ability to wave at the visitors. Dan Alexander, a local resident who specialized in singing jingles, became the figure's new voice in 1999.

The turn of the century brought with it the ability for Big Tex to turn his neck and an upgraded mechanical mouth. A year later, fair officials held a statewide contest at the Cotton Bowl to determine who would be Tex's new voice. The winner of the competition was a man from Houston named Sonny Ray Stolz. Unfortunately, he stayed for only one season, complaining about unfair treatment from the management. In 2002, the fair celebrated Big Tex's fiftieth birthday with a large cake and a AARP membership card. Wrinkles were placed on his face and hands while gray textures were added to his hair. He also had someone new to provide his voice. Bill Bragg had previously worked as a radio announcer, television and film actor, and narrator. He also founded the National Museum Of Communications in Irving. While he was providing the voice, everything seemed to be running smoothly until 2012.

On October 19th of that year, an electrical panel located at the bottom of Big Tex's right boot started a fire. The blaze worked its way up the statue in a matter of minutes, completely destroying the clothing, face, and hat. The incident gained wide attention from the press and fair officials allowed everyone to know that there would be a new Big Tex. Although assurances were given, management refused to give out any details, preferring to keep the reconstruction a secret.

SRO Associates Incorporated and the Texas Scenic Company combined their efforts to bring back Big Tex at a cost of 500,000 dollars. They built the new steel structure, which weighed a total 25,000 pounds. This allowed the 55-foot structure have the capability to resist winds reaching a hundred miles per hour without support wires. The hands and face covered with silicone and made out of a fireproof substance that had fiberglass properties.

On top of the head, there was a large 95-gallon hat made from sculpted foam over a steel framework and coated with a substance similar to fiberglass. The new shirt and pants came from Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company in Fort Worth. Made from 150 yards of material, the shirt featured a 14-foot collar and 23-foot sleeves. The jeans were made out of one hundred yards of flame-resistant denim to cover a 27-foot waist. The Lucchese boots of the statue wore were built in the same way as the hat. The new edition of Big Tex made his debut on September 26, 2013.

While construction was going on, management refused to renew Bill Bragg's contract as the voice of Big Tex without giving a clear reason. Bragg was more than willing to provide his viewpoint on the matter, resulting in a war of accusations. In the end, the contract was not extended and someone else was hired for the job. The identity still remains a mystery.
October 30, 2016
© Clint Skinner

FAIR PARK - Attractions:

1. Fair Park Station
2. Main Entrance
3. Founders Statue
4. Women's Museum
5. DAR House
6. The Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial
7. Sydney Smith Memorial Fountain
8. Music Hall
9. Fair Park Esplanade
10. Centennial Building
11. Automobile Building
12. Hall of State
13. Tower Building
14. Big Tex Circle
15. Grand Place
16. Old Mill Inn
17. Magnolia Lounge
18. Hall of Religion
19. African American Museum
20. Leonhardt Lagoon
21. Dallas Museum of Natural History
22. Science Place I
23. Children's Aquarium
24. Fair Park Bandshell
25. Texas Discovery Gardens
26. WRR Headquarters
27. Science Place II
28. The Texas Star
29. Cotton Bowl Stadium
30. The Texas Skyway
31. The Embarcadero
32. The Creative Arts Building
33. Food and Fiber Building
34. Pan American Arena
35. The Woofus
36. The Swine Building
37. Briscoe Carpenter Livestock Center
38. Livestock Pavilion and Arena
39. The Horse Barn
40. Fair Park Coliseum
41. Top of Texas Tower

3.Dallas Morning News Archives
5.Slate, John H. Historic Dallas Parks. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
8.Winters, Willis Cecil. Fair Park. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.

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