KERENS — As a native of Kerens you grow up knowing about this eastern Navarro County city’s most famous citizen. For anyone under the age of 50, it’s an accepted part of life.
Like a famous movie star, this Kerensite is larger-than-life. He stands 52 feet tall, with size 70 boots (measuring approximately seven feet in length) and a 75-gallon hat.
The Kerensite is Big Tex and he has been greeting visitors to the State Fair of Texas for decades.
But most folks may not know he’s just a hometown boy from down the road in Kerens.
Former Kerens Mayor Ottis Ray Spurlock, then a high school student, remembered the process of building a large Santa Claus for the downtown area along lines conceived by Howell Brister. Brister was manager of the local chamber of commerce during the 1940s. What was billed then as “The World’s Largest Santa Claus” was first displayed for the Christmas season of 1949.
“Brister was a unique fellow,” Spurlock said. “He had a lot of ideas and promoted things well.”
Spurlock was connected to the original big Santa Claus in a couple of ways. His father was one of two models for the huge statue. The former mayor also was one of the KHS vocational agriculture students who were put to work stretching “chicken wire” over the frame.
“Roy Cloud was the agriculture teacher and he would carry us down to work on him,” Spurlock said. “We put the chicken wire screen around the frame and fastened it with the kind of rings used in hogs’ noses to keep them from rooting.”
A town-wide project, the combined efforts of the city’s residents made the completion of the figure all-important. Welding students fabricated the frame from metal tubing at a cost of $68. Women at a local sewing factory in operation at that time, stitched together the big-and-tall sized clothing necessary to cover the figure. It took 168 yards of red oilcloth for the Santa suit.
Brister went so far as to convince students attending Baylor University in Waco to fashion the figure’s head out of paper-mache. But, to be Santa, the towering figure needed a beard. History says that Brister carried around 12-inch lengths of hemp rope, passing them out to residents and asking them to unravel them. Santa needed the beard.
“Kerens was thriving about that time, and he wanted people to continue to shop in Kerens,” Spurlock’s wife, Anna said. “Mr. Brister was a sharp, intelligent man to have come up with the Santa idea and have it go over so well.”
Along with Ottis Ray Spurlock’s father, a local farmer by the name of Hardy Mayo was the other model for Big Tex. Both men were large individuals for the time period, standing over 6-feet-tall and possessing husky physiques. Plans called for their stature and builds to be enlarged by approximately seven times life-size, accounting for the final dimensions.
When the total assembly of the 52-foot tall Santa took place, Texas Power & Light (now TXU) sent three crane trucks to hoist all the parts of the whole. The project was complete as Santa Claus stood tall at the intersection of Colket Avenue and 3rd Street.
Or so it seemed.
Three days later, a storm hit the area with strong winds blowing the Santa-suit off the frame and knocking him down.
“When the wind and rain hit Kerens, it blew his clothes off and tore them up,” Spurlock said. “But the ladies got busy and made him some more clothes.”
After sewing in shifts, the new suit was made out of cotton-duck material, painted with buckets of red paint, then hung up in a nearby building to dry.
Santa served through the Christmas seasons of 1949 and 1950, but the maintenance costs proved to be too high. Brister convinced directors of the Kerens Chamber of Commerce to shop Kris Kringle around, initially suggesting towns in West Texas.
“Enthusiasm kind of died down after a couple of years and it became expensive to keep clothes on him because they kept flowing off,” Spurlock said.
Brister traveled West Texas offering the giant Santa Claus for $750 and setting up times for officials from that part of the state to come to Kerens for on-site inspections.
But on the way home, Brister stopped off at State Fair offices to make the same offer only to be rebuffed by the secretary in the front office. He was ready to give up, but an employee spotted a large color photo Brister had with him. State Fair manager James Stewart and State Fair President R.L. Thornton were notified. The two fair leaders recognized the promotional possibilities of the towering facility, sending a check for the $750 asking price to the Kerens Chamber of Commerce the next day.
The rest, as it is said, is history.
In 1952, Santa Claus got his first “makeover,” losing the stocking hat for one of the cowboy variety, and slipping on cowboy boots, a plaid shirt and denim jeans. Big Tex was ready to become a symbol of Texas’ biggest-and-the-best style, and the State Fair of Texas has added some new features as a part of the updating they have done over the course of time.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Frequent clothing changes and less-frequent technology updates kepts the familiar face a welcomed centerpiece at the fairgrounds for decades since.
Then the last weekend of the 2012 State Fair started another chapter in that story — the day that Big Tex went up in flames. an electrical malfunction set off the blaze, and set the stage for a re-build of the face of the State Fair.
And while the “new” Big Tex may look somewhat different than the “old” Big Tex did, his hometown beginnings in Kerens will always live on.
Editor's note: Portions of this story are by former Daily Sun staffer, the late Loyd Cook. It was originally published Sept. 28, 1997. We share it again, as the State Fair of Texas opens this weekend. The Associated Press contributed to this story.