most Texas towns founded along a new railroad line, the Navarro County
community of Kerens prospered
in the 1880s and even for a few decades after, but eventually growth
stalled and the town was doing good just to hang on.
Texas’ economy boomed following World
War II, but because cars and better highways made travel so much
more convenient than it had been, residents of Kerens
found it easier to drive to nearby – and larger – Corsicana
to do their shopping.
But the merchants still trying to make a living in Kerens were willing
to do whatever it took to get people to shop locally. Since the Christmas
season is when merchants enjoy their most robust sales, the Chamber
of Commerce was particularly interested in coming up with some scheme
to get folks to do their holiday shopping in Kerens.
Someone whose name seems to have been forgotten came up with an idea
that seemed brighter than a reindeer’s nose. Why not build a giant
Santa Claus, a towering, Texas-size jolly ole man in red who would
attract folks from all over to downtown Kerens?
Big Tex as Santa
Courtesy Webmaster, www.kerens.com
the Kerens chamber contracted
to have someone build a 49-foot Santa Claus with a frame of iron
drill casing pipe. With human-looking features of papier mache and
a beard made of seven-foot-long pieces of rope, a figure soon hyped
as the world’s largest Santa Clause graced Kerens in time for the
1949 shopping season.
As the business
community had hoped, the Texas-sized Santa did indeed attract more
shoppers. Unfortunately for Kerens,
the public lost interest in the tall Santa quicker than a kid dismisses
one freshly unwrapped new toy for the next new toy. Even with the
world’s tallest Saint Nick, retail business in the small town continued
1951, State Fair president R.L. Thornton thought Kerens’
Santa Claus could have a new life in Dallas
as an attraction on the fair grounds. Paying $750 for the humanoid
frame, Thornton had it hauled to Dallas
and retained artist Jack Bridges to transform all that oilfield
pipe into a Texas-sized cowboy who came to be called Big Tex.
The following year, clad in size 23 (as in feet) jeans and an extra,
extra, extra, extra, extra, extra large plaid shirt donated for
PR purposes by the Kanas-based H.D Lee Co., Big Tex began his long
association with the State Fair. Standing beneath a 75-gallon hat
and in size 70 boots, Big Tex now rose three feet taller than he
had been, measuring 52 feet from boot sole to hat crown.
began his long association with the State Fair"
Courtesy Webmaster, www.kerens.com
It didn’t take
long for the big guy to become a crowd favorite. His popularity
continued to grow and before long, beyond merely being the symbol
of the nation’s largest state fair, Big Tex had become a Lone Star
icon. He wasn’t quite as well known as the Alamo,
Periodically, fair officials ordered a makeover for Big Tex, including
noticable wrinkles and gray hair as he aged. In addition, every
three years he got a new outfit.
Though his costume changed over the years, his voice did not. Blaring
from a powerful speaker hidden inside his body, Big Tex’s deep and
drawling “Hoooody fooolks!” became as famous as his physical appearance.
Beyond his role as official greeter, he served as the fair’s prime
landmark. “Meet me beneath Big Tex,” were five words heard almost
as often as the tall cowboy’s “Howdys.”
Big Texas is one Baby Boomer who’ll never reach Social Security
age. At least as he looked before Oct. 19, when fire caused by an
electrical short in one on his boots destroyed the 60-year-old Dallas
cowpoke near the end of the fair’s annual two week run.
It would be hard to find a Texan without a memory of Big Tex and
the booming welcome he gave to fair visitors over the years. Consequently,
word that he was gone – well, his steel frame survived along with
one mighty big hand and his 50-pound belt buckle – hit Texans hard.
While Dallas Mayor Mike
Rawlings and State Fair officials assured the public shortly after
the fire that Big Tex would be rebuilt “bigger and better for the
21st century,” others of a more traditionalist bent are already
arguing for simply a replica of the origianl cowboy. The only concept
both sides are likely to agree on is that whatever form he takes,
the next Big Tex needs to be fireproof.
© Mike Cox
- October 24, 2012 column
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