State Fair's iconic Big Tex consumed by fire

Big Tex, the larger-than-life icon that has greeted visitors to the State Fair of Texas for 60 years, was consumed in a Friday morning fire.

He was 60.

The fire, believed to be caused by an electrical short in Mr. Tex's right boot, broke out shortly after the State Fair's 10 a.m. opening at Fair Park in Dallas.

Ann Godwin, 71, had just walked past Mr. Tex when his "Howdy Folks" announcement caused her to glance up his way.

"When I looked up there was smoke coming out of the back of his collar," Godwin said. "I spoke to a woman passing who was looking too. I said, 'Looks like Big Tex is hot under the collar over something.'"

Godwin said she then went into a building and emerged about 15 minutes later to see everyone pointing their phones and cameras in the same direction.

"I looked up and sure enough there was fire at his neck at that time," Godwin said. "I just started taking pictures, then it broke out in his fly area. It was a little embarrassing."

Fair spokeswoman Sue Gooding said she had just driven up to Fair Park when she heard someone casually say, 'Oh, Big Tex is smoking' and looked up to see a ring of smoke coming up from his collar. Within about 12 minutes, the 52-foot-tall colossal cowboy was in flames, she said.

"It appears as if that structure just served as a chimney -- that it was carrying the smoke from the start of the fire up and out where you've got oxygen, which is through his neck collar," Gooding said.

She said the engineering of the structure, which is anchored deep into the ground, prevented it from toppling over.

"The only concern I had was that some embers might be picked up and carried off but that did not happen," Gooding said. "Even the landscaped area in Big Tex's circle was not charred."

Godwin said almost everyone who witnessed the fire seemed saddened by the loss.

"Everybody said, 'Oh, that's sad.' That was everybody's reaction," she said. "I'm sure there were a million pictures taken. It's just kind of a monumental thing, to actually witness something like that."

A State Fair fixture

Mr. Tex had been a favorite background fixture for family photographs at the State Fair for decades.

The gentle giant had originally worked from 1949 to 1951 as a giant Santa Claus for the town of Kerens.

But in 1951, he was bought for $750 by Dallas businessman R.L. Thornton, then president of the State Fair and later mayor of Dallas, and transformed by Dallas artist Jack T. Bridges.

In 1952, he made his debut as Big Tex at the State Fair, decked out in western garb, including size-70 boots and a 75-gallon cowboy hat.

A year later, Mr. Tex began talking. Though his voice sometimes changed through the years, his Texas drawl was always present as he belted out greeting to State Fair visitors, including his trademark "Howdy!" He even spoke a little Spanish at times.

In 1997, Mr. Tex received an extreme makeover. Amusements Inc. turned him from a man made of iron pipes from the oil fields into a man of steel who tipped the scales at 6,000 pounds.

He also began waving that year, probably because of his excitement over his new clothes maker, Fort Worth-based Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co.

In previous years, Mr. Tex's fashions included North Carolina-based Wranglers or Levi Strauss, which is based in California.

But in 1997, Dickies began providing the 80-pound pair jeans to encircle Mr. Tex's 284-inch waist, the shirt for his 31-foot chest, and a kerchief for his 100-inch neck.

"Dickies has proudly been the official clothier of Big Tex for 15 years," the company said in a statement released Friday. "Although we're saddened by today's news, we're confident that together with the State Fair of Texas, Big Tex will return better than ever in new Dickies apparel."

The colors and designs of Mr. Tex's shirts changed every few years. Who could forget the Texas flag-inspired shirt first donned in 2002? Or in 2008, when he proved himself man enough to pull off a canary yellow dress shirt?

In 2001 -- one year after Mr. Tex began turning his head -- fairgoers saw Mr. Tex's patriotic side, when an American flag and red, white and blue ribbons were affixed to his chest in honor of those who killed in the terrorist attacks.

"He is an icon of Texas, and everyone does look up to him," Barbara Jones, the overseer of Big Tex, explained at the time. "It is important to know he's a patriotic guy, and his country does come first."

He'll be back next year

Mr. Tex's birthdays had been cause for celebration at the fair.

For his 50th in 2002, he got a few gray hairs and wrinkles (via artist Jer Giles) along with a giant birthday cake and an AARP card.

Still, he had no plans to retire and three weeks ago, fairgoers celebrated his 60th birthday with a special "milk toast."

But Friday, just two days before the State Fair ends, Mr. Tex's remains were taken to a secure storage area where an autopsy will be performed to check the integrity of his steel frame and determine if it can be reused, or if officials will have to start from scratch in resurrecting the next Big Tex.

The fire burned Mr. Tex down to his cagelike skeleton with only his hands still recognizable.

"We will do everything we can to have Big Tex back up, dressed, and in place for the 2013 State Fair of Texas," Gooding promised, adding, "I'm going to be voting for a taller Big Tex."

"He just turned 60. That sounds like a great height to return with next year," she said

Until then, fairgoers of past and present will no doubt mourn Mr. Tex's passing.

Upon hearing news of the fire from a friend, Elisabeth Blount rushed to the State Fair in hopes of taking photographs of what remained of Mr. Tex.

Bridges, Blount's late grandfather, had been considered the "father" of Mr. Tex.

For a while, he had stored his "son" at his Dallas home during the off-season and had insisted on running the crane used to lift Mr. Tex in his spot until he got too old to do so.

"Oh my God, it's like somebody in my family has died," Blount said. "It's like I grew up here. For him not to be here, I'm really upset."

A Big Tex Grief Support Group was started on Facebook to share memories about Mr. Tex, which, by Friday afternoon, already had hundreds of "likes."

One fairgoer even handed Gooding a bouquet of red carnations, asking her to place them near where Mr. Tex had proudly stood.

She complied.

"I will not be surprised if people come up and put up pictures of themselves with Big Tex as a young child," Gooding said. "I have those pictures on my wall of me when I was little."

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655

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