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RIP Big Tex: The State Fair Will Never Be the Same

A Texan remembers the world's biggest boomer who went up in flames

By Sophia Dembling | November 1, 2012
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Sophia Dembling is a freelance writer who specializes in travel stories.

Texas is grieving.

I was traveling when it all went down, but happened to check Facebook just a minute after a friend had posted a one-word status line — “horrible” — over a photo of Big Tex in flames.

Unimaginable!

Was it Photoshop? Could it possibly be true?

But posts and photos started piling up in my news feed, confirming the gruesome news. Big Tex, the beloved 52-foot cowboy who for decades had welcomed fairgoers to the State Fair of Texas, had gone up in flames.

And on his 60th birthday, no less. Much too young to go.

Ten years ago, when Big Tex turned 50, he was issued the world’s largest AARP card.

His fabled life came to an end on Oct. 19, just as the fair was ending its monthlong run.

From 'Ho Ho Ho!' to 'Hoooowwwdddy!'

Big Tex started life in 1949 as an unattractive Santa Claus in Kerens, Texas. When Kerens tired of him in 1951, State Fair President R.L. Thornton purchased the framework, and in 1952, Big Tex made his debut.

He'd been a part of our lives ever since, an icon of Americana, a symbol of how we Texans do everything bigger — even our welcomes.

His death, as one friend joked, was a hell of a hot flash.

“He’s toast!” quipped another.

But I couldn’t laugh at the jokes. I was too distraught — surprisingly so, actually.

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The photos were haunting, and yet I couldn’t look away. First his smiling face and 75-gallon cowboy hat wreathed in flames, then the rest of him, including his size 70 boots, consumed, in a spectacle that drew a distressed crowd with cell phone cameras. Photos of children in tears were too painful to look at. Eventually all that was left of our icon was a frame and his arms — one held out, and the other held up in a friendly wave.

It took all of about 10 minutes. 



Our Grief Is Big Too

At first, people thought the fire was the result of an electrical short in his jaw, which moved when he boomed his trademark: "Hoooowwwdddy, folks. Welcome to the State Fair of Texas." The saddest photo I saw was of Bill Bragg, the voice of Big Tex since 2002, standing in front of the towering remains, his head in his hands. Later, authorities blamed a faulty electrical outlet by one of his giant feet.

My Facebook feed filled with photos of Big Tex in happier times. Pretty much everyone who goes to the fair has had a photo taken with the icon at some point. “Meet me at Big Tex” was a standard plan. Generations of children were admonished that should they wander off and lose their parents, they were to go straight to Big Tex and wait.

Within the hour, a Big Tex Grief Support Group had launched on Facebook. Jokes started piling up about the newest fried treat at the fair. Gawker tweeted: “Friendly Texas icon turns into Terrifying Colossal Flame Monster as it burns down. Thanks for the nightmares, Big Tex.” A friend of a friend commented, “You do know that every non-Texan is thinking ‘So what?’” I had to bite my fingers to keep from typing a tart response. Hate Texas if you must — and we know a lot of people do — but don’t mess with Big Tex. He never hurt anyone. He was a good guy.

The remains were hauled off in an enormous body bag, and the spot where he had stood filled with notes, flowers, corny dogs and, naturally, Big Tex bobbleheads. Fair officials promised that by next year, Big Tex would be back. Dallas Morning News columnist Jacquielynn Floyd entreated them to refrain from updating Big Tex beyond recognition: “Resist any suggestions that an international design competition be held to choose a new Big Tex artist. We do not want a trapezoid slab of granite propped in a reflecting pool meant to symbolize the ethereal transience of life and the hope inherent in regeneration. We want a giant talking cowboy.”

(Although, she later noted, “By all means, make him more flame-retardant.”)

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An editorial in the Dallas News opined, even another giant talking cowboy can’t replace Big Tex: 
In this up-to-date, polished and blow-dried city, Big Tex was retro cool.
He occupied space somewhere between unique and peculiar.
He was like a quirky old uncle — you’d visit him once a year, take some pictures, and wonder all over again what cowboy planet he came from.
It was impossible to explain him, standing near his size 70 boots, looking up into his nostrils.
That look on his face — is he amused? In pain? Possessed? A little off?

Yeah, Big Tex was … odd. His eyes were googly and his jaw clattered when he talked, and he was strangely barrel-chested. Shortly before the fair opened, a friend had posted “a confession: Big Tex weirds me out a little,” and many agreed. But he was our Big Tex. Many of us have never lived in a world without him.

Two days after the fire, the fair ended its 2012 run. The Texas Star Ferris wheel stilled, the Birds of the World Show packed up, Fletcher’s Corny Dogs stands disposed of their cornmeal-flecked grease for the last time. The end of the fair is always a little sad. But this year is extra melancholy.

I refuse, however, to say rest in peace, Big Tex. We know you're coming back, and when you do, we'll be the ones welcoming you. 
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