Friday, December 21, 2012

Big Claus

"Lone Star Historian" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published almost 40 books, half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine.

On an evening in December 1949 we piled into the family car at 1717 Woodlawn in Corsicana. My dad was behind the wheel and Mother sat beside him. My sister and I were in the back. I was seven going on eight, and Judy was two years younger. We were excited, because we were driving to Kerens to see the "World's Largest Santa Claus."

Kerens is located 15 miles east of Corsicana. The town was founded in 1881 when the St. Louis Southwestern Railway built east to west through Navarro County. By the 1940s the population exceeded 1,500 and the commercial district stretched for two and a half blocks south of the railroad tracks along Colbert Avenue. The business buildings were brick, and a block to the east was an impressive brick cotton gin. But by 1949 business was falling off, as shoppers drove to Corsicana, or, sometimes, to Dallas.

Santa looked north toward
the business district. At the
south end of the street the
old Kerens school may
be seen between Santa's
legs. Cars made a slow
U-turn behind Santa and
drove back toward the
business district.
Howell Brister, president of the Kerens Chamber of Commerce, devised a plan to stimulate local shopping during the all-important Christmas season. He proposed that the community build and display the "World's Largest Santa Claus." Local welders and the high school ag students fashioned a frame out of $68 worth of iron drill casing. Huge boots were formed by a concrete worker. Women employed at a Kerens garment factory stitched 168 yards of red oil cloth. The dimensions of two heavyset men, Ottis Spurlock and Hardy Mayo, were multiplied by seven to design a pattern. Art students from Baylor University put together a papier-mâché  head, while seven-foot lengths of rope were unraveled to make Santa's beard. When assembled, he stood 49 feet tall. 

After arriving in Kerens, we turned right on Colbert Avenue, crossed over the railroad tracks, and fell in behind a long line of cars. We drove slowly past the business district, which was gaily decorated for Christmas shoppers. At the south end of the street stood a massive Santa Claus! For a seven-year-old it was an unforgettable site, one that remains vivid more tan six decades later.

Unfortunately, the novelty soon wore off of Super Santa. After two years in Kerens, the giant figure was sold to R.L. Thornton of Dallas. Santa was converted into a cowboy, and made his debut as "Big Tex" in 1952 at the State Fair of Texas. But every October when I visited the State Fair, I saw Big Tex and thought of the "World's Largest Santa Claus."

Note the lady standing on
the chimney top.
Merry Christmas, Texas! 

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