Jack Bridges once said he’d try anything that was impossible. But the artist took one look at the colossal Santa Claus former Dallas Mayor R.L. Thornton asked him to overhaul as a Christmas decoration for Fair Park and didn’t see any potential.
Bridges proposed his own seemingly impossible idea — transform Santa into Big Tex, the official greeter of the State Fair of Texas who has welcomed visitors for decades.
“I could build anything that needed to be built. That’s why they called me,” Bridges says in a 1983 interview. “The Santa was big, and it was square. I figured the State Fair needed a Texas symbol on the order of Old Man Texas.”
Big Tex was born in Kerens and found a home at Fair Park. But his story is, ultimately, an East Dallas one, where the artist who brought him to life grew up.
Bridges was raised on Miller Avenue near the Greenland Hills neighborhood. He spent his childhood fishing and squirrel hunting in the backyard. The boys who had the most fun brought their girlfriends, he says. But because he was secretly seeing his Spanish teacher, he took his dog or his mom instead.
In 1925, Bridges started working at Fair Park, performing odd jobs in what is now the Automobile Building. His father had an exhibit there selling 16 flavors of soft drinks. He made about $5 million one year peddling the 5-cent item.
At their factory, the Bridges supplied concentrates, syrups and flavoring to bottlers across the Southwest. They delivered their products in 52 large trucks that they stored in a garage on Sanger Avenue. Unbeknownst to Bridges, the space also doubled as a weigh station for bootleggers smuggling liquor from Mexico.
One day, when Bridges arrived at the garage, he opened the door and walked right into a machine gun. Throughout the room, bootleggers were using transportation equipment to lift 5-gallon cases of alcohol out a garage window and into the neighboring house.
“I knew the boys. They said, ‘Come on in, Jack,’” Bridges says. “I knew better than to say anything. Everyone in town, in one way or another, was connected to that type of racket.”
When the Depression hit, the family fortune vanished, and Bridges started working for John A. Poteet. The artist once said in jest that if Bridges ever needed a job, he should pay him a visit. Bridges cashed in on the offer and joined a community of artists that nurtured his maturing skills as a creator.
During World War II, Bridges helped build a hospital in Hawaii before joining the Navy. He stayed in the islands six years and then moved back to Dallas. He designed and built scenery for amateur dance and theater companies before going back to work at the fairgrounds. It was there he completed the project that defined his career.
Bridges was tasked with creating Big Tex from a 49-foot Santa statue made of iron-pipe drill casing, papier-mâché, cloth and unraveled rope. The Kerens Chamber of Commerce had hoped the figure would entice shoppers to spend money at local stores. But when the novelty faded, the chamber sold the statue to the State Fair for $750.
“When I mentioned creating Old Man Texas,” Bridges says, “J. Hugh Campbell said, ‘Why don’t we build a Young Man Texas? We have enough of us old sons-of-a-gun sitting around.’”
Thornton liked the idea, and because he had the money, that’s the way it went.
Bridges cut the frame into pieces and welded them into a cowboy whose right arm appeared hooked into his vest and whose left arm was outstretched in greeting. His face — modeled after Bridges, Will Rogers and rancher Doc Simmons — featured a wink and a long, hooked nose that was so grotesque, Big Tex had to have surgery. Over the years, he became friendlier with two open eyes, a straight nose and a voice that said, “Howdy, folks” to guests.
“I took the worst features from all three of us,” Bridges says. “Then they made us make him into a pretty boy. I liked him the way he was, more rugged.”
Once the frame of Big Tex was complete, Bridges encountered another problem — finding clothes big enough to fit the 52-foot cowboy. When he sought donations, he was refused on his first call to the clothing company, Texas Concern.
“They said, ‘We don’t think much of those big monstrosities. We’ve seen it tried before, and it never works,’” Bridges says.
Just a few minutes later, representatives from the H.D. Lee Company agreed to donate clothing for Big Tex. In 1952, the icon debuted at the State Fair wearing denim jeans and a red plaid shirt with black accents. Through the years, he’s updated his look with new clothes and a little bling. During the Diamond Jubilee, Bridges drilled a hole through crystal salad bowls and placed them over Big Tex’s buttons to mark the occasion.
When Big Tex isn’t welcoming visitors to the State Fair, he’s stored in various buildings at Fair Park — for the same reason the president and vice president are separated during an emergency, Bridges says. He didn’t want to lose the pieces all at once in an accident.
Until his death in 2001, Bridges served as Big Tex’s caretaker, keeping him safe from vandals who once drew a mustache on his disembodied face. He also oversaw the installation process, which took about six hours and a crane to insert the figure’s 16-feet spud pipes into the ground.
Bridges’ family members say they’re relieved the creator wasn’t alive to witness the fire that destroyed Big Tex in 2012. Although the icon was rebuilt the following year, Bridges’ granddaughter, Elisabeth Bridges, told the Dallas Morning News that the original was priceless.
She says, “To me, it will be Big Tex, and it will be the new Big Tex, but it won’t ever be the Tex that Jack built.”
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