Visitors to the State Fair of Texas this month will find it hard to miss Big Tex, the 55-foot-tall cowboy who has stood sentinel over the nation’s largest state fair since 1952. Millions of fairgoers each year experience his towering presence, friendly wave and iconic “Howdy” greeting.
His legacy, however, is not confined to the state fairgrounds of Dallas. He also played an interesting role in ACU history. In 1955, during the Homecoming celebration at then-Abilene Christian College, Big Tex ventured beyond the fairgrounds for only the second time in his 70-year existence.
In the fall of that year, members of a newly chartered fraternity, Galaxy, were looking for a way to make their club known, recalls Harold Waggoner (’60), one of its founding members. They conceived the idea of bringing Big Tex to Abilene for Homecoming.
Waggoner, a retired optometrist who now lives in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, recounts the story:
“Soon after becoming chartered as an official ACC social club, we began discussing what our entry in the Homecoming display contest would be. We had just elected Gene Coleman (’58) president, and his suggestion was that we bring Big Tex from his home at the Texas State Fair in Dallas to the ACC campus. We Galaxy members were overwhelmed by the enormity of this suggestion. But Gene was a Dallas resident, and he knew the right people and had the audacity to approach them and the diplomacy to get their approval.”
In a 2012 interview with The Optimist, Coleman said, “We wanted to have a big, impressive display, and then someone said something about bringing Big Tex here. We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’ ”
Coleman and fellow club member Glenn Wiggins (’58) hitched a ride on a small plane to Dallas in October to ask to bring Big Tex to ACC’s 50th anniversary Homecoming, which would begin on Nov. 4. They met with the mayor of Dallas, Robert L. Thornton, who “helped get the ball rolling,” Coleman said.
Big Tex, having just completed his third year in welcoming visitors to the Texas State Fair, was disassembled and moved to Abilene. Train cars took his skeleton, while several tractor-trailers transported Big Tex’s head, 70-gallon cowboy hat, hands and size 70 boots to Abilene, according to The Optimist. Jack Bridges, the artist who designed the enormous icon into a cowboy, and a team came to reassemble Big Tex. They set him up just in time for the Homecoming weekend.
For five days, the 6,000-pound, 52-foot-tall cowboy, wearing a 75-gallon Stetson hat, stood tall over the Hardin Administration Building and Sewell Auditorium on the southwest corner of campus, gaining local and national media attention.
A front page article in the Nov. 1, 1955, Abilene Reporter-News heralded the colossal cowboy’s visit. “Tex will be on the ACC campus from Sunday through Thursday through the efforts of the Galaxy Club, new social club for men at ACC,” the report said. “Arrangements for the release of Tex and the mammoth transporting job were worked out in Dallas over the weekend by Gene Coleman, club president, and Glenn Wiggins, member.”
In his 2012 interview, Coleman said the Galaxy charter class raised enough money for the gigantic statue’s transportation to campus. In all, it took about $650 to fund the adventure. Of that, $150 was donated by the H.B. Lee Company of Dallas, the maker of Big Tex’s clothes.
“We received donations in Dallas, and lots of discounts,” Coleman said. “The trucks charged us a minimum amount, and the trains didn’t charge us. They saw this was going to be a good thing that would take place.”
Unfortunately, the students had failed to anticipate the cost of transporting the giant cowboy back home. The Board of Trustees bailed them out by paying for Big Tex’s return, happy with the publicity his visit had attracted.
His Abilene adventure marked Big Tex’s second excursion outside of Dallas. The first was in the summer of 1953 when the Dallas Jaycees took him to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the national Jaycee convention. In 1981, he embarked on his only other journey, returning to Kerens, Texas, where he originated as a giant Santa Claus before being sold to state fair officials and transformed into the iconic cowboy figure.
The original Big Tex was destroyed by an electrical fire in 2012. A new 25,000-pound and 3-foot-taller Big Tex was unveiled in 2013.
Today, Big Tex stands proudly, offering his friendly mechanical wave to the millions of fairgoers who visit each year. And for those who witnessed his Abilene sojourn, he remains a cherished part of ACU’s folklore, a symbol of audacity and community spirit that lives on.
– Robin Saylor
Sept. 21, 2023