Heart O' Texas Fair & Rodeo

In the early 1950s, McLennan County voters approved a $1.2 million bond towards the construction of a new agricultural and entertainment venue. Contractors Farnsworth and Chambers of Houston, Texas, worked alongside local architect Harris H. Roberts to design a fair-ground and coliseum that could house a yearly exposition that would recall the glory of the Texas Cotton Palace. Although cotton was no longer king, the exposition was intended to “serve as a showplace for the finest yields of the soil” and the “best” of the region’s livestock. Echoing sentiments expressed by his Cotton Palace predecessors, Waco Mayor Ralph Wood hoped that the fair would “be an inspiration to lead to still greater progress and prosperity” within the region.

Though the original plans for the grounds had to be slightly scaled back due to the advent of the Korean War and ensuing labor and material shortages, the grandiose vision of fair organizers was largely realized. Totaling 253 acres, the fairgrounds were the largest of their kind west of the Mississippi. Additionally, upon its completion in 1953, the coliseum boasted the largest indoor arena in the state and was the second largest coliseum in Texas, measuring 366½ feet long and 246½ feet wide.

The coliseum (and fair by extension) found its name through a nationwide contest. Fair organizers received five thousand entries from not only Texan hopefuls but individuals in such faraway states as South Carolina, California, and New Mexico. The winning submission, “Heart O’ Texas Coliseum,” came from Mrs. John Cousins of McGregor, Texas. She received $100 in prize money for her effort.

For those seeking a return to the glory days of the Texas Cotton Palace exposition, the inaugural 1953 Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo did not disappoint. Regional livestock and produce took pride of place in the fair’s multiple exhibition tents. The Women’s Division presented the best Central Texas had to offer by way of handicrafts, baked goods, and preserves. Renowned rodeo producer Tommy Steiner oversaw such popular events as trick riding and steer wrestling in the main arena. Other notable fair attractions included: a special military display featuring miniatures of the aircraft carriers the U. S. S. Alamo and U. S. S. Shangri-La, a Texas wildlife display, fireworks, and a performance by the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley.

Although the first half of the twentieth century was not kind to the Texas Cotton Palace, its latter half saw the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo flourish via outside accolades and civic investment. In 1974, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) named the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo one of its top rodeos, a high honor indeed for Waco and McLennan County. Steady attendance records and continued community support also made possible a $20 million dollar face-lift to the coliseum and the renovation of its adjacent buildings in 1996. The Show Pavilion also received necessary upgrades in 2000. 

The Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo introduced a scholarship program in 1991. Initially, nineteen $100 scholarships were awarded to a single student from each of McLennan County’s high schools. As the program progressed, the amount of financial aid available to deserving students increased. In 2013, the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo Scholarship Fund awarded $40,000 to the youths of McLennan County with an additional $5,000 given to two worthy students as part of the 4-H Youth Development Foundation Awards Program.

The Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo has proven itself to be a worthy successor of the Texas Cotton Palace exposition due to its showcasing of Central Texas culture and commerce.      

  

Images

A Fair to Rival Them All

A Fair to Rival Them All

In order to accommodate the large crowds expected to attend the fair and to ensure all visitors would be able to travel between exhibits with the greatest ease, fair organizers hired Horace Black, a Dallas-based exposition designer and builder. Black worked on the Dallas ̶ Fort Worth expositions and on more than one hundred other major fairs throughout the United States. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Horace Black View File Details Page

Jerseys on Parade

Jerseys on Parade

Although cotton was no longer king, $112,000,000 of farm products and livestock were marketed annually in the seventeen county area encapsulated by the exposition. This vested commercial interest in agriculture and ranching is evident in the willingness of the Waco Chamber of Commerce to sponsor the McLennan County Jersey Exhibit at the fair. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Lavern "Windy" Drum View File Details Page

Packed House

Packed House

At the time of its opening, the Heart O' Texas coliseum had the largest indoor arena in the state. For big-ticket events like the rodeo, it was not uncommon for the arena to be filled to its 7,638 seat capacity. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Lavern "Windy" Drum View File Details Page

True Grit

True Grit

In addition to the usual events of barrel racing and trick riding, the Heart O' Texas Rodeo featured bull-riding and steer wrestling. The latter was a particular draw as crowds were enthralled by the sight of brave cowboys leaping from their steads in an attempt to wrestle down a running steer. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Lavern "Windy" Drum View File Details Page

Prize Hog

Prize Hog

While this Hampshire Boar seems relatively unimpressed with his victory, the win provided his owner Hancock Farm with the opportunity to offer breeding rights with a champion. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Lavern "Windy" Drum View File Details Page

A Boy and His Bovine

A Boy and His Bovine

It was exhausting work to raise an animal for competition in the Junior Show portion of the exposition. Not only did the animal need to be well-fed and groomed, it also had to stand out within its judging category. Fair organizers hoped the Junior Show would help train local youths to be good ranchers. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Lavern "Windy" Drum View File Details Page

Celebrating the Domestic Arts

Celebrating the Domestic Arts

The Women's Division tent featured the handicrafts and culinary achievements of women throughout Central Texas. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Lavern "Windy" Drum View File Details Page

A Bid at Multiculturalism

A Bid at Multiculturalism

While perhaps not as inclusive at its inception in 1953 as it is today, the Heart O' Texas Fair did try to acknowledge the racial diversity present in Central Texas by making room for Hispanic and African American programming. It certainly demonstrated more cultural sensitivity than its predecessor, the Texas Cotton Palace exposition, which routinely featured crude racial stereotypes as part of its parades and pageants. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Lavern "Windy" Drum View File Details Page

Defying Gravity

Defying Gravity

During the 1953 Heart O' Texas Fair, the Pepsi-Cola Aerial Thrillers performed aerobatic feats twice daily on a 130-foot pole near the Midway. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Western Sing-along

Western Sing-along

Cowboys dominated American popular culture until the late 1960s. To cater to this public fascination with the old frontier, the Heart O' Texas fair booked such Hollywood western royalty such as The Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Eric Fleming, and Fess Parker to perform on the arena floor. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Lavern "Windy" Drum View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Prisca Bird, “Heart O' Texas Fair & Rodeo,” Waco History, accessed June 22, 2017, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/58.

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