Athens Review, Athens, Texas

October 22, 2012

Big Tex goes up in flames

Special to the Review
The Athens Review

Athens —

Big Tex, the metal cowboy whose slow drawl of "Howdy, folks!" made him an icon of the State Fair of Texas for 60 years, was destroyed Friday when flames engulfed his 52-foot-tall frame.

Some material that made up Big Tex's hands and sleeves could still be seen as firefighters gathered around the scorched area. This year's fair, which closes Sunday and had been celebrating the towering structure's birthday, went on despite the fire — just as Big Tex would want it.

"Big Tex is a symbol of everything the state fair stands for," fair spokeswoman Sue Gooding said. "Big Tex is where my parents told me, 'If you get lost, meet at Big Tex.'"

The cowboy always was easy to spot, with his 75-gallon hat and 50-pound belt buckle.

Gooding said she didn't know what caused the fire, but noted that electrical controls move Big Tex's mouth and head. A Dallas fire spokesman didn't immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Daily Sun reporter Janet Jacobs was enjoying a day at the State Fair when the fire happened.

“I had just stepped out of the Embarcadero, and saw smoke and went back inside to get my friends because I thought the building was on fire,” Jacobs said. “When we came back out they were starting to push the crowd back because of the fire department. It wasn’t until the fire was completely out that we got close to it.”

Kerens is the birthplace of the statue that became Big Tex. Constructed in 1949 by the Kerens Chamber of Commerce as “the world’s largest Santa Claus,” the character was a promotional tool designed to keep people from leaving the small town for Christmas shopping.

After a couple of years, the novelty of the figure wore off, and Santa was sold to the State Fair of Texas for $750, to make his debut as “Big Tex” in 1952. This was his 60th year at the fair.

In Kerens on Friday, a makeshift memorial was set up beneath an inflatable replica of Big Tex, set up on Highway 31 to promote this weekend’s Cotton Harvest Festival.

“When I was a little girl, it was on the end of (Colket) street,” recalled Kerens resident Clara Jo McMillan. “I always loved going to the fair just to see him.”

Brenda Edwards of Kerens said she remembered the thrill of seeing Big Tex every year at the State Fair of Texas.

“I’m upset,” she said, “I’ve been going to the State Fair since high school, and the first thing we’d go see is Big Tex. It won’t be the same.”

Gayle Steed, busy setting up for the weekend activities of the Cotton Harvest Festival, was also saddened by the news of the fire.

“I was always fond of Big Tex,” she said. “When we moved to Kerens I was thrilled to learn he was actually from here. It’s a shame it happened and especially on this weekend.”

“I really hate hearing it,” added Kathy Henderson of Kerens. “But, they’ll rebuild him.”

Bill Bragg, the voice of Big Tex who read scripts from a nearby trailer while the giant cowboy's mouth moved, said someone came in and told him the structure was on fire. He stepped outside the trailer and watched Big Tex burn.

"It was a quick end," said Bragg, who is a radio engineer outside the three weeks a year that he works at the fair.

Several Big Tex backers say he will return next year, including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who tweeted that the icon would be rebuilt "bigger and better for the 21st Century."

Big Tex's hands, boots and face were made of Fiberglas, Gooding said. Most of his clothing was provided by a Fort Worth retailer. Gooding said the steel structure that held all the material will be evaluated, and a new one will be built if necessary.

The structure was removed later Friday in essentially the same way workers put it up every year — with a crane that slowly lowers it. Only this time, the steel skeleton was covered with a tarp and taken away in almost a funeral-like procession.

Stanley Hill, who supervises a food stand that has been located near the structure for 18 years, said he noticed smoke coming from Big Tex's neck area and then watched for about 15 minutes as the giant cowboy burned.

"I couldn't believe it," Hill said.

No one was injured in the fire, Gooding said.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. Want to “Soundoff” on this story? Email: soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com