How Did the Texas State Fair Become a Major Event?

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The Texas State Fair has been a beloved event in Texas for over a century. It all started in 1886 as the Dallas State Fair & Exposition, thanks to local businessmen like W.H. Gaston, John S. Armstrong, and Thomas L. Marsalis. What began as a small fair quickly grew into an annual tradition.

By 1905, the fair, now called the State Fair of Texas, was attracting huge crowds. Unique attractions like car races and stunt flying shows drew in visitors. Even U.S. Presidents like William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson made appearances, making the fair even more special.

Today, the fair continues to draw big crowds with its wide range of events and exhibits. From the Youth Livestock Auction to fun entertainment and delicious food, the Texas State Fair celebrates both the old and new aspects of Texan culture. Its lasting popularity shows how important it is to Texas tradition and community spirit.

History of the Texas State Fair

A State Fair parade of high-bred cattle

Historical foundations and early years

The Texas State Fair traces its origins to January 30, 1886, when the Dallas State Fair & Exposition was established by key figures such as W.H. Gaston, John S. Armstrong, and Thomas L. Marsalis. James B. Simpson was elected as the first president. These founders aimed to create a prominent venue for trade, agriculture, and education. Their vision laid a strong foundation focused on community involvement and showcasing the best of Texas.

During its early years, the fair quickly became an essential part of Texas heritage. By 1905, attendance had surged to 300,000 visitors. Innovations like automobile races and stunt flying drew significant public interest, blending entertainment with educational opportunities. Exhibits on agriculture, technology, and industry helped inform and inspire visitors, cementing the fair’s role as a vital institution in Texas.

Expansion in the early 20th century

In the early 1900s, the fair began to grow rapidly. The fairgrounds expanded to accommodate the increasing number of visitors, with more buildings and exhibition spaces added to host a wider variety of attractions and events.

Government support and presidential visits

The Texas State Fair has received significant support from both local and federal governments. High-profile visits from national figures, including Presidents William Howard Taft in 1909 and Woodrow Wilson in 1911, added prestige and drew larger crowds. Later, Presidents like Richard Nixon also visited. The Texas Legislature continuously backs the event, keeping it part of Texas education and culture.

Texas Centennial and national recognition

A key milestone in the fair’s history was the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration. This event marked 100 years of Texan independence and was a major cultural and historical highlight. The centennial elevated the fair’s status on a national level, bringing in visitors from across the country and helping to secure its place as a National Historic Landmark. The fairgrounds became a symbol of Texan pride and cultural heritage, paving the way for future growth.

Major renovations and improvements

Over the years, the fairgrounds have undergone several major renovations to improve the visitor experience. Notable upgrades include the construction of modern facilities and the restoration of historic buildings. These improvements have helped maintain the fair’s appeal and ensure it meets the needs of contemporary audiences.

Impact of historical events

The Texas State Fair has been shaped by significant historical events. During the Great Depression, the fair provided much-needed entertainment and a sense of normalcy for struggling Texans. Similarly, World War I and World War II brought changes to the fair, with some events scaled back or repurposed to support the war effort. Despite these challenges, the fair persevered and continued to grow.

History of Racial Discrimination at the Texas State Fair

For the majority of the time that the fair was in operation, it was segregated. The Texas State Fair has a history of racial discrimination that dates back to its early years in the 1880s. This aspect of its past is important to understand, as it shows both the challenges and the progress that have been made over time.

Early segregation and “Colored People’s Day”

In the late 19th century, the fair was segregated, and African Americans were not allowed access to the fairgrounds. The first designated day for African Americans to attend the fair was in 1889, known as “Colored People’s Day.” This day was organized by educator Norman Washington Harllee, who planned events and exhibits to celebrate African American culture and achievements. In 1900, Booker T. Washington, a prominent African American leader, was a notable speaker at the fair.

Discontinuation and revival as “Negro Achievement Day”

In 1910, “Colored People’s Day” was discontinued, reflecting the ongoing racial discrimination and segregation of the time. However, in 1936, it was revived as “Negro Achievement Day” during the Texas Centennial Exposition. This day was intended to recognize the accomplishments and progress of African Americans in Texas and the United States. Despite this, African Americans were still barred from participating in entertainment or eating at restaurants and concession stands on other days during the fair.

Hall of Negro Life

One significant aspect of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition was the Hall of Negro Life, a building dedicated to showcasing African American achievements. This building was the only one demolished after the exposition ended, underscoring the transient nature of the recognition given to African Americans at the fair.

Impact of Jim Crow laws

The segregation at the fair was reinforced by Jim Crow laws, which mandated separate facilities and services for African Americans. This included separate entrances, seating areas, and restrooms. These discriminatory practices continued well into the mid-20th century.

Civil rights movement and desegregation

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought significant changes to the Texas State Fair. Activists and community leaders fought to end segregation and promote equality. By the late 1960s, the fair began to desegregate, allowing all visitors to share the same facilities and participate in all events.

Continued efforts for inclusion

In recent years, the Texas State Fair has made efforts to be more inclusive and celebrate the diversity of Texas. Today, the fair features cultural exhibits, performances, and food from various communities. Programs and initiatives aim to ensure that everyone, regardless of race or background, can enjoy and participate in the fair.

Attractions and Exhibitions in the Texas State Fair

Big Tex for State Fair of Texas

The Texas State Fair is famous for its wide range of attractions and exhibitions, which include:

Iconic state fair symbols

One of the most recognizable symbols of the Texas State Fair is Big Tex, the towering cowboy figure who has greeted visitors since 1952. Standing at 55 feet tall, Big Tex is a must-see attraction and a popular photo spot. Another iconic feature is the Texas Star Ferris wheel. As one of the tallest Ferris wheels in North America, it offers spectacular views of Dallas.

Agricultural and educational spaces

Agriculture has always been at the heart of the Texas State Fair. Visitors can enjoy livestock competitions featuring cattle, pigs, and other animals. Educational exhibits provide insights into farming techniques, animal care, and sustainable agriculture. Interactive exhibits engage visitors of all ages, allowing them to learn through hands-on activities. The fair also includes museums that highlight Texas history and culture, adding depth to the agricultural displays.

Sporting and entertainment events

The Cotton Bowl within Fair Park is a key venue during the fair. It hosts the Texas-OU football game, one of college football’s biggest rivalries. Additionally, rodeo shows, pig races, and automobile races thrill audiences each year. For music lovers, the fair features live concerts, with legends like Elvis Presley having performed there in the past.

Innovative and traditional attractions

The Texas State Fair is known for blending innovative attractions with traditional elements. New technology is showcased alongside classic events. Nightly parades, such as the Starlight Parade, and light shows like Illumination Sensation add a modern flair to the fair. Traditional cooking competitions and craft exhibits maintain the fair’s rich history. The floating picnic adds a unique twist to dining experiences at the fair.

Unique Traditions and Highlights

Deep-fried Oreos

The Texas State Fair is known for its many unique traditions and annual highlights, including:

Livestock shows

Livestock shows are a staple of the fair. They highlight the best animals from farms across the state, from cattle and pigs to sheep and goats. These shows are a way for farmers to showcase their hard work and for visitors to learn more about agriculture.

Fried food contests

The fair is famous for its fried food contests. Every year, new and unusual deep-fried items make their debut. Some of the wild creations have included deep-fried Oreos, Twinkies, s’mores, pork ribs, cheesecake, butter, batter-based Coke, avocados, alligators, and even deep-fried peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwiches. Visitors get to taste and vote for their favorites. This tradition has led to some truly unique culinary creations that you won’t find anywhere else.

Annual highlights and popular attractions

Each year, the fair features a mix of new attractions and old favorites. Some popular highlights include thrilling rides, fun games, and impressive exhibitions. The fair also hosts special events like concerts, parades, and fireworks displays, ensuring there’s always something exciting happening.

These cultural impacts and unique traditions make the Texas State Fair a beloved event that continues to bring joy to people of all ages. It’s a celebration of everything that makes Texas special and a tradition that shows no signs of slowing down.

Cultural Impact of the Texas State Fair

Texas State Fair Ferris wheel

The Texas State Fair has been a big part of Texan culture and traditions. Here’s how it has made such a lasting impact:

It influenced Texan culture and traditions

The fair has been a central piece of Texan life for over a century. Every year, families, friends, and visitors come together to celebrate all things Texan. It’s a place where people can connect with their heritage and create new memories.

The fair produced some iconic elements

Some features of the fair have become iconic. For example, Big Tex, the giant cowboy figure, welcomes visitors and is a symbol of the fair itself. The food is another major attraction, from classic corn dogs to more adventurous fried treats. Music is also a big part of the fair, showcasing local artists and big-name performers. These elements help make the fair a unique and memorable experience.

It promotes local arts, crafts, and industries

The fair is a great platform for promoting local talent and industries. It provides a space for artists and craftsmen to display their work, whether it’s painting, sculpture, or handmade jewelry. Local businesses also get a chance to shine, with many showcasing their products and services to a wide audience. This support helps boost the local economy and keeps Texan traditions alive.

Conclusion

The Texas State Fair is a treasured part of Texan culture and history. From its humble beginnings in 1886 to its status today as a major attraction, the fair has grown and evolved while staying true to its roots. It’s a place where families and friends can come together to enjoy thrilling rides, delicious food, and a variety of entertainment.

Whether you’re a lifelong Texan or a first-time visitor, the Texas State Fair offers fun for everyone. It’s an annual must-see Texas festival that you may want to try attending!

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