THE STATE FAIR of Texas, at eighty-six years of age (1977 article), the largest and most successful in any of the fifty states, had a far from tranquil start. Extending over a period of months, the issue of where to launch the fair split the business element wide open. Since neither side would give in, the argument wound up with each group staging a rival exposition to run simultaneously.
The division was political, if not to say ideological. The old-line business and civic leadership, essentially conservative, got a charter from the state in January, 1886, to establish the Dallas State Fair. Some forty acres in the then separate town of East Dallas, near where Main Street reached the Texas & Pacific tracks, were selected as its site. A leading banker, J. B. Simpson, headed the enterprise, with John S. Armstrong as vice-president and E. M. Reardon, another banker, as treasurer. Also on the directorate was Capt. W. H. Gaston, another prominent banker, who is acknowledged today to have been the greatest single benefactor and backer of the State Fair in its critical founding days. Others on the board included Alex Sanger, T. L. Marsalis (founder of Oak Cliff), and W. J. Keller, early-day street railway magnate.
But Dallas spokesmen for the brewing Farmers’ Revolt in Texas— members of the Knights of Labor and the Farmers’ Alliance—were unhappy over the location of the fair. They found a vigorous champion in C. A. Keating, president of the largest farm implement and machinery
concern in Dallas. And when Simpson and others designated the Main Street site in East Dallas, Keating and his followers broke completely with its backers.
“The ground selected is the worst kind of a hog wallow,” Keating charged. “That is why the implement and machinery interests refuse almost to a man to show their goods there.” Objectors then formed their own association, the Texas State Fair, and, choosing a rival location in North Dallas, they announced they would open its gates one day before the other exposition. This North Dallas Fair was on land that included present Cole Park adjacent to the North Dallas High School of today.
Competition may have stimulated attendance at both shows, but financial results at the end of the two expositions were poor enough to persuade both factions to call off their fight and unite in a single exposition. Both fairground properties were sold to real estate developers for town lot sales, and a new fair-ground site of eighty acres was selected farther east along the Texas & Pacific tracks to contain the combined Texas State Fair and Dallas Exposition. Greatly expanded over the years, it has remained the site of the State Fair ever since.
James Moroney, president of the Moroney Hardware Company, who had preserved a neutral stance, was named president of the united 1887 State Fair. The new fair was opened with great fanfare in October, with Governor Sul Ross on hand to inaugurate it formally.
During the next sixteen years the State Fair zoomed to the forefront as one of the nation’s best annual expositions. Early-day guiding spirits of the enterprise, in addition to those already mentioned, included J. M. Wendelkin, Jules E. Schneider, Royal A. Ferris, B. Blankenship, O. P. Bowser, Frank M. Cockrell, W. C. Connor, Thomas Field, Col. Henry Exall, J. B. Adoue, J. T. Gano, Ben E. Cabe11, E. M. Kahn, J. B. Wilson, and Col. J. T. Trezevant.
The fair suffered a number of setbacks in those years. In 1889 fire destroyed the newly constructed livestock building. In 1892 the racing stables burned to the ground. In 1902 the main exhibition building, a wooden structure, went up in flames. And in the same year the Texas legislature killed horse racing in Texas by outlawing betting at the tracks. In spite of increasing annual attendance, the fair faced growing financial woes.
At this juncture in 1903, real estate interests offered $125,000 for the fairgrounds. Since the fair directorate owed $80,000 on the venture, there was a strong temptation to take the offer and disband the fair. But, as Colonel Trezevant, the fair’s first historian, wrote in 1911, “The Dallas spirit prevailed” and directors turned down the moneymaking proposition. They now offered to turn the property over to the city as a park for $125,000, which would be used to retire the $80,000 debt and provide $45,000 in cash for the city to use on improvements.
This counteroffer became the basis in 1904 for a citywide vote on the creation of a park system, with Fair Park to be a central unit in it. Park bonds in the amount of $125,000 were approved by a comfortable margin, and the city park department under a park board was established. Fair Park was opened to the public the year round, but was placed under the control of the fair association during the period of each annual exposition. Mayor Bryan T. Barry appointed to the first board M. N. Baker, J. J. Eckford, W. O. Connor, and Emil Fretz.
In the deal whereby the city acquired Fair Park, the State Fair retained a long-term lease on the use of the grounds and buildings for an annual exposition each fall.
City planner George E. Kessler of St. Louis was hired to redesign the fairgrounds. His work at Fair Park was such a success that the city commission hired Kessler in 1910 to draw up the first city plan for Dallas as a whole, thereby initiating urban planning in Dallas.
The first major expansion of Fair Park came in 1914, when the city bought the adjoining 13.5-acre Gaston Park at Second Avenue and Parry from Capt. W. H. Gaston for $96,500. This was a low price for the land and Captain Gaston sold it to the city on exceptionally easy terms.
Gaston Park then contained the baseball park for the Dallas Giants, the professional team which had been a member of the Texas League since 1888. The site today contains the State Fair Music Hall.
In view of Captain Gaston’s great help over the years in the financial establishment of the State Fair, the park board voted in 1923 to change the name of Fair Park to Gaston Park. But the financier in a letter of thanks asked that the name of the park not be changed, and his wishes were respected.
The biggest addition to Fair Park came in 1936 when the city bought 29.42 more acres south of the Gaston tract along Second Avenue for $461,135. This is known as the civic center tract, since it contains several of the museum buildings voted by the people of Dallas as permanent improvements to Fair Park, an integral part of plans to hold the Texas Centennial Exposition there in 1936.
The Centennial Exposition, first world’s fair ever held in Texas, was largely won for Dallas over claims of rival Texas cities by the sales strategy of the late R. L. (Uncle Bob ) Thornton, Dallas banker and civic leader. In open bidding held at Austin, Dallas offered $25,000,000 to stage a show worthy of the 100th anniversary of the winning of Texas independence. The Centennial, an unqualified success, and the subsequent Pan-American Exposition in 1937 proved a turning point in the unfolding of Dallas’s destiny. The fair has operated without a yearly interruption since its beginning, except for seven seasons: one year during World War I, three years during World War II (when the grounds were used by the armed forces ), and three seasons spent in preparation and holding of the Texas Centennial and Pan-American
Since its beginning, the fair has continued to command the loyalties and enthusiasm of outstanding Dallas leaders. Among its outstanding presidents during the last half century were J. J. Eckford, R. E. L. Knight, E. J. Kiest, and R. L. Thornton. The latter served longer as president than any other person, and his influence in the postwar development of the fair proved crucial. A statue of Thornton in the courtyard of the Hall of State testifies to both his role and his fellow citizens’ appreciation of it.
The State Fair also has been particularly fortunate in the skilled managers and executives it has attracted, In addition to Captain Sidney Smith, the first secretary, these have included Roy Rupard, W. H. Hitzelberger, and James Stewart.
As the early-day home of the first professional baseball team, Fair Park has also, of course, played a determining part in encouraging both intercollegiate and professional football in Dallas since the start of this century. Its Cotton Bowl, remodeled, is world famous.
The grounds have also had two separate horse-race tracks in its history. The first heavier-than-air planes—both biplanes and monoplanes —ever seen in Dallas were first flown at Fair Park.
Fair Park has also had a key role in the presentation of the more ambitious musical and theatrical attractions for almost three quarters of a century. At the beginning of his worldwide fame, Paderewski made his first appearance in Dallas in 1903 in a newly constructed Fair Park auditorium. Later the Fair Park coliseum ( still standing on the northeast corner of the fairgrounds, although no longer used for exhibition purposes) was the home of productions featuring such opera stars as Mary Garden and Chaliapin. Notable horse shows, Sousa’s Band, and other drawing cards were also brought to the coliseum.
The Dallas Symphony has its home in the present State Fair Music Hall, which now houses the Summer Musicals, as well as productions each year of the Dallas Civic Opera and the visiting company of the Metropolitan Opera.
The latest accolade to Fair Park and the State Fair of Texas is the official State of Texas marker recently ordered by the Dallas County Historical Survey Committee and soon to be unveiled on the fairgrounds.
Whatever the future of Fair Park, its history is intimately connected with the story of sports, the performing arts, and aviation in Dallas, as well as the influence of the State Fair on the general economic and social progress of the community.
Courtesy Dallas Yesterday by Sam H. Acheson.