Midway Park

Midway Park, located between Temple and Belton, became the popular site for the Bell County Fair by the 1890s. This 1906 photo shows the crowds gathering for the fair.

Sure, you’ve heard of the State Fair’s Big Tex in Dallas.

But, do you know about Nimrod Lindsay Norton or Flora Sample Hutchison?

Or, did you know Big Tex has Bell County roots?

No doubt you’ve succumbed to the gustatory glories of fried Twinkies and gumbo balls.

But, have you ever tasted the sublime delight of Bell County’s championship turnips?

Currently on view until Nov. 24 is the exhibit “State Fair” at the Bell County Museum, 201 N. Main St. in Belton, celebrating county fairs, rodeos and a traveling photography exhibit.

The timing is just right because the State Fair of Texas kicked off this past weekend in Dallas and will continue through Oct. 14.

The Central Texas State Fair at the Bell County Expo Center earlier this month just keeps getting bigger and better.

The Bell County Museum exhibit includes a distillation of Arthur Grace’s photographic odyssey through fairs in 10 states — including Texas.

“Time and again, regardless of geographical location, Grace’s images deftly capture the strange mixture of the traditional, the kitsch and the off-the-wall that is unique to these annual gatherings, which began as a celebration of rural American life and have evolved into supersized extravaganzas,” said Coleman Hampton, museum director.

Accompanying the photos are artifacts and photos of local fairs on loan from the Dr Pepper Museum in Waco.

County fairs are the bedrock of Americana — a hodgepodge of agricultural acumen, rodeo, music, home skills and Chamber of Commerce boosterism — all excitedly twirling with merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels. Most of all, it’s a place where people met and shared.

An estimated 2,230 county and state fairs are still held annually, according to “Purebred & Homegrown: America’s County Fairs” by Drake Hokanson and Carol Kratz (Terrace Books, 2008).

“County fairs are important institutions that helped define us as a nation of freethinking, self-reliant, community-focused people,” Hokanson said. “They present the nearly 200-year-old county fair as a fountainhead of American ideals and rural life, as a place of reunion, and as perhaps the most traditional of all American celebrations.”

The best example is right here in Bell County. The Central Texas State Fair has its roots in the Bell County Fair that, according to some sources, may have begun in 1850 in a Salado farmer’s pasture, just after the county was formed.

The first extant news account of the Bell County gathering appeared in 1873, indicating that turnips were deemed the best crop of the year. Those early fairs were usually spread over three weekends and featured sermons from traveling evangelists, horse races, farm implement displays and — of course — music and food.

Those accounts jibe with another important development in Texas and in Bell County — the Grange movement, that unified farmers’ clout. Founded in Salado in 1873 and also known as the Patrons of Husbandry, the nonpartisan, agrarian order spread quickly through county fairs.

Grangers used the annual gatherings to promote free trade, an interstate commerce commission, a department of agriculture, pure food and drug laws, popular election of senators and reduction of shipping and postage rates. Charter member of the Grange was Nimrod Lindsay Norton (1830–1903) of Salado who oversaw county fairs in Travis and Bell counties until his death.

The Bell County Fair was held at different sites — any pasture big enough for tents and attractions. Little River, Temple, Belton — all shared locations over the years. Finally, by 1887, the Bell County Fair Association was officially organized with directors.

Women were essential to the Bell fair success. Flora Sample Hutchison (1868-1956) supervised the home economics tents with loving scrutiny.

By 1923, newspaper accounts indicated 38 county fairs happening in Texas from August to November. Over time, county fairs became larger than life — such as the original Dallas State Fair icon with mysterious Bell County roots.

Big Tex was the progeny of designer Jack Bridges (1910-2001), who created Tex from a Kerens Christmas display. In 1951, the State Fair president bought the giant-sized Santa and asked Bridges to transform it into a cowboy. Bridges fashioned the steel cage frame into a massive structure with a bigger head and broader shoulders.

Bridges told The Dallas Morning News in 1997 that Big Tex’s facial features were modeled after three people: “Me, Will Rogers and Doc Simmons, a rancher from Bell County. I took the worst features from all three of us.”

The erstwhile St. Nick debuted in 1952 as Big Tex, decked out in western garb and a 75-gallon Stetson. Pretty soon, the looming figure enchanted fair-goers with his mile-wide smile, aqualine profile and booming drawl “Hoowwdee, foollks!”

And that’s the way it was until October 2012, when an electrical spark hotwired Tex’s collar and deep-fried a legend like a Fletcher’s corny dog.

Big Tex rose from the ashes a few months later, but who was Doc?

Bell County was blessed with more than one “Doc Simmons” who may or may not have been Bridges’ muse. Bridges said he saw Simmons’ picture and never indicated any other Bell County connection. Considering spelling variations — Doc, Dock, Simmons, Simmonds — a search yielded many likely suspects.

Bell County’s federal censuses list “Dock Simmons” in 1880 and 1900, but he apparently moved away in the early 1900s. Another “Doc Simmons” is mentioned in an 1881 Bell County deposition. Another possibility is Milam Hill Simmonds (1884-1948). His headstone is engraved with his nickname, “Doc.”

However, Bridges’ family admitted he was prone to embellishments.

Certainly, it’s no exaggeration that Bell County’s agricultural output currently shovels a heap into the local economy, producing $85 million annually in beef, corn, sorghum, wheat and cotton. Also important are livestock — from pigs and sheep to rabbits and fowls.

All are celebrated by everyday folks in jeans and comfortable shoes — those who provide communities with sustenance and substance.

“The fairs of the country are made of people, places and deep stories. They belong to all of us, and they remind us of what’s plain, strong and good about our nation,” Hokanson said.