Remembering the original Big Tex, who burned down 10 years ago today

Inside the demise of the beloved State Fair of Texas mascot, and the secret operation to resurrect him.

Photo of Amanda Albee
Fire engulfs the Big Tex cowboy statue displayed at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012.

Fire engulfs the Big Tex cowboy statue displayed at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012.

John McKibben/Associated Press

On Oct. 19, 2012, at approximately 10:30 a.m., smoke began billowing from the shirt collar of Big Tex, the State Fair of Texas' larger-than-life mascot. Within minutes, flames engulfed his 52-foot frame, turning the Texas idol into a funeral pyre before worried onlookers, who let out a collective wail when the conflagration consumed his once-beaming face.

Dallas Fire-Rescue responded immediately. "We got a rather tall cowboy, all his clothes burned off," an officer can be heard saying on the dispatch call. Truck No. 777 left at 10:31, but it was too late. Within an hour of the world's tallest cowboy beginning to blow smoke, the Dallas Morning News reported the tragic news: "Big Tex is toast." Only his outstretched arms, belt buckle and metal skeleton were left intact, reported the New York Times later that day.

"In a big state proud of its big things, few were bigger than Big Tex, symbolically as well as physically," the article read.

Earlier this month, fairgoers celebrated Big Tex's 70th birthday with a "Tex-sized" cake and cookie happy hour, as if nothing ever befell the state fair hero. But many remember the original man, whose demise happened exactly 10 years ago today—and how quickly he was rebuilt.

If Big Tex seems like an inherently benevolent male figure, it's possibly because he was first unveiled as the world's largest Santa Claus in 1949, a way to attract shoppers to take a newly laid railroad to Kerens, 70 miles southeast of Dallas. Within a couple of years, however, the appeal wore off, so the city of Kerens sold him to the State Fair of Texas for $750. Artist Jack Bridges transformed him into a cowboy after Dallas Mayor R.L. Thornton decided it would better suit him.

Big Tex was displayed at the fair for the first time in 1952, with a 75-gallon hat and size 70 boots, but it wasn't until the next year that he was given a voice by Jim Lowe, who's credited for developing his personality over the next 40 years with his famous "Howdy, folks!"

His booming voice fell silent that fateful day in 2012. State Fair officials originally believed the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction that started in Big Tex's right boot. But senior vice president of operations Rusty Fitzgerald, who was there working, says he later discovered a speaker wire that shorted out in Big Tex's chest was responsible for starting the fire.

Once Fitzgerald and his crew pulled down Big Tex's remains, they laid a tarp over his body. Police motorcycles meaning to clear the crowd inadvertently started a funeral procession. "People were taking off their hats. They were crying. They had their hands over their hearts," Fitzgerald says. "It was right then I realized that Big Tex was a lot more than fiberglass and chicken wire."

The covered remains of Big Tex are rolled away at the State Fair of Texas, Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, in Dallas.

The covered remains of Big Tex are rolled away at the State Fair of Texas, Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, in Dallas.

LM Otero/Associated Press

Before the day's end, it was decided Big Tex would be reborn. Mike Rawlings, the Dallas Mayor at the time, vowed on Twitter to "rebuild Big Tex bigger and better for the 21st century." Then-Governor Rick Perry also issued a statement proclaiming it a "sad day for fairgoers across the Lone Star State."

During the two remaining days of the fair, people laid cards, food baskets, children's paintings, and flowers at the place where Big Tex once stood. The Fletcher family, who started selling their Fletcher's Original Corny Dogs at the fair in 1942, took a corny dog bouquet to show their respects.

"I had such a sad feeling, as if I had lost a family member," Fletcher matriarch Glenda Gale "G.G." Fletcher said. "Big Tex was—and still is—the meeting place when we went to the fair with my parents or friends."

The loss was so hard and inconceivable that conspiracy theories developed, with CultureMap Dallas even suggesting the fire was a coordinated ploy to get an updated, more marketable Big Tex. But Fitzgerald maintains it was a surprise for everybody: They were so organized getting him down because they do that at the fair's end anyway, and it just doesn't make sense to intentionally start a fire and risk injuring Big Tex's admirers.

Fitzgerald says the Monday after Big Tex burned down, the State Fair reached out to SRO Associates and Texas Scenic Company near San Antonio to commence a covert rebuilding project, which was code-named "Fried Chicken."

They gave Big Tex an upgrade with size 96 Lucchese boots, custom-painted with the Texas capitol, a steer, bluebonnets, a prickly pear cactus, and the Texas and American flags. Big Tex was also blessed with a bit more padding in the back, so his Dickies jeans had to be expanded to a 343-by-250-inch inseam. When finished, the newly constructed, 25,000-pound Big Tex traveled north, and was resurrected in the middle of the night, just in time for the first day of the fair in 2013. Fitzgerald says Big Tex can now withstand a hurricane—although his clothes might fall off.

In Texas, icons like Big Tex don't die. They're just reborn bigger and better-looking, with fancier boots.

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