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50 for 50 | Fair Park

Fair Park is home to the renowned State Fair of Texas, but the history of the 277-acre park is so much more.

What began in 1886 as battling differences between a group of Dallas businessmen grew to become the historical landmark it is today. Through the late 1890s, when John Philip Sousa and Booker T. Washington brought thousands to the fair each year, followed by visits from President William Howard Taft in 1909 and Woodrow Wilson in 1911, and in 1916, when attendance topped the one million mark before World War I caused the State Fair to be canceled and the park turned into a temporary army encampment, the fair has certainly held its place in history.

The Music Hall, a magnificent auditorium, was completed in 1925 and the Red River Rivalry, the Texas-O.U. football game was established as an annual fair event in 1929. Next came construction of a 46,000-seat Fair Park Stadium in 1930, which would later be renamed the Cotton Bowl. The Centennial Building also made its debut during this time.

Fair Park played a starring role in the Texas Centennial Exposition, serving as the “central exposition” from June 6 to November 29, 1936. To prepare for the six-month long event, local architect George Dahl, along with an army of artisans and workers, transformed the fairground into an art deco showcase. Construction began in October 1935 and in eight months, an exposition site the size of a city was constructed. Twenty-one of the 50 buildings were permanent. The main entry gate opened onto an esplanade, flanked by exhibit buildings, terminating at the Hall of State.

More than six million people attended the exposition in 1936, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Shirley Temple, Duke Ellington, Ginger Rogers and Roy Rogers. Gene Autry made a movie, The Big Show, on the exposition grounds. News coverage was provided by a radio announcer named Art Linkletter.

The State Fair of Texas was not held from 1942 to 1945, however, following World War II, the State Fair of Texas recorded 2 million visitors in 1949. The 1950s included installation of a monorail system and a Cotton Bowl concert by Elvis Presley. The decade also marked the first appearance of Big Tex, a 52-foot cowboy figure placed in the center of the grounds. In 1960, the total number of fair visitors topped three million for the first time.

Fair Park was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and the State Fair of Texas hosted a 31-day exposition celebrating both the Texas Sesquicentennial and the Fair’s 100th anniversary.

Now in its second century of operation, the fair season has been extended from 17 to 24 days and corporate sponsorship and involvement by major companies has made it possible for the State Fair of Texas to offer a wide range of entertainment and exhibits unmatched by any other in North America. In addition to the State Fair, Fair Park has also hosted the World Cup and the International Gold Cup Games.

Many of the existing art deco buildings have been restored to their 1936 appearance and upgraded to modern building standards. The four cameo reliefs on the Centennial Building underwent a professional conservation treatment in 2000, followed by the esplanade fountain pylons and six monumental sculptures in 2004.

And even though Big Tex was destroyed by fire due to an electrical shortage on the final Friday of the 2012 State Fair, he made a return in 2013, once again welcoming fairgoers with his iconic “Howdy, Folks!”

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