Big Tex, Roadside America and Preservation

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the fire that destroyed Big Tex, the kinda creepy (ok, super creepy) 52 foot tall animatronic cowboy that greeted visitors to the Texas State Fair for 60 years.  But many of you may not have thought of the loss of Big Tex as a serious historical loss for Texas.

Big Tex in ’56. Image via Wikipedia

Big Tex was goofy and kitschy. He wasn’t a building. He wasn’t created by a famous architect or a lauded artist.  He wasn’t at the center of an important event, like say, the Alamo or something like that.  He was just a big statue  – a wacky, comical, off the wall caricature.

How could Big Tex possibly be important?  Fun, sure! But important?

Big Tex before he got his cowboy makeover. Image via Corsicana Daily

Big Tex is important because he represents a form of advertisement that developed during a pivotal time in the cultural history of the US – one that is quickly disappearing.  Beginning in the 1920s, entrepreneurs along America’s new highway system began creating crazy buildings, statues, and signage to draw in tourists who were crisscrossing the US in new shiny automobiles for the first time – a trend that continued through the 1960s as car culture took over the US.

“Roadside America,”  became littered with buildings shaped like ducks, ice cream cones, teapots, signs built into giant donuts… you name it.  Anything to get people to pull off the highway, come in and have a bite, stay the night, shop a little – or in the case of Big Tex, to enjoy the state fair. In fact, Big Tex started his life as the “World’s Largest Santa,” in 1949 with the hopes of boosting Kerens, Texas’ holiday sales!  It wasn’t until 1951 that he was purchased by the state fair and given a cowboy makeover.

So why did such a popular trend come to an end? And why don’t we see more of this kitschy-ness today?

Shell Station ca 1930. Via NPS

In 1956 the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was passed and the tiny highways that once linked cities and states began to see less and less traffic. With less traffic, business dried up and the wonky roadside architecture that  developed to trap tourists fell into disrepair and disappeared.  Much of it was not created to last, having been built with paper mache (like the original Big Tex) and other equally impermanent materials.  Even those in good shape were sometimes demolished.  They weren’t really valued, because they weren’t seen as symbols of a changing America, yet.  They were just kooky old buildings and crazy statues and silly signs that were no longer needed.

Teapot Dome Service Station, Zillah Washington ca. 1922. “Selling oil products from a teapot-shaped structure was intended as a humorous reminder of the Teapot Dome scandals that rocked President Warren G. Harding’s administration (1921-1923).” Via NPS

Today, there are hundreds of books chronicling oddities from Babe the Big Blue Ox in Minnesota to the Wigwam Village in Kentucky to Randy’s Donuts in California. And some of these places, like the shell-shaped Shell gas station in North Carolina and the Benewah Milk Bottle in Washington, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places!

The Big Duck (c. 1930) was originally a retail poultry store. Via NPS.

Big Tex was not listed in the National Register, probably due to some integrity issues (his clothes were changed about every three seasons since 1955; he received a new fiberglass head in mid-50s; he was given a new skeleton in 1997) and he was moved several times. Nonetheless, it was a sad day in Texas when Big Tex burned. He might not have been as significant as the Alamo, but Big Tex was important to the history of Texas in his own kitschy, larger-than-life, howdy-folks way.  RIP Big Tex.

Big Tex in 2012 just days before he burned. Image via American Live Wire

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