A Not-Always Fair Park of Dallas
When Texans wanted to celebrate their centennial anniversary in 1936, government officials considered many sites around the state. San Antonio and Austin seemed like perfect places to host this momentous occasion, considering their history. Even Houston was in the running. City fathers were convinced that their towns would get the nod. And then... the honor went to little ol' Dallas.
By 1936, Dallas wasn't all that little, of course. But it definitely was an "upstart" kind of place. Having been founded in 1844 as a supply store on a bluff of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, it didn't have many historical ties to the actual founding of Texas (though Sam Houston was good friends with Dallas founder John Neely Bryan). The Dallas Citizens Council, made up of prominent businessmen, bolstered Dallas enough to make it the epicenter of the 1936 Centennial Exposition. This probably had something to do with the Texas State Fair grounds.
Like all cities, Dallas boasted a number of county fairgrounds, where festivals, agricultural expositions, and other entertainments were staged. Since the 1880s, most of these events took place at the privately held Texas State Fair, which the City of Dallas took over in 1904. The city then erected several permanent buildings, like the Cotton Bowl Stadium and the Dallas Music Hall. The Dallas Museum of Art began here under the leadership of regionalist Jerry Bywaters.
And even though the country was in the midst of the Great Depression for the fair of 1936, Dallas was not afraid to spend money to make the Centennial Exposition a fair to remember. Beautiful Art Deco architecture, mural art, gold leafed statues, and spouting fountains appeared along new boulevards that would showcase Texas history, agricultural production, manufacturing innovations, and more. (The "more" included nude dancing along the midway.)
Most of the buildings that lie inside Fair Park in Dallas today are landmarks built purposefully for the 1936 Centennial Exposition. To build these displays of "progress," the city gleefully condemned the surrounding neighborhood, a Freedom Colony known as Deep Ellum. And the only building from the 1936 fair that was demolished was built by the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce. Inside, displays of art, history, and industry of the black community in Dallas celebrated the contributions of African Americans to the city. The building has been re-erected inside Fair Park and today hosts the Dallas African American Museum.
For much of its life, the State Fair of Texas was segregated, and openly hostile to black fair goers. In the early 1920s, for example, Ku Klux Klan Appreciation Days were held during the fair. Meanwhile, African Americans were only allowed to enter the fairgrounds on specific days, and blacks were barred from enjoying certain entertainments, like carnival rides. The fair boasted a "Negro Achievement Day" which citizens deemed patronizing; in the 1950s and into the 1960s, protests and demonstrations by civil rights leaders like Juanita Craft and the Dallas Black YMCA gradually helped to integrate the fair.
Because the city celebrates the State Fair pretty much every year (except for a few years during World War II), attractions keep evolving, which has helped the State Fair of Texas to stay relevant well into the 21st century. In 1952, "Big Tex" debuted; he "died" in 2013 when he caught fire, but was "resurrected" in time for the next year's fair. The Star of Texas, the largest Ferris wheel in the western hemisphere, opened in 1985. Fletcher's introduced corny dogs to the world in 1942, and the Dallas Cowboys were "born" in the Cotton Bowl in 1960. The Texas Skyway, which allows fair goers to leisurely soar above the Midway, debuted in 2007. In 2010, the DART Green Line began taking fair goers to the grounds along the old street car routes.
Even when the Fair isn't open (it takes place in September and October), the park itself welcomes visitors. The Hall of State, with its message of Texas pride, white superiority and eugenics written in its architecture and art, is worth the contemplation; it's also home to the Dallas Historical Society, founded in part by George Bannerman Dealey. The Dallas Zoo's children's aquarium and the Texas Discovery Gardens are very popular attractions year-round. The African American Museum is open everyday and free to the public, a grand gesture considering the history that blacks endured. The Music Hall now is considered Dallas's Broadway (theater!). Sadly, the science and natural history museums were moved to a modern building, erected with funds donated by Texarkana native H. Ross Perot, on the north side of downtown Dallas. The building for the H.Ross Perot Museum is awesome, but the former buildings, made up of polished limestone with embedded fossils, stand empty in front of the lagoon, a large water feature with an interactive sculpture that was always my favorite part of the park.
The park, though flawed, is worth an extensive visit.