ESSAY: The Troubled Birth of the State Fair of Texas
First proposed in August 1885 by Farm and Ranch publisher Frank P. Holland, the idea of holding an annual state fair in Dallas was heartily endorsed by nearly all the city's leading citizens. In short order, talk turned into action and in the early weeks of 1886 both fair and fairgrounds got their start when a group of enterprising Dallas merchants, bankers, and manufacturers formed the Dallas State Fair Association. On January 30 they received a charter from the State of Texas.
It was an era of unbounded optimism and civic pride. Inspired by the success of expositions held elsewhere in the U.S., most notably New Orleans in 1885, these men were eager to show off the progress Dallas had made in the 45 years since its founding. They also hoped the Fair would attract more people to live, work, and do business in the fledgling metropolis.
Among the "founding fathers" of the newly-formed association were an number of the city's eminent citizens: Colonel James B. Simpson, distinguished lawyer and legislator; Cecil A. Keating, president of the Keating Implement Manufacturing Company; Captain William H. Gaston, prominent banker and founder of the then-separate city of East Dallas; Alex Sanger, successful dry-goods retailer; Thomas L. Marsalis, grocer and founder of Oak Cliff; and many other notables whose names can today be found on the street signs, schools, and parks of Dallas.
One of these was John Timothee Trezevant, a financier and insurance man, who was to serve as the Fair Association's president in 1895 and 1896. In his retirement Trezevant wrote a brief history of the Fair, covering its earliest period, from 1886 to 1922. Because he was so intimately involved with the founding of the Fair, Trezevant's version of events has for many years served as the authoritative source. Yet it is flawed, being highly subjective. As a result there are few secondary accounts of the Fair's early history that are not without a number of errors or omissions.
Trezevant was particularly generous in his praise of Captain Gaston, whose contributions, both financial and otherwise, were undeniably considerable. During the first two decades of the Fair's existence it lurched from one monetary crisis to another. Crediting Gaston with the Fair's survival during this period, Trezevant wrote, "I am firmly convinced that but for W. H. Gaston the Fair would never have pulled through." Indeed, this may well be true. However, hidden beneath his praise for Gaston's seeming philanthropy, is the failure to mention that Gaston and others, including Trezevant, were among those who had a long-term vested interest in the Fair's continuance.
Trezevant's story, told from a financier's viewpoint, is also lacking in that it is full of the financial details of the Fair's first years but little else.Fortunately, the story of the Fair's founding was well-chronicled in both The Dallas Morning News and The Daily Times Herald, offering a broader, more objective perspective.
On January 31, 1886 an interview with Colonel James B. Simpson, one of the Fair's leading organizers, appeared in the News. In it, he said:
Concurring with this pronouncement, the News added, "Dallas is alive with enterprise and the fair project is not the least important among the good things on foot."
In the same interview Colonel Simpson also commented on the selection of a site for the fair, saying that at that time one had not yet been chosen. However, he remarked that John N. Simpson had offered the use of forty acres previously used for an earlier county fair (on the site of today's Baylor Medical Center). But, said Colonel Simpson, "I cannot say whether his property will be used since if funds continue to be raised as satisfactorily as in the last few days permanent grounds may be purchased."
In the end, the Association went ahead with the idea of purchasing a permanent site for the Fair and four or five offers were studied. Of the two most seriously considered was one of ninety acres of land "located on the Houston and Texas Central Railroad...north of the courthouse." This land, favored by Cecil Keating and other "implement men," as they were called by the papers, was owned by John R. "Jack" Cole, the first official surveyor of Dallas County. Cole, who resided with his family in a large brick home on the site of today's North Dallas High School, offered the land which today makes up Cole Park. His asking price, as reported in the News, was $6,000, to be paid in stock of the Association.
According to Trezevant's account of the State Fair's birth, the directors of the Association "finally decided the best location was the back portion of the present Fair Grounds, on eighty acres owned by several different people." They then faced a dilemma, he wrote. There was only $13,000 in the treasury, which was insufficient to purchase the site. At that point, said Trezevant, Gaston came forward and "volunteered to make the purchase and deed the property to the Fair Association. He paid $16,000 in cash for the eighty acres and sold it to the Fair for $14,000, taking stock of the Fair in payment, the difference of $2,000 being his donation."
This version of events is both erroneous and misleading. Not only does Trezevant get the figures wrong (an odd thing for a financier to do), but he gives the false impression that the selection of the East Dallas land was unanimously approved by the Association's directorate, that Gaston did not purchase it until after it was chosen, and that he did so on behalf of the Fair Association, a story contradicted both by county deed records and contemporary newspaper reports.
The facts are as follows: On March 25, as reported by the News, at a meeting held at the Merchants' Exchange Building, Captain Gaston offered to sell the Association "Eighty acres lying across the south side of the Texas and Pacific Railway, about 600 yards east of the old fair grounds...for the sum of fourteen thousand dollars...in fully paid-up stock of the Association." Gaston, whom the News reported owned "165 acres bordering on and just this side of (the) grounds," also agreed "to open through my land good streets to the grounds."The "Gaston Property," as it became known, was originally part of an expanse of land granted by the Republic of Texas to two early-day Dallas County settlers, John Grigsby and Thomas Lagow. Veterans of the Texas Revolution, they had each received a league in recognition of their military service. The boundary line between their properties ran through the center of what is now Fair Park, about where Grand Avenue intersects the park today. These leagues were later broken up into smaller parcels and by 1886, the land which Gaston offered the Fair Association had come into the hands of three individuals: a Mr. Thevenet; a Mr. Doran; and Judge Samuel Robertson.
Gaston himself made no secret of the fact that shortly before the final selection of a site, he had purchased 60 acres from Doran at $200 per acre, 10 acres from Judge Robertson at $250 per acre, and 50 acres from Thevenet at $175 an acre. County records confirm that at least one of these purchases was made only one day before the March 25 meeting where Gaston tendered his offer to the Fair Association.
Altogether, Gaston bought 120 acres of land for which he paid a total of $23,250. On April 18, the News carried a story in which he said the eighty acres he offered to the Fair Association consisted of "ten acres of the Robertson ground, 50 acres of the Thevenet ground, and 20 acres of the Doran ground," the cost of which came to $15,250, or $750 less than the amount Trezevant claimed Gaston spent. Gaston also admitted he disposed of the excess 40 acres by selling it to one Chris Rothenburger who in turn sold it to J. T. Trezevant (not Mr. Thevenet as reported in the News) for $270 per acre or $10,800. The amount Gaston received from Rothenburger is unknown.
Evidently, Gaston must have harbored some reasonable expectation his offer would be accepted. Indeed, when put to a vote by the Association's directors at the March 25 meeting, that was the result. Those who favored the Gaston property in East Dallas were Simpson, Sanger, J. M. Wendelken, John S. Armstrong, Bartholemew Blankenship and Gaston. Those who voted in favor of the Cole property in north Dallas were Keating, Jules E. Schneider, and Oliver P. Bowser.
Afterward, when the choice was made known to the organization's stockholders, there was an outcry by the "implement men," the city's manufacturers and dealers in farm equipment, who were convinced that not only was Cole's property superior to the Gaston land both in quality and price but that "a syndicate (existed) and was interested in forcing the location (on the Gaston property)."
Amazingly, neither Gaston or his friends appear to have made any effort to counter the charges of cronyism. Indeed, in an April 6 interview with the News, State Fair Secretary Sydney Smith declared openly, in reference to the selected site, "we could sell it today just as we bought it for at least a 25 percent advance and in cash too. You see all the people living in the vicinity interested themselves to get it for us just as cheap as possible. They knew it would raise the value of their property."
On April 7, at a meeting at which a large number of Dallas's farm implement companies were represented, the implement men, "supposing that the selection might have been made on account of self-interest of some of the parties" and that "the location was a mistake as far as the machinery and implement interest was concerned," petitioned the directors to set aside their decision and put the choice of sites to a vote of the stockholders "not personally interested in the stock raised for the purchase of the ground as located."
In response to these demands, a meeting of the Fair Association was held on April 17 at the Merchants' Exchange, at which the directors' decision to locate the Fair on the Gaston land was sustained by a Committee of Appeals. Citing certification by civil engineers who attested to the worthiness of the East Dallas site, the committee rejected the implement interest's accusations that the land was unsuitable. Referring to a reminder in the petition that Gaston had included, as part of his proposition, a proviso stating that the Association had up to sixty days to "reconsider their acceptance of said grounds and decline the same," the Committee of Appeals concluded "that however much inclined the directory might be to cancel the contract with Capt. Gaston, it is not admissable under any business rules...Hence your committee is unable to see any course left for the directory to pursue but to carry out in good faith all of the obligations assumed." As for the charge of self-interest on the part of some parties, no reply was made.
The committee's refusal to cancel the contract with Gaston, despite the protest of a large portion of the Association's stockholder, is perhaps more understandable in light of a letter Gaston wrote to the other directors on April 15, 1886. In it, he wrote:
Obviously, this alternative was so preposterous that it was out of the question. Not only did the Association lack the funds to pay Gaston to release them from their agreement but even if they had, who in their right mind would have paid such a sum with the result being the forfeiture of the site as well? Thus what superficially appears to have a magnanimous gesture on the part of Captain Gaston, turns out, on closer examination, to be his guarantee that come what may, he would not lose out.
Despite promises that the implement men could look forward to "every facility and convenience for their exhibit," they were still unhappy. The result was the withdrawal of the implement interest's support of the Fair. Declaring that "it was publicly acknowledged that a syndicate did exist and was interested in forcing the location," Cecil Keating took the lead, resigning his seat on the board. Shortly thereafter, Schneider and Bowser followed suit. The Fair's manager, F. P. Holland, the man whose idea the Fair had been in the first place, also resigned. Within a few days a stunned Dallas learned that not only had the implement men vowed not to exhibit at the Dallas State Fair but that they had sent to Austin for a charter of their own, announcing that their "Texas State Fair" would be held that fall on Jack Cole's 90 acres in north Dallas!
There was a yet a third reason why the implement men felt impelled to withdraw from the Dallas State Fair Association. Simply put, they felt the Fair was their idea in the first place and they resented losing control over it. Their feelings were perhaps best expressed by Cecil Keating who told the News, "The fair is the baby of the implement and machine men and was started by them and Mr. Holland. And the fraternity claims that being the largest exhibitors...they should not be ignored, or the association used for the benefit of any combination or syndicate."
The late Sam Acheson, in his book Dallas Yesterday, was of the opinion that the rivalry which existed between these two groups had more to do with politics than any disagreement over the suitability of a particular site or charges of self-interest on the part of those who participated in its selection. "The old-line business and civic leadership (was) essentially conservative," wrote Acheson, in reference to Gaston and his associates. In sharp contrast, Acheson declared, the implement men were "spokesmen for the brewing Farmer's Revolt in Texas - members of the Knights of Labor and the Farmers' Alliance" of which Keating was "a vigorous champion."
William McDonald, the author of Dallas Rediscovered, saw the splintering of the State Fair Association as something which came about as the result, not of differing political ideologies, but of self-interest on the part of both sides in the conflict:
In actuality, the conflict probably resulted from a combination of all these reasons.
Copyright © 1986 and 2002-2003 by Steven Butler. All rights reserved.