The secret is out – our official greeter of the State Fair of Texas was not always the 52-foot-tall cowboy we have all come to know and love. Beneath that 75-gallon hat stands a former Santa Claus from Kerens, Texas.
During the prosperous years following World War II, Kerens residents traveled to Corsicana and as far north as Dallas, 75 miles away, for their Christmas shopping. To keep holiday spending “at home,” the Kerens Chamber of Commerce sought a novel way of attracting residents to local businesses – a 49-foot-tall Santa Claus, supposedly the world’s largest in the late ’40s.
Built by volunteers from a welding class, the figure was constructed from iron-pipe drill casing and paper mache. An art class at Baylor University gave Santa his face, including a seven-foot-long beard of unraveled rope. A dress manufacturer supplied his suit. The total construction cost was $250.
Santa was a big hit the first year – even when, to his embarrassment, he lost his first suit to storms and high winds that came through the area.
By the second year, the Santa promotion had lost community interest and support. Santa was sold to Dallas business leader R.L. Thornton for $750. Thornton commissioned Jack Bridges, a Dallas artist, to create a giant cowboy out of Santa.
In 1952, wearing jeans and a shirt donated by the H.D. Lee Company of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, a pair of size-70 boots and a multi-gallon cowboy hat, Big Tex made his first appearance at the State Fair of Texas.
The following year, the tall Texan underwent some changes that straightened his nose, opened a winking eye and provided a voice that has been welcoming fairgoers for more than 40 years.
Thanks to Nancy Wiley, vice president of public relations of the State Fair of Texas, and Ben Brister, son of former Kerens Chamber of Commerce manager, Hal Brister, for their help with this column.
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