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State fair owed success to East Texan

By Van Craddock
Oct. 23, 2010 at 7 p.m.


T hanks to good weather, the Texas State Fair just ended its 24-day run in Dallas with record revenues and possibly record attendance. William Gaston would be proud.

Without East Texan Gaston, America's biggest state fair might not even exist. And it surely wouldn't be in Big D's Fair Park, which in 1924 almost became "Gaston Park." But more on that in a minute.

William Henry Gaston was born in Alabama in 1840. Nine years later, his family relocated to East Texas, to the Anderson County village of Plentitude. His father had a large plantation and was elected to the Texas Legislature. William grew up working in the fields.

In 1861, the family moved to Smith County. When the Civil War began, William and his brother, Robert, enlisted in the Confederate Army.

That fall, William was elected a captain, and the Gaston boys became part of the famous Hood's Texas Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia. The unit saw much action, and in 1862, Robert Gaston was killed at the battle of Antietam.

To Big D

During the war William married Laura Furlow, a childhood friend from Anderson County. Once the war ended in 1865, the Gastons returned to East Texas. Laura died in 1867, and William married her sister, Ione. The new Mr. and Mrs. Gaston moved to Dallas, a community of less than 3,000.

Gaston bought several hundred acres on what would become Ross Avenue in East Dallas. He operated a freight operation between Dallas and Jefferson, then opened the Gaston and Camp Bank, the first permanent bank in Dallas. That bank evolved into the Republic National Bank.

An astute businessman, Gaston couldn't help making money as he branched out into real estate and railroads. He eventually became one of Dallas' first millionaires.

In 1872, he was elected a city councilman. When the railroad was building westward from Longview that year, Gaston and Dallas Mayor Henry Ervay convinced railroad officials - with right-of-way and $5,000 - to alter their route so it would come close to Gaston's property.

In 1876, a fair was held in East Dallas on acreage owned by William Gaston. By 1886 the event was being called the Dallas State Fair and Exposition. The following year, it took the name Texas State Fair with Gaston serving as one of the directors.

According to a contemporary newspaper account, Gaston donated "free of charge for ten years, with the option of purchase, 40 acres of well-drained land." Erected for the fair were a "grand stand, machinery hall, exposition hall, stables and stock pens."

'Gaston Park'

Fair revenues suffered with fires in 1890 and 1891 as well as the financial depression of 1893. Then the expo hall burned in 1902. That same year the state made horse race gambling illegal, cutting deeply into fair revenues.

The fair association remained in debt until 1904, when the city of Dallas took over the fair grounds. Gaston's financial support had helped keep the fair afloat.

In 1911, Gaston sold 12 acres to the city to enlarge the state fair site. In 1914, another 13 acres were purchased from him.

Ten years later, in 1924, the Dallas City Council voted to rename Fair Park to Gaston Park in honor of William Gaston's contributions to the fair association. However, Gaston declined the honor.

Gaston died in January 1927 at age 84, much respected in his adopted hometown. The East Texan responsible for keeping the great Texas State Fair alive is buried in Dallas' Greenwood Cemetery.

Today, Fair Park covers almost 280 acres. In addition to the state fair, the park is home to the Cotton Bowl stadium, museums and art-deco exposition buildings.

Fair Park held the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. Forty years later it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Van "Big Tex" Craddock's new book of News-Journal columns is titled "East Texas Tales." His e-mail is <a href= "mailto:vancraddock@sbcglobal.net">vancraddock@sbcglobal.net</a>

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