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Big Tex, the iconic state fair cowboy, turns 70 (or is it 10?)

State Fair of Texas - Big Tex Full View
Jacob Wells
/
KERA News
Big Tex stands above the crowd at the State Fair of Texas.

This year, the colossal cowboy celebrates seven decades greeting fairgoers. It's also 10 years since the beloved mascot burst into flames.

Big Tex has been the iconic face of the State Fair of Texas since 1952. As a whopping testament to the phrase “everything is bigger in Texas,” the world’s tallest cowboy stands at 55 feet and has amassed a cult following.

One of those fans is fairgoer Geovanni Solano, who said the towering, metal-framed tribute to Texas isn’t just some glorified greeter — Tex is an important part of the fair experience.

“Big Tex is the G.O.A.T.,” said Solano, referring to the greatest of all time. “He’s an icon. Everyone wants to come see him, he's just a such a staple for the community. Everyone feels that they kind of identify a little bit with him.”

Emergency dispatch from Oct. 19, 2012

But many fans like Solano were devastated a decade ago as the Big Tex that stood for 60 years burned away: On Oct. 19, 2012, Big Tex made headlines across the country when he went up in flames in a moment seared into the brains of fair patrons like Jennyfer Vazquez.

“He was still here, but he was burnt,” said Vazquez. “It was kind of sad, and it just didn't look right.”

Big Tex goes up in flames.
John McKibben
/
via Twitter
Big Tex goes up in flames.

The fire started because of an electrical short in Tex’s right boot and spread upwards, causing smoke to fume through his shirt collar.

State Fair Senior Vice President of Operations Rusty Fitzgerald, who has taken care of Big Tex for 22 years, witnessed the emotional reactions of Texans afterwards. He couldn't believe what he saw.

“People were crying,” said Fitzgerald. “They had their hats off, their hands over their hearts… I mean, to me, that's right when I knew how important he was to the people of Texas.”

That’s because, for most fairgoers, Tex has been around their entire lives.

Before making his way to the State Fair of Texas in 1952, Big Tex was built to play the role of Santa Claus.

Merchants from Kerens, Texas in Navarro County were looking to convince Christmas shoppers to shop at local stores. The Kerens Chamber of Commerce decided to run with the only idea that made sense: a nearly 50-foot Santa Claus.

kerens_santa_1.jpg
State Fair of Texas

In 1949, Kerens’ Santa Claus successfully drew in the attention of shoppers.

Then, just two years later, Santa was sold to State Fair of Texas President R.L. Thornton for $750. In 1951, the jolly red giant was sent to Dallas.

Big Tex made his debut at the 1952 state fair, where he stood until the fire in 2012. After taking the damaged Big Tex down, organizers were determined to have him return for the next event in 2013.

“We started almost immediately with design and engineering for him,” Fitzgerald sad. “This one's engineered (so) he can withstand a hurricane. His clothes might blow off, but he's not coming down.”

Still, Big Tex wasn’t the same after the fire in 2012. In fact, from head-to-toe, Big Tex got bigger: He now stands three feet taller than he was in 2012. He also jumped from a size 70 boot to a size 96.

Fitzgerald said they also adopted a new style for Big Tex this year.

“I have to say, this is my favorite shirt out of the whole bunch,” Fitzgerald said. “It's got the fringes. I wasn't too sure about the fringes, but it looks good once we got it up in the air… So he's all dudded out for his 70th birthday.”

Even with fringes, the new ensemble resembles the same Texas style that fans have come to expect from Big Tex. Fitting, since Big Tex’s style is a representation of Texans.

So, whether you see him as a 70-year-old state fair veteran, or a 10-year-old kid, Big Tex has managed to embed himself deep in the heart of Texans.

“Big Tex really personifies what a Texan is,” fair spokesperson Taylor Austin said. “He's friendly, he's loyal. He's really just a good neighbor, and so he's all things Texan, and he really is iconic to our state.”

big tex 2022
Paul DeBenedetto
/
KERA News
Big Tex at the Texas State Fair, Oct. 15, 2022.