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Big Tex 101: Kerens, Birthplace Of Big Tex, Is Mighty Proud Of Local Boy Done Good

State Fair of Texas

Big Tex, the beloved State Fair of Texas icon, returns to Fair Park on Friday. (If you’ve been under a rock lately, the big guy burned down last October in spectacular fashion, attracting national headlines.)

Before Big Tex makes his triumphant return, we’re offering a daily online look at All Things Big Tex until Friday.

In today's edition of Big Tex 101, we explore Big Tex's roots in a small town.

Before Big Tex was Big Tex, he was a Santa Claus in Kerens, about an hour south of Dallas in Navarro County.

Kerens, pronounced KURR-inz, calls itself the birthplace of Big Tex. It’s a point of pride all these years later.

In 1949, the town rallied to make the world’s largest Santa Claus. A garment factory made his suit. A welding shop made his framework from iron-pipe drill casing. Baylor University art students made his head. Women unraveled seven-foot-long ropes to form his beard.

Strong, burly men were chosen to serve as models for Santa.

Howell Brister, the manager of the Kerens Chamber of Commerce, came up with the concept. He wanted people to shop in his town instead of nearby Corsicana or Dallas. The world’s biggest Santa Claus would attract new shoppers to his town.

The plan worked. Santa captured plenty of newspaper coverage – and tourists.

Santa went up the next year, but the buzz wore off.

So Brister shopped the Santa around. In 1951, the State Fair of Texas bought it for $750. It was initially going to install Santa at Fair Park during the holidays. But R.L. Thornton, the State Fair president at the time, decided to make a cowboy instead. Big Tex made his debut in October 1952.

Brister died in 1987. He’s buried in Kerens. His gravestone reads: “Would like to be remembered as the creator of Big Tex.”

Brister was a creative man – outgoing, too. He never met a stranger, his son, Ben Brister, told The Dallas Morning News last fall.

“I’m quite proud of my father,” Ben Brister said. “I couldn’t have been more lucky in having a father like him.”

On Oct. 19, the day he burned down, Kerens was hosting its annual Cotton Harvest Festival. The dramatic fire hit the town hard.

A giant Big Tex inflatable sat on State Highway 31 to welcome the crowds. Instead, the inflatable became a shrine as people stopped to take pictures. People left flowers, too.

This week, Big Tex's debut is the talk of the town.

“Everybody’s very excited,” Cindy Scott, the city administrator in Kerens, told KERA last week. “We’re talking quite a bit about it and following his page on Facebook. We’re real excited that he’s coming back better and bigger.”

In recent weeks, Big Tex’s new bootprints have been traveling the state to help boost interest in the new Big Tex to be unveiled on Friday at Fair Park.

The bootprints made a stop in Kerens. They were placed at the same spot where Santa stood more than 60 years ago.

Can’t get enough about Big Tex? Here are links to previous installments of Big Tex 101:

Look Back At State Fair Of Texas Icon's Early Years

Look At His New Digs, Even Though State Fair Security Said: 'No Pics'

Sources: State Fair of Texas; The Dallas Morning News archives; KERA research

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.