a while, Henry Lawrence Kinney owned some of the prettiest and most
pristine land in Texas but he didn’t
know what to do with it. He wanted to dispense it for dollars but
people coming to the pretty but isolated port city of Corpus
Christi, which he had helped found, weren’t stopping and they
weren’t buying any of the surrounding land. They were headed for the
gold fields of California.
The vast prairie of the best grass anybody had ever seen – land that
would become the foundation of the King Ranch – interested them not
at all. Kinney’s solution was to stage a state fair, the first ever
in Texas, featuring all manner of bread
and circus as a way to bring tens of thousands of people (and potential
land buyers) to the area. They would come for the fair, buy some land
and stay – or not, just as long as they bought some land.
That first fair featured a couple of true visionaries but it can be
debated as to whether or not Kinney was one of them. He comes across
to us now as more of a schemer than a visionary. He called himself
Colonel, citing service in the Seminole War in Florida, though no
evidence of that has ever been found. He and partner William A. Audrey
founded what would become Corpus
Christi in 1839 when they established a trading post, believed
to have been located where the 400 block of North Broadway is today.
Kinney was a land speculator by trade who left Illinois under hazy
circumstances involving some land deals that went bad during the financial
crisis of 1837-38. Like a lot of people who left other states under
hazy circumstances, he ended up in Texas.
The Mexican War had brought a period of prosperity to Corpus
Christi and to Kinney, who had by now parted ways with Audrey.
He served on the staff of James
Pinckney Henderson during the war, which also brought ships, sailors,
soldiers and their money coming to the little town by the sea. After
the war, Corpus
was merely a rest stop for travelers who were eager only to be a part
of the gold rush to California.
In addition to advertising in newspapers, Kinney sent out some 20,000
handbills all over the world announcing that a state fair would begin
on May 1, 1852 in the fair city of Corpus
Christi. He estimated an attendance of 20,000 to 30,000 people
and advertised far and wide that the “largest stock of improved cattle,
horses, etc” would be available at an agreeable price.
Kinney planned as if he believed it. The little community on the bay
was suddenly a spectacle of construction. A race track was laid out.
Bullfights, cockfights, fireworks, a circus and performances by a
traveling theater troupe were planned and subsequently staged. And
there would be prizes: coffee urns, punch bowls, sugar baskets, pitchers,
goblets, cups and tumblers – and more!
As great as Kinney made it sound, only about a tenth of the people
he anticipated – about 2,000 – actually showed up. Getting to Corpus
Christi overland, or even by boat, was no easy task in the 1850s..
The pleasant little city on the bay was just too isolated.
Judged from a financial viewpoint, the fair was a colossal failure.
The Texas Republican opined that “the fair did not meet public
expectation” and that “the award of premiums was not received with
entire satisfaction.” The paper also declared the bullfights to be
But the fair was not a total bust in terms of history. Gail
Borden, later to become rich and famous as the inventor of condensed
milk, was there and won a prize for one of his early and less-known
inventions, the meat biscuit. A correspondent for the New Orleans
Delta described “elegantly dressed American and Mexican ladies,
flirting their fans with the same coquetry that they would at an opera”
mixing and mingling with frontiersmen, Comanches, Apaches, and Mexican
vaqueros while a jazz band provided pleasant serenades.
Rather than rescue Kinney from debt, the fair plunged him deeper into
a financial spiral of lawsuits and repossessions. He eventually tried
to establish a colony in Nicaragua with about the same success he
had with the state fair. He moved to Mexico during the Civil War and
died there during a gunfight between two rival factions.
Some fair attendees, like Borden,
fared much better. A prosperous and adventurous steamboat captain
named Richard King was in Corpus
Christi with his good friend H.K. “Legs” Lewis, who was in charge
of the prizes to be awarded at the fair. On their way there, King
and Lewis chose a pretty little spot on Santa Gertrudis Creek as the
site of a future cattle operation. That was the beginning of the King
As a scheme to make money, the first state fair of Texas
was a disaster. As a vision, Kinney had the right idea but at the
wrong time and in the wrong place. There wouldn’t be another state
fair in for 34 years.
© Clay Coppedge
Fabruary 17, 2013 Column
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