When people think of the State Fair of Texas, they automatically think Big Tex.
What most don’t know about the 52-foot icon is that he actually got his start in nearby Kerens, Texas, as Santa Claus.
In the late 1940s, local merchants in Kerens were looking for a way to draw shoppers from Corsicana and Dallas, so the father of the idea, Howell Brister, the Kerens Chamber of Commerce, and city boosters built what they claimed was the world’s largest Santa Claus.
Merchants and businessmen scoured nearby oil fields and gathered structural steel while members of the veterans’ school built the framework.
The Chamber wanted to build the Santa Claus to scale, so it recruited two six-foot men, O.S. Spurlock and Hardy Mayo, as the models and Santa was constructed on a 7-to-1 ratio. He stood at 42 feet, weighed 1,500 pounds, and was constructed from an iron-pipe drill casing, papier-mache, and had seven-foot lengths of unraveled rope for a beard.
Santa’s face was designed by Baylor University art students. He was assembled and dressed on the ground and raised by a Texas Power and Light Company construction crew at the foot of Colket Street.
The Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light reported that during the 1949 holidays, thousands of people came from miles to see this giant Santa. Only two years later, it seemed the novelty had worn off and the figure was proving hard to store in the off-season.
At the same time, State Fair of Texas officials created the character of a cowboy named Tex for promotional purposes and were on the market for a giant animatronic cowboy. So the Santa was sold to State Fair President R.L. Thornton for $750, about $7,100 today, and the fair hired Dallas artist Jack Bridges to create a giant cowboy out of the material.
In 1952, a 52-foot tall Big Tex debuted wearing a 75-gallon hat and size 70 cowboy boots. His size 23 (feet) denim jeans and plaid shirt were donated by the H.D. Lee Company of Shawnee Mission, Kansas. The next year, cosmetic surgery was done to straighten his nose and he was made to talk and every few years, Big Tex gets a costume change.
On Oct. 19, 2012, an electrical short started at Big Tex’s base, eventually destroying his structure, but after some minor alterations he came back bigger than ever at 55 feet tall, wearing size 96 boots and a 95-gallon hat.
The State Fair of Texas runs through Oct. 23 in Dallas.