The Bert family’s legacy spans Sno Cones to Texas Fried Fritos Pie
Ice cream sandwiches and sno cones were cool novelties at the state fair some 90 years before the invention of Texas Fried Frito Pie.
Before there was all-fried everything, there was Sammy Bert of East Dallas.
Bert started selling ice cream sandwiches at the State Fair of Texas in 1919. Some accounts credit him as the inventor of sno cones that year, and in 1927, he invented the first motor-driven ice-shaving machine to make sno cones for the masses.
The World War I veteran’s entrepreneurship at the fair lasted decades, and his legacy has spanned generations.
Sammy Bert died in 1984, but his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren still operate food booths at the fair. This year, they won a Big Tex Choice Award for Texas Fried Fritos Pie, the invention of family friends, Michael Thomas and Richard Roznowski of Lakewood.
Bert’s Burgers and Fries, one of the family’s seven concession stands, is right outside the Cotton Bowl, a few steps from the site of their patriarch’s dynasty, long gone.
“Sno cones were our start, and we expanded like everyone else,” says Nick Bert Sr., 73, the son of Sammy Bert.
They sold peanuts and popcorn — the popcorn boxes were 5 cents and featured a picture of sister Elena Lowry.
The elder Bert built a wooden roller coaster, the Comet, in 1947. All through the middle of the century, the Comet was as much a landmark at the fair as Big Tex.
He also built a roller-skating rink, Cotton Bowl Skating, and a cafeteria run by his wife, Mary Bert.
“Being Italian, we always had meatballs and spaghetti,” says Sam Bert Jr., 74.
She also served fried chicken, greens and cornbread along with other typical cafeteria fare, and it was the only restaurant at Fair Park.
After the Dallas Cowboys debuted at the Cotton Bowl in 1960, they often would have their postgame parties in the skating rink.
Nick Bert recalls seeing legendary quarterback Don Meredith around the park, and once, he saw him carrying buckets of water for players to drink. It was a different NFL then.
And it was a different fair.
Bert’s attractions ran year-round, but during the state fair, the family spent all of its time there, even sleeping above the cafeteria, where Sammy Bert had his office.
“It was hard to sleep because you would hear them sweeping all the bottles and cans off the street,” says Vera Bert, who’s been involved in the fair since she married Nick Bert almost 50 years ago.
That was back when sanitation was less than a priority at the fair, and trash would cover the grounds at the end of a day, she says.
Nick Bert Jr., 47, remembers sitting in mom Vera’s lap while she worked the cash register at one of the family’s concession stands. As kids, he and his siblings and cousins anticipated state fair time the same way some kids look forward to Christmas.
“I couldn’t wait for it. We basically had carte blanche,” he says.
By then, his grandfather had added new amusements — the Flash and the Wild Mouse. And his uncle owned the merry go round. So they were always free to ride.
“I could go skating anytime, and if I wanted something to eat, it was right there,” he says.
Now he takes leave from his job as a Dallas County Sheriff’s deputy to work full time at the fair every year.
His nephew, 17-year-old Zachary Paul, is the fourth generation of Berts at the state fair.
The younger Nick Bert still finds something romantic and fun about the state fair, but it is a grind. For a little more than three weeks, he works from 5:30 or 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight.
When the Big Tex Choice Awards first started in the ’90s, he gave it a go with fried meatballs — a tribute to his grandmother. But that was before someone decided to batter and fry a Twinkie, before fried foods became the star of state fair publicity. And the fried meatball never took off.
So he gave it a rest for a few years, but in 1999, he came up with fried cheesecake, which is still a hot seller at the fair.
“I think the Frito pie is one of these, too,” he says. “It’s going to take off and stay around awhile.”
And so the legacy continues
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