Today marked the 124th year of the opening of the State Fair of Texas grounds. I’ve attended the State of Texas approximately a dozen times within my 29 years on the earth. From auto shows to live product demonstrations, to fun houses and ferris wheels, I’ve had my fair share of experiences. In recent years, I went with a friend who had media passes for free admittance. We would go just for lunch and sample tamales, fajitas, tacos, alligator, turkey legs, Fletcher corn dogs, funnel cakes, but I never tried many of the bizarre fried foods the fair is now famous for creating. Read on to get a little bit of history of the State Fair of Texas, the foods,nostalgia, and some advice from those who have gone before.
A Brief History of the State Fair of Texas
Here’s a little history I’m paraphrasing from Pam Wagner. When the first State Fair of Texas opened in 1886. Back then, the fair didn’t even have Big Tex, the 52-foot-tall talking cowboy that is the fair’s instantly recognizable symbol. In 1886, the fairgrounds only covered 80 acres, and 14,000 people showed up on opening day.
By 2002, about 3 million people visited the State Fair each year, now located at the 277-acre Fair Park in Dallas. The Texas State Fair is the largest fair in North America, according to Amusement Business magazine’s annual survey. The advance publicity promises that among other things the fair will feature celebrity chefs, wine tasting, product sampling, gardening tips and exhibits from the Texas food and wine industries.
The Logistics of the State Fair of Texas
Such an enormous job requires a year-round, permanent staff of about 40 employees who work for a 55-member nonprofit corporate board, State Fair of Texas Inc., and a 15-member executive committee.
Some employees help ticket sales go smoothly; some are responsible for amusement rides, games and entertainment; some work with more than 8,000 animal entries for the fair’s livestock show; and some coordinate about 7,000 entries competing for blue ribbons in creative arts such as jams and jellies, quilt-making and photography. The fair always opens with a parade in downtown Dallas.
“What are your favorite things to do/see at the State Fair of Texas?”
This was the survey question I asked to 1200 Facebook friends. I received ten responses, nine of which I’ll
“Taste the crazy new fried foods ” – Danielle Glick
“I love riding the shady rides on the Midway. The fact that you don’t know if you’re going to survive or not makes them that much more exciting!” -Christina White
“Haven’t been in 50 years, but would love to try the new deep fried Frito Pie this year! Maybe you can try one for me!” -Nancy Ogle
“The people. i LOVE people watching at the fair. oh that and corn dogs ” – Stephanie Norsworthy
“Eating fried foods!” – Kimberly Thornburg
“I love taking photographs. It’s a fascinating place both for architecture and people pictures.” – David Swinney
“Auto show!” – Debbie Bjelica
“Cars..” – Cody McGehee
“Midway carnival rides! Oh wait…I haven’t been since I was a child.” – Aaron Lemons
Food & Attractions of the State Fair of Texas
The fair offers food and drink to visitors at about 200 different locations on the fairgrounds and on the midway, patrons can spend the fair’s 50 cent coupons on about 75 rides and amusement attractions, such as Tina, the world’s tiniest horse, or the tallest Ferris wheel in North America, the 212-foot Texas Star.
Ferris Wheel at the State Fair Named "Texas Star"
Or patrons can pay cash to play about 75 different games ranging from modern video games to such old-time, carnival favorites as knocking down milk bottles to win a prize. College football games also attract visitors to the fair.
The largest single-day attendance record for the fair was set in 1966 with 345,469 visitors, according to the Handbook of Texas Online, an online encyclopedia of Texas sponsored by the Texas State Historical Association and the University of Texas.
Battle of the Bands at The State Fair of Texas
Speaking of the State Fair of Texas in the late 1960s, my father used to tell the story of his high school rock band, the Mind’s Eye and how they played at the State Fair of Texas in 1967 for a “Battle of the Bands” contest. I don’t think they won, but here’s a picture courtesy of previous band mate Carroll Fuller. Those pictured are: Gary O’Neal (lead guitar & vocals), Mark Finley (rhythm guitar), James Morris (bass), Larry Lemons (organ), Karen Nunneley (vocals) & Carroll Fuller (drums). I found out later through a Facebook thread that my grandmother, Alta Lemons, made their shirts. They were double breasted buttons ala Monkees style.
The Mind's Eye - Texas State Fair - Oct. 1967
The staff of the State Fair no longer tracks attendance because the number of people who enter the gates with a ticket doesn’t reflect how many people attend the fair each day. Many attendees, such as school children and senior citizens, get in free on certain days. Other days, you can go to the State Fair of Texas at reduced admission prices.
Bizarre Fried Foods of the State Fair of Texas
It seems my friends were right. Since the invention of the Fletcher’s Corny Dog, fairgoers have often ranked food as one of the top reasons for attending the annual State Fair of Texas. In 2005, Fair organizers organized the first annual Big Tex Choice Awards contest for food vendors.
The entries must be new and unique to the Fair. In mid-summer, an invitation is sent to all contracted State Fair vendors with details about the contest. Interested concessionaires submit menus to a committee for review and consideration. Often the committee will request samples for taste testing before choosing the finalists for the contest. On Labor Day, judges are brought in for the final round of competition. The winner for most creative in this year’s contest went to Fried Beer™ while Texas Fried FRITOS® Pie won the trophy for best taste.
Here’s the last five year’s Big Tex Choice Awards contest winners, which has mostly consisted of unconventionally fried foods and beverages.
2005 Most Creative: Viva Las Vegas Fried Ice Cream
2005 Best Taste: Fried PB, Jelly and Banana Sandwich
2006 Most Creative: Fried Coke
2006 Best Taste: Fried Praline Perfection
2007 Most Creative: Deep Fried Latte
2007 Best Taste: Texas Fried Cookie Dough
2008 Most Creative: Fried Banana Split
2008 Best Taste: Chicken Fried Bacon
2009 Most Creative: Deep Fried Butter
2009 Best Taste: Fernie’s Deep Fried Peaches & Cream
2010 Most Creative: Fried Beer™
2010 Best Taste: Texas Fried FRITOS® Pie
State Fair of Texas Revenue & Expenses
The fair earns revenue from a variety of sources. The event’s organizers receive no funding from the federal, state or local government, and they decide how much to spend each year to put on the fair by estimating how much revenue they expect to take in that year added to whatever is set aside for operating funds from the previous year. In 2002 the fair organizers anticipated spending $40.5 million to put on the event and expected $44.5 million in revenue.
Any money left over after paying expenses each year is reinvested in improvements and preservation projects at Fair Park, which the city of Dallas owns. The fair’s representatives and city officials jointly decide which improvements–such as building renovations, roof repair or air conditioning–have the highest priority.
About 54 percent of the fair’s revenue comes from admission, parking and miscellaneous sources. About 32.5 percent of the fair’s annual income stems from the fair’s share in the gross revenue from amusement ride operators and food vendors. The percentage of the fair’s take varies according to the individual contracts signed. The fair also obtains annual revenue from exhibit rentals. Fair Park attracts 7.5 million visitors annually and is already one of the top tourist attractions in Texas.
For more information:
Dallas News State Fair Blog
Dallas Art news – Big Tex Goes Up
Photo credit 1: MyBellRingers
Photo credit 2: Carroll Fuller
Photo credit 3: mallaryjeantenore.wordpress.com
Photo credit 4: Blogcdn.com