The Back Story of the Texas State Fair

Let’s talk about Fletchers’ corn dogs, fried butter, roller coasters, Big Tex, football and prize hogs.  Have I conjured up the Texas State Fair for you?

Join me for a whirlwind trip through the 135 years of the Texas State Fair’s history—hitting just some of the high points. Then, I’d like to transport you back to the very first fair held in Dallas and the tiny log cabin village that started it all way back in 1859 — 27 years before the Fair’s official beginning.

The State Fair of Texas runs for24 daysand welcomes about 2.5 millionpeople annually. The food and midway rides are big attractions, but there’s more to love. Visit and you’ll learn more about the state’s history through exhibits on agriculture, livestock, science, art and culture. Plus, there’s the Texas Auto Show and football at the Cotton Bowl.

The first fair in Dallas—an early precursor to the State Fair—was in 1859 (more about it later). This first fair—a county fair—was  followed by a smattering of fairs. In 1862 the Confederacy chartered or approved a state fair and there were a few fairs during reconstruction in the 1860s and  later in the 1870s.

By 1886 the desire for a major fair in Dallas was so high that the following year, two rival business groups held competing State Fairs in Dallas with overlapping dates. Neither fair met expenses—although one fair claimed 100,000 attendees despite the town’s population of about 38,000. However, fairs were good for the town’s business.

One of these 1887 fairs also had tremendous impact on the culture of Dallas. 

Mrs. Sidney Smith, wife of the fair’s director was in charge of the Ladies Departmentand boldly decided to include an art display. This was the very first exhibition of art in Dallas (and quite possibly in the state of Texas!)

The first art show consisted of paintings by a local artist—JR Onderdonck—and his students. Now understand that in those days affluent ladies had an art teacher who offered art lessons at your home and painted a bit on your canvas during every lesson until eventually you had a completed painting.

The art show was well received and the next year,1888, paintings were acquired from New York—an amazing accomplishment because few New York artists had much interest in sending their canvases to Texas. The prevailing attitude was “Texans won’t buy paintings!”

This small beginning established a tradition of art exhibits at the fair and Texans not only wanted to look, they wanted to buy. For a number of years in the 1920’s there were more art purchases at the State Fair than at the National Academy Show in New York!

Exposure to art was still new to many Texans and one young visitor was reported to have exclaimed to his friends, “Hey, these are hand painted!”

Thanks to the State Fair, an arts community grew and prospered. Paintings were displayed in a special room of the library and ultimately a city art museum was created. Beau Arts balls were held. At one ball, the head of the University of Tulsa arts program attended as a Hopi Indian dancercomplete with a live snake. That might qualify as Dallas’ first performance art.

By 1890, Dallas was the largest city in Texas. Horse racing was a popular event at the fair and the largest money maker.  Attractions included cattle sales, balloon ascensions, farm machine displays, baking and other contests for ladies, even jousting tournaments.

In 1903 state laws banning gambling killed racing, and the loss of revenue forced fair management to sell the Fair Park site to the city—with agreement that the fair would continue on the site.

In the early 1900s, auto racing and stunt flying joined the list of attractions. And by 1905, attendance had jumped to 300,000. It reached a million in 1916.  In 1918, toward the end of World War One, the fair was cancelled and the fair grounds became a temporary army camp.

The 1920s brought the arrival of New York shows to a new Spanish Baroque style Music Hall where the first performance was Sigmund Romberg’s the Student Prince. The decade of the 20s ended with the beginning of the Texas-OU football rivalry in a new 46,000 seat stadium which replaced the race track and became known as the Cotton Bowl.

In a major event in 1936, one hundred years after the eighteen-minute Battle of San Jacinto successfully ended the Texas Revolution, Dallas won the opportunity to host the Texas Centennial Celebration.

The Texas Centennial drew six million people over six months to enjoy the exhibits and beautiful art deco buildings which are today’s architectural treasures and make Fair Park a national historic landmark.

You’d probably never guess that the 1946 exhibit that drew long lines of folks at the fair was  Borden Milk’s brand symbol—Elsie the Cow!

1951 saw the debut of Big Tex—a 52 foot tall second-hand Santa Claus figure redesigned as a cowboy.  The decibel level went up in the 50’s when Elvis Presley performed at a Cotton Bowl concert. I’ll bet the excited screams of teenaged girls could be heard all across the city.

The 1960s began a decade of pro football in the Cotton Bowl.

In the 1970s the Cotton Bowl hosted the World Music Festival with lots of big name talent.

Friends of Fair Park was established in the 80s, The Texas Star, a 212 foot high ferris wheel was installed and an 18-million dollar bond offering was approved in support of the fairgrounds.

The African American Museum opened in the decade of the 90s and the first round of the World Soccer cup was played in the Cotton Bowl.

The 2000s have been eventful. Fears of the COVID virus caused cancellation of the fair in 2020.  Big Tex burned, was repaired, and returned in 2021 to once again call out, “Howdy Folks,” to visitors.

That ends our whirlwind tour of The Texas State Fair’s history…Let’s turn attention to the tiny log cabin settlement on the Trinity River that started it all in 1859 and how the fair came about.

I did a tremendous amount of research on early Dallas for my new historical novel, Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper 1856-1861. Let me tell you a bit about the book because I’m going to use it to share with you what Dallas was like in that time period and a bit about the first fair—the one that started it all.

Gone to Dallas is an historical novel with a Texas twang. Let’s start with the first sentence in the book . . .“Sara’s husband was a disappointment in life, but she had to admit he was a handsome corpse.”

Foremost, the novel is the story of Sara, a young woman who travels from Tennessee to Texas in a wagon train in 1856. Through a twist of fate, she arrives in Dallas as a widow determined to open a general store in the tiny log cabin village.

It’s a tale of migration, betrayal, death and determination— a  page-turning, inspiring fictional story rooted in fascinating, true historical events and featuring a strong female protagonist.  Reviews indicate that readers—regardless of where they are from—enjoy the combination of fiction and historical fact. The former CEO of the Alamo says “Sara’s story is compelling…a recommended read.” The Director of the Stockyards Museum in Fort Worth says, “Sara was fascinating—a strong and enterprising young woman. She had the grit and moxie that Texas women are known for. A good fictional read with real historical events thrown in—an interesting twist.” A Canadian reader says, I was hooked at the very first sentence!”

That gives you a quick introduction to the book which is available on Amazon. . . .let’s look inside for an historically accurate description of the village that birthed the State Fair.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a settler bringing your wagon into Dallas in 1856, after months of travel  from Tennessee. . .

Sara could sense the excitement of the group of settlers who led their wagons down the Preston Road and into Dallas the next morning. But as they got closer, it was obvious from the muttering Sara could hear that their jubilation had turned to dismay. Dallas was not what the travelers had expected. Sara looked at the dusty, potholed trails forming a square around a squat, two-story brick building set in a scattering of trees. Maybe a courthouse? The structures on the square were mostly low, rough log cabins hunkered down in the brown earth. There are more vacant lots than buildings. Some of the buildings had business signs, others appeared to be homes. A two-story log hotel with stables, a couple of two-story brick buildings, and a two-story log boardinghouse—according to the sign swinging in the wind— rose above the simpler cabins and were the dominant structures. There were numerous log cabins and sheds randomly scattered away from the square. A network of dusty, winding foot paths connected them to each other and to the square. Hens and a couple of ragged roosters pecked at the dry ground, and two hogs were rooting at the edge of someone’s small garden plot. Clothes hung haphazardly on a rickety looking clothesline. There were a couple of horses tied in front of the courthouse and only half a dozen people in sight on porches or on the streets of the square. A lone wagon sat in front of one of the cabins. A mongrel dog was asleep in the shade it cast. Sara could hear distressed conversation from the wagons around her. Hearing the ruckus, a few people began to come out of the scattered structures.

Soon a tall, black-haired, deeply-tanned man in a suit and derby hat came into the street and shouted, “Welcome to Dallas! Please come forward so you can hear me and I can greet you.” Sara’s first impression was that he had the look and sound of someone in authority. Wonder who he is?

Sara and the other travelers gathered around him as he shook hands and welcomed them. “I’m Alexander Cockrell and I offer the land here.”

Ah, the man in charge.

The Johnson twins stepped out of the group. Horace shouted, “This ain’t Dallas. The Peters Colony man promised Dallas was a real town.”

“Dallas is a real town, young man. We are the county seat. We’ve got a courthouse, a church, some schools, a hotel. Almost 450 people.” He gestured toward the square. “There’s a general store, a sawmill, a weekly newspaper. I’ve even built a new wooden toll bridge across the Trinity River.” Cockrell smiled. “Settlers here have great prospects.”

Horace frowned. “Don’t look like it.”

“On the contrary, Dallas is growing. A large group of two hundred settlers has come from France, Switzerland, and Belgium to establish a colony on the limestone cliff just across the river.” He pointed to a bluff in the near distance. “They believe there is no better opportunity in Texas than that offered by Dallas.”

John Henry looked at Sara, wiggled his eyebrows, and grinned. “Sure sounds like a land promoter. This is his one chance to make a sale before folks move on down the road.”

The Dallas of 1856 doesn’t sound too impressive, does it? Yet a mere three years later the town put on a successful fair attracting 2000 people

Here is a version of the first fair mixing lots of facts woven into a fictional framework:

Sara was not sure where the idea came from, but talk turned to having a Dallas County fair. A planning committee was formed. When Ira Webster approached Sara about joining the committee, she thought of Sarah Cockrell’s behind-the-scenes philosophy. Sara suggested Daniel could represent the store.

Daniel was pleased but hesitant. “I’ve never been on a committee. I wouldn’t be sure what to do.”

“Daniel, you’re smart and you’ve made good suggestions and solved problems here at the store. If you like, we can discuss ideas for the fair before the first meeting.”

After the first committee meeting, Daniel bounced back into the store full of enthusiasm. He was hardly in the door before reporting. “The Cockrell representative immediately volunteered use of empty land on the eastern edge of town for the fairgrounds, you know, at the intersection of Commerce Street and the Preston Road. There’s also space there for a campground for those coming from outside of town. The sawmill manager agreed to donate sawdust to cover as much of the fairgrounds as possible to keep down the mud or dust, whichever it might be. The committee also voted to collect money from local merchants for canvas cloth, and Ira Webster agreed the saddle shop would make a tent for exhibits.”

“So it was a good meeting?” Sara could guess his answer, based on his obvious excitement.

“Yep. We already decided on the categories for competition. We’ll have a livestock competition with prizes for the biggest hog, prize bull, and strongest ox. Ladies can enter their best pies, cakes, and biscuits in baking competitions. We set up a subcommittee to choose judges from around the county for each competition.

“We’ll meet again in a few days to agree on a list of exhibits and activities. Can we talk about some ideas before then?”

“We can.”

As the county-fair planning meetings continued, Daniel came back with frequent reports. The committee agreed that exhibits for ladies would include needlework, carpets, quilts, and shawls. Plows and tools would be exhibited for the men. One exhibit table would hold the most unusual insects that Ellie’s class had collected and Mr. Reverchon had mounted.

The list of activities kept growing. There would be music, a demonstration from the dance club established by Edouard Charles Beaulieu, and a Maypole. Gerard Fave had agreed to try to make a wooden merry-go-round for the children, who would also be offered pony rides. The big event on the first day would be a potluck picnic supper featuring a roast bison cooked by the T-Lazy-R Ranch cow chasers. Supper would be followed by demonstrations of roping and horsemanship featuring the ranch’s Mexican vaqueros and cow chasers Jellie and Zollie. A jousting tournament would end the riding demonstrations.

Benjamin asked Sara to order two flagpoles, one large US flag, and a Texas flag of equal size, all paid for by the cotton brokerage. Adolph Gouhenant offered to make a large “Dallas County Fair” banner. With Sarah’s permission, Daniel agreed the store would pay for two large poles to support the banner. Not to be outdone, Virgil West volunteered to provide the prize ribbons.

It was to be a four-day event. Spring dates were set, with alternate rain dates agreed upon.

*

Two days before the county fair opened, wagons full of families began to arrive. Others came on horseback, a few on mules. The camp area filled up and, by the first day of the fair, had spilled over to the very edge of town.

On opening day, Dallas woke to warm weather and a cloudless sky. At the appointed time, the Dallas mayor and five district commissioners stood by as district clerk Edward Browder cut the entrance ribbon. The politicians were almost trampled by the excited crowd.

Who would have guessed that the county fair the small log cabin village of Dallas created, would grow into the fabulous and successful State Fair of Texas?