Passport to Texas: Big Tex's Annual Fair

In: Texas Times Column   Posted 09/29/2015

As the pages of the calendar turn from Summer to Fall each year, Texans always seem to have their eyes on one special event. Indeed, thousands of Texans have begun their descent on Dallas for the traditions, deep-fried food, and the world-class entertainment that make up the Texas State Fair experience.

States, counties, and communities across the country hold their fairs celebrating their culture, but none can match the true spectacle the one and only Big Tex oversees each October.

This year marks the 63rd fair for Big Tex, our tallest and largest senior citizen. While a fire a few years ago required him to go on a temporary hiatus, Big Tex has returned, new-and-improved. Standing at 55 feet in size 96 boots, his charm is bigger than ever.

The roots of the Texas State Fair began well before Big Tex’s time in 1886 with the competing Dallas State Fair & Exposition and Texas State Fair & Exposition. That year administrators at the Dallas State Fair alone recorded over 100,000 attendees –only a fraction of the over three million in record-breaking crowds last year. 

When the two fairs combined in 1887, they formed an unbeatable combination. And it’s no secret why the masses have flocked to Dallas each October for over a century (with the exception of a few years during the World Wars and Texas’ centennial celebration). 

Stretching 24 days, the Texas State Fair is the longest-running fair in the country. And while three-plus weeks may seem like a long time -- with so much to do, see, and eat, the state fair seems to come and go in an instant.

You can scuff up your boots dancing to live music, pet a shark at the aquarium, or sample the top contenders in the annual chili cook-off. Pig races draw standing-room-only crowds, and “Mutton Bustin’” gives our youngest cowboys and cowgirls their first hands-on rodeo experience. There are car shows, livestock shows, art shows, acrobatic shows, and water and laser shows. And you can get a 212-foot view of all the action from North America’s tallest Ferris wheel, the Texas Star.

Over the years, fairgoers have seen their share of spectacles. Early performers included composer John Philip Sousa, who gave us ‘Semper Fidelis’ and ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’, and orator Booker T. Washington.  In 1900 and 1902, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley put on an unforgettable Wild West show, including a buffalo herd and 600 horses.  Even Elvis Presley shook his hips in the Cotton Bowl during the 1956 fair.

And between the rides and rodeo events, there is the Red River Classic. Roughly halfway between Austin, Texas, and Norman, Oklahoma, the Texas State Fair plays host tothe annual football game between the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma, still one of the fiercest rivalries in college football. The game draws a large and spirited crowd, myself included, and the split sea of Longhorn burnt orange and Sooner crimson in the Cotton Bowl is a must-see event for college football fans.  You can be sure I’ll be standing on Bevo’s side of the stadium to cheer on the Longhorns.

If you’re hungry after all this activity, you won’t be for long. Eating your way through the fairgrounds is a rite of passage for festival goers across the country, and it is no different here in Texas. Fried food is certainly the feature, from classics like chicken or pickles to the more inventive chicken-fried lobster with champagne gravy or the fried latte for a caffeine boost. If you’re looking for more than fried Twinkies, you can find the nation’s best smoked brisket, mango with chili and lime on a stick, or fresh Texas-made guacamole. For those ambitious enough to try it all, you’re in luck. This year debuts the much-anticipated rollout of Thrifty Thursdays, during which you can purchase sample plates to taste all the diverse fare that Texas has to offer.

Since the 1960s, fair operators have released a theme before the big event to build up anticipation – and I can’t wait to see how they roll out ‘Passport to Texas’ this year.  It’ll be tough to cram everything the Lone Star State has to offer into one extravaganza.  But as the saying goes, ‘everything is bigger in Texas’, and the Texas State Fair is certainly no exception.