A fair to remember
It's bigger, brasher and arguably better than all other state fairs, but that's Texas for you. Marshall Berdan visits an American institution
SINCE ITS ADMISSION to the union in 1845, the rest of America has had to deal with the 'great' state of Texas ... and the oversized egos of the residents of the largest state in the 'Lower 48'. Well, in at least one case those compulsively superlative Lone Star staters are right: theirs is the biggest state fair by far. To Texans, of course, 'biggest' is synonymous with 'best', so it was with hypercritical eyes that I went to Dallas last October for the State Fair of Texas, an annual, three-week-long commercial, cultural and social extravaganza.
Since their introduction in the 1840s, state fairs have become an American rite of summer - or in Texas' case, autumn, because the summers there can be deadly hot. Like those of most other states, Texas' fair started in 1886 primarily as an agricultural exhibition where farmers and ranchers could congregate to see the latest products and services from suppliers who would rather have their potential customers come to one central location than wander all over the state themselves.
These days most fairs retain at least some semblance of their agricultural kernel, the practical emphasis rests squarely on the outer shells of entertainment and amusement. Texas' is no exception, except it's so huge that even the residual agricultural component is mighty big.
So just how big is it? Each year more than three million people (the most at any state fair) circulate its 112-hectare Fair Park complex (the largest) - including 370,000 square feet of exhibition space (the biggest) and a 65-ride Midway amusement park (the most enormous) - generating more than US$20 million in food and ride sales (the highest). Nobody can possibly see it all in a day, except 'Big Tex', the 16-metre, slow-talking inflatable cowboy (the tallest), who celebrated his 50th anniversary as official ambassador of the State Fair of Texas last year.
Those who want to try head straight to the Texas Star, the tallest Ferris wheel in North America (don't worry, it's hard to miss - especially at night with its 16,000 incandescent red, white, and blue turbolites). Built in Italy in 1985, the 66-metre high, 340-tonne structure can accommodate 264 people in 44 enclosed gondola cars. But you'll need to look quickly - each spin takes only 40 seconds.
What you'll see is that the Texas State Fair is essentially four events in one. Off to the west by the front gate is the Exposition, housed in six art deco halls (the largest collection in the country) originally built for the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration. But what had once been the domain of tractors and balers is now given over to sports utility vehicles, luxury cars and everything you could possibly need for your home or garden.
To the north is the agricultural complex, a network of barns, holding pens and judging arenas that still packs in the 'aggies' - and 8,000 animals - for a little friendly competition.
To the northwest is the entertainment district, a miscellaneous grouping of arenas, theatres and music halls dwarfed by the ovoid expanse of the 72,000-capacity Cotton Bowl stadium. Today the Cotton Bowl is the scene of the fair's single biggest event, the University of Texas versus University of Oklahoma football game (to be held on October 11 this year). As popular as this is - and it draws a national television audience - the so-called Red River Shootout started out as a replacement for the horse racing that had been the fair's primary source of income until gambling was banned in 1903.
Last is the Midway amusement concourse. Midways - a garish, gaudy, and inexplicably irresistible melange of stomach-disturbing rides and 'games of skill' - have always been the sentimental favourites of fair-goers.
I begin by paying my respects to Big Tex himself. From there, it is a short walk - and slightly longer wait - to the Hall of State, the centrepiece of the exposition grounds and the site of the Let Us Begin: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Exhibit, the world's largest private collection of Kennedy memorabilia. Its exit feeds right into the Barbie Mania exhibition. And speaking of feeding, it's never too early to get started on the colossal bill of fare. A stroll down International Boulevard - where Belgian waffles, Polish sausages, and French fries rate as major destinations - left me a little at sea, so I sought out the seated comfort of Hans Mueller's Sausages ('our wurst are the best') and a cold bottle of local Shiner Bock beer.
In the food court are other native specialities such as fried green tomatoes, barbecue ribs, tamales and catfish. But the undisputed king of this fair is the corny dog - a hotdog wrapped in cornmeal, deep-fried and eaten off a stick - which was invented at the fair in 1942 by concessionaires Carl and Neil Fletcher. Fair-goers can watch them being guzzled at a repellent rate at this year's corny dog eating competition.
Refuelled and refreshed, I cut through the Craft Pavilion, where old-time hucksters extoll the virtues of newfangled kitchen gadgets, shoe polish, and super-absorbent wash cloths. Eventually I find my way to the Swine Arena, where it's sheep day. A modestly sized but enthusiastic audience sits rivetted to the bleacher seats, but the non-aggies are soon distracted by the prize-winning cattle on display nearby, venturing as close as they dare to the state champion Longhorn steer to have their pictures taken.
The next six hours are a blur of sights, sounds and smells. There is the Birds of the World Show, whose opening act had a Harris hawk fly from the top of the Texas Star to the hands of its trainer on stage; a Grammy-winning Mexican band; Tiny Tim, the world's smallest horse; and the world's largest travelling collection of snakes, featuring a two-headed albino ratsnake. By early evening, I have migrated back to the Midway, where I stand mesmerised by the rides of the Xtreme Thrillway, especially the Skycoaster - a very, very big swing - and the Big Shot, an equally huge mechanical canon and the world's tallest portable ride.
From there, I follow the crowd back over to International Boulevard to catch the nightly double feature: the low-tech Starlight Parade (mainly for children), and the hi-tech Energy Extravaganza, in which lasers, water and flame cannons, and smoke and fog machines conspire to send the crowd home oohhing and aahhing. And I hadn't seen the half of it.
The 2003 State Fair of Texas, until October 19, exhibition halls open from 10am to 10pm daily. This year's special exhibition is Holidays At The White House, a scaled-down replica of the official presidential residence decorated by one of America's finest miniaturists. Also new are Texas Myths And Legends (an exhibition about the true west) and Amaze' N Mazes (an interactive puzzle, riddle and conundrum display). The big musical drawcard is the Abba extravaganza, Mamma Mia. Adults, $12, children $8. For more information, visit www.bigtex.com