Big Tex formerly known as largest Santa


The larger-than-life cowboy that has been a staple at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas for almost 60 years got his start in Kerens, about 20 miles west of Athens. And he wasn't a cowboy. He was then touted as the world's largest Santa Claus and spent two Christmases calling that city's Colket Avenue home.

In 1949, the late Howell Brister, then Chamber of Commerce manager, proposed creating a giant Santa Claus as a way to boost the local economy, according to a 1978 article in the Corsicana Daily Sun.

According to the story, he mulled over the idea for two years before he felt confident that the town would endorse the proposal.

So on Nov. 10, 1949, at a chamber meeting, he presented plans for a 50-foot Santa telling his peers the details. He already had measured local men for the dimensions, determined where they could buy the materials, and obtained some cost estimates.

All those at the meeting except for one man, Brister's brother-in-law, supported the project, and he came around in the end -- so the community banded together to make themselves a larger than life St. Nick.

Brister already had measured two men to create the dimensions for the figure. The "models," both more than 6 feet tall, were Ottis Franklin Spurlock, a 270-pound grocer, and Hardy Mayo, who had the height and the hand size, but apparently not the stomach, according to a 1990 article in the Dallas Times Herald.

After measuring the men, Brister multiplied their dimensions by seven to come up with measurements for Santa, the Daily Sun reported.

He purchased tubing pipe to make the skeleton framework for $68 and bought 168 yards of red oilcloth for the suit.

Kerens welding school students welded the framework and vocational agriculture students added the chicken wire to make Santa's body, according to the Daily Sun.

Women at the Kerens dress factory stayed after work to cut and sew the suit and Baylor University art students made the papier-mâché Santa face.

Unraveled hemp rope cut 12 inches long served as Santa's beard. And a local cement worker fashioned some boots out of concrete over wire frames and painted them black, according to one article.

After two weeks of work, the town had created a suitable Santa and, with the help of three trucks, lifted him into place on the city's main street. They put him into place about midnight with the idea that the giant Santa would surprise motorists driving along Texas Highway 31 in the morning.

And he surely did, but the Kerens residents were surprised as well. Despite the fact Brister hadn't publicized the city's efforts, a picture of Santa appeared on the front page of the Dallas Morning News that day, according to the Daily Sun.

His guess was that a passing motorist or train engineer tipped off the paper, according to the report. But no matter, Kerens got results. The chamber phone rang off the hook and people from beyond Navarro County came to visit, the Daily Sun reported. Newspapers around the country and world ran photos of the supposed world's largest Santa Claus.

But that claim would be short-lived. An Illinois town contended that it had created a taller Santa Claus, according to the Daily Sun.

Still, Kerens residents were pleased with their creation. Cotton Belt train conductors did their part by promoting the Santa to passengers before they came into town.

"They would stop the train where passengers in two or three coaches could look straight down Colket Street toward Santa, then move the train up a little so another batch of passengers could see," Brister told the Daily Sun.

Santa served the town for the Christmases of 1949 and 1950. The second year, the town had a chimney built around him. But that year would be his last in Kerens.

The excitement about Santa had faded and Brister suggested to the chamber board that they sell it to a small West Texas town that could benefit from the publicity. So he went on a road trip to let people know about the opportunity.

For $1,000, a city could have Santa and his chimney or for $750 it could have just Santa. On his return trip home, Brister stopped by the State Fair office thinking he would make them the same offer, the Daily Sun reported. Despite a little difficulty getting past the secretary, he got his message to fair manager James Stewart and fair president and future Dallas mayor R.L. Thornton.

The men apparently saw great potential in the idea because the next day a $750 check arrived by mail at the Kerens Chamber of Commerce. Santa had a buyer.

Through the work of artists, Santa was transformed. And after one year of preparation, Big Tex debuted at the 1952 State Fair.

No longer was he Santa sporting a red coat and white beard. Now, this cowboy wore a 75-gallon hat, size 70 boots and stood 52 feet above his visitors, according to information on the State Fair website.

That year, he wore denim jeans and a plaid shirt donated by the H.D. Lee Co. of Shawnee Mission, Kan.

The next year he underwent a little cosmetic surgery, according to the website. The work helped to straighten his nose, correct a lascivious wink and allowed him to talk, the website reads.

Even though he's no longer in Kerens, the town of about 1,500 people holds proudly to its status as the "Birthplace of Big Tex."

The city's website touts it. Windows on buildings along Colket Avenue where Santa once stood have paintings of the two, and pictures of the Santa hang in city and school district buildings.

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