“Howdy, folks! Welcome to the State Fair of Texas,” booms Big Tex, the 52-foot-tall cowboy who’s greeted fairgoers in Dallas since 1952. Crowds gather around his size 70 boots waiting to hear his trademark drawl that embodies the tradition and revelry of the State Fair of Texas, which dates back to 1886.
Held annually at Fair Park, a 277-acre entertainment and recreation complex, the fair holds fond memories for generations of Texans who’ve experienced the thrill of live entertainment, tasty concessions, wide-ranging exhibits, competitive livestock shows, and, of course, the fair’s iconic symbol—Big Tex.
Becoming Big Tex
Bill Bragg, 60, of Richardson, Texas, says that as a child he thought, “If you didn’t hear Big Tex talk, you hadn’t been to the fair.” So it seemed natural that in 2002 Bragg, a broadcast professional, was named the new voice of Big Tex.
Five hundred people competed for the job, and Bragg, only the seventh person to ever perform the voice of Big Tex, says the responsibility of continuing such a beloved tradition didn’t sink in until his first day of work.
“Suddenly he was so much taller and bigger than I remembered, and I realized it was up to me to make him talk,” Bragg says. The sound of Bragg’s voice activates the movement of Big Tex’s mouth, and in Bragg’s discreet office nearby, he has controls to turn Big Tex’s head or make him wave to the crowd.
Bragg says the key to performing as Big Tex is to not strain his voice: “I just take it one ‘howdy’ at a time,” he says.
Big Tex began as a Santa Claus in Kerens, Texas (pop. 1,681), when State Fair officials purchased him from the chamber of commerce in the early 1950s for $750 and set in motion a transformation from Claus to cowboy.
The giant welcomer wears a Western shirt and jeans made by Williamson-Dickie in Fort Worth, and a 75-gallon hat shades his face. Through the years, he has received a few makeovers, and Bragg describes Big Tex’s facial expression as evolving from somewhat astonished to downright friendly. On Big Tex’s 50th birthday, fair organizers added a touch of gray to his sideburns to give his face a more mature look.
Originally Big Tex didn’t speak, but now he delivers about 130 messages a day, greeting fairgoers and announcing the day’s activities in English and Spanish during the 24-day fair, scheduled Sept. 28 through Oct. 21.
Sparking the imagination
Beyond Big Tex lies the rest of Fair Park, which is the permanent home to eight museums, exhibit halls, college football’s annual Cotton Bowl, barns to house livestock, and the Music Hall, where audiences enjoy Broadway shows. The Texas Star Ferris Wheel, the tallest such ride in North America at 212 feet, is a Fair Park landmark, towering above the other games and rides.
A more recent favorite of fairgoers is the Backyard Circus—a show where children volunteer for roles such as the human cannonball, tightrope walker, lions and tigers, and butterfly ballerinas. They slip costumes over their clothes and, with the patient direction of ringmaster Bill Carpenter, put on a show for an audience of beaming parents.
One proud dad is Tim Redhair, of Cedar Hill (pop. 32,093). Last year, Redhair, an infantry officer in the Texas Army National Guard, returned from his military post in Afghanistan and was able to see his son, Connor, and daughter, Natalie, take part in the Backyard Circus.
“She wasn’t old enough to participate before,” says Redhair, “so she’s been waiting all year to be a ballerina.”
Carpenter, from Ithaca, N.Y., created the Backyard Circus, which has been featured at the State Fair of Texas since 1991. Even though Carpenter travels to 50 or 60 fairs across the nation, he says his biggest crowds and best response are in Texas.
“This is a genuine backyard circus, like they did in the old days before TV,” says Carpenter, 65. “We’re not here to make a star out of anyone. Our goal is for the kids to know they can get together and do something similar at home.”
Carpenter explains that his focus is to build a community under the circus tent where everyone is supportive of the kids during each of the 104 shows at the fair.
“Look at the faces of the people out there,” says Carpenter, as a little girl playing Wanda the Tightrope Walker climbs an imaginary ladder. “They can hardly believe their eyes! It’s a backyard circus dream come true.”
Most kids agree that performing in the circus works up an appetite, and although the State Fair offers a variety of food, it proudly proclaims itself as the Fried Food Capital of Texas. Although the Fletcher’s Corny Dog remains a crowd favorite, the more adventurous can try fried pralines, fried cookies, fried candy bars and even fried cheesecake.
Blue ribbon cooking
Kim Ritchie of Wylie (pop. 15,132) enjoys the occasional corny dog, but her favorite fair foods are the entries in the creative arts competitions, which have categories for all types of cooking and arts & crafts. Ritchie says she was mesmerized by the cooking contests as a young girl.
“I remember seeing people win competitions and asking my mom, ‘I wonder if they’re all regular folks like you and me,’” Ritchie recalls.
Ritchie won a blue ribbon with her first entry, a chocolate pound cake, in 1982, and has competed every year since. She also has introduced her seven children to the cooking competitions, and they attempt to enter something each day of the fair, whether the contest features cakes, cookies, pies, breads or even SPAM.
“Our time at the fair is kind of like our family vacation,” Ritchie says. “We kind of prepare all year. We’ll be eating somewhere, and suddenly someone will shoot a knowing glance across the table, meaning ‘this would be good for the fair.’”
She says choosing a dish to enter is a balancing act between the unusual and the tasty. “One year my daughter Emily won with a carrot cake that had tomato soup in it,” says Ritchie, who estimates they spend $300 to $400 in ingredients each year and invest in buckets of flour and sugar.
Last year, Ritchie won the Guess What’s Cook’n Contest in the sweets category, in which contestants receive a bag of ingredients and within a few hours must create a dish, cook it and record the recipe.
Whether it’s farm animals or food, the State Fair of Texas features activities for all interests in celebration of the state’s heritage and its future.
“It’s the ‘Texasness’ of it that appeals to us . . . that and the community within the creative arts department. It’s like a big family,” Ritchie says. “We’re drawn to the fair year after year because of the idea that it’s just what Texans do.”