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Big Tex: Son of Santa

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Like 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

Big Tex as Santa
Photo Courtesy Webmaster, www.kerens.com

Accordingly, 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 to atrophy.

In 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.

Big Tex

"Big Tex began his long association with the State Fair"
Photo 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, but almost.

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.”

Alas, 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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