Congressman Ted Poe (TX-02)

This past weekend, I headed north for what has become an annual pilgrimage of sorts for my son Kurt and me, and thousands of Texas Longhorn fans.  I think they must have hung the “closed sign” on Austin because the bumper-to-bumper traffic was solid burnt orange the whole way to Dallas.  But, the drive was worth it to see Colt McCoy lead the Longhorns to victory over the Sooners.

The Red-River Shootout is one of the best college football rivalries in American sports. While the rivalry dates back to 1900, “OU weekend” has been drawing sell-out crowds to the Cotton Bowl year after year since 1929.  The Cotton Bowl is exactly 198 miles from Austin and 192 miles from Norman.  However, we have clearly overcome the six mile disadvantage as evidence by the 59–40–5 overall record and 46–36–4 edge in the Cotton Bowl over the Sooners.  

While it seemed that half of Texas was in Dallas for the game, the other half must have been there for the State Fair.  Big Tex proudly reigned over millions of people from all over the world.  It wouldn’t be the Texas State Fair without him or the Longhorns, but it didn’t start out that way.

The Texas-OU football game was actually brought in as a main attraction to replace horse racing after the State Legislature outlawed gambling and were struggling to make ends meet.  It didn’t take long for Fair officials to realize the draw of this interstate rivalry. In 1930, after only one year of play, Fair officials decided to raze the racetrack and build a 46,000-seat stadium at the park that later became known as our beloved Cotton Bowl. 

The State Fair got its start in 1886, but it wasn’t without its problems.  Differences between its charter members led to a split and thus the Dallas State Fair and Exposition on the outskirts in east Dallas was born and its cross town rival, the Texas State Fair, set up shop in north Dallas.  While both were fairly well attended, the two groups put their differences aside and combined efforts the following year and held the “granddaddy” of today’s annual event, the Texas State Fair & Dallas Exposition.

During the early years, financial struggles plagued the Fair. But, determination saw it through to better days and it has grown from a modest state exhibition to multi-million dollar an international affair with attendance exceeding six million people. 

The Fair has boasted the latest modern inventions, prized livestock, international art exhibits, presidents and foreign leaders and of course some of the best football around. President William Howard Taft was in attendance in 1909 and President Woodrow Wilson delivered a speech in 1911. 

The Fair was on hiatus in 1942-1945 as the Greatest Generation headed off to war and the grounds served as a military encampment. But the post-war boom across the country saw the fair grow to over 2 million visitors in the following years.

The 1950s saw the introduction of Big Tex, the world’s most recognizable Texas-sized cowboy.  And, none other than the King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley, performed at the Cotton Bowl to thousands and thousands of screaming fans.  The list of notable celebrities and international figures goes on and on, year after year.

The 60s and 70s continued to break attendance records and marked expansion. Another record was set in 1985 as legendary coach Eddie Robinson led the Grambling University Tigers to victory over Prairie View in the Cotton Bowl to become the winningest coach in college football.  In 1986, the Fair was designated as a National Historical Landmark by the Department of the Interior.  Not for the legendary football that had been played as could be argued by most Texans, but as the last “intact Depression-era exposition site in the United States.” 

While so much has grown and changed over the years, when I was there last weekend I remembered my days as a kid at the Fair.  I lived in Dallas for a little while growing up and my best friend, Dennis Dossey, and I would take our wagons with us to the State Fair so that we could collect discarded Coke bottles.  They didn’t have cans in those days, and turning in bottles could make you some big money – two cents a piece!  Really, two cents went a lot further then.

I don’t know that recycling Coke bottles would get me much now.  However, it seemed that the deep-fried Twinkees, Oreos, and even Coke were reigning at the top of the food chain this year.  I decided to stick with a corn dog, after all it is said to have gotten its start at the Texas State Fair. 

So, after a great weekend of football and a wink from Big Tex we said goodbye to another year at the State Fair and headed home. The Texas State Fair is a way of life for Texans and an eagerly anticipated annual event, if only to see the Longhorns beat up on the Sooners. 

And that’s just the way it is.

Big Tex made his debut at the 1952 State Fair of Texas. Wearing size 70 boots and a 75-gallon hat, Tex towered 52' above wide-eyed visitors. His denim jeans and plaid shirt were donated by the H. D. Lee Company of Shawnee Mission, Kansas. Cosmetic surgery the following year straightened his nose, corrected a lascivious wink and allowed him to talk.

Opening Saturday of 1985 was designated as "Eddie Robinson Day." The legendary coach of the Grambling University Tigers led his team to victory over Prairie View in the Cotton Bowl to become the winningest coach in college football.