The State Fair of Texas is an old-fashioned event that returns our attention to simple pleasures. Each October, we learn again that a day riding the roller coaster, examining prize-winning chickens and eating sausage-on-a-stick rivals any big-city entertainment.
Lake Highlands is not only home for thousands of State Fair devotees, but our neighborhoods also are home to many of the personalities who raise the livestock, operate the rides and concession stands, and make the Fair come alive. During the rest of the year, these people may seem a big eccentric. But at Fair time, they’re stars. Here are a few of their stories.
Calling Him The ‘Chicken Man’ Seems Simplistic. But It’s The Truth.
“I’ve like chickens ever since I can remember,” neighborhood resident Lonnie McAfee says. “When I was a boy and we would go to visit my grandmother, everybody else would be out riding the horses, except me. I’d be with the chickens.
“Chickens are just like people. Every one of them is different. Some are extra gentle, some want to meet the judge at the door and start fighting. Those chickens don’t get very far.”
When McAfee first saw a picture of a Black Rosecomb chicken, with its velvety, greenish-black feathers, bright, red comb and earlobes like white mints, “it was love at first sight. I knew I had to have some,” he says.
McAfee has achieved great things in the world of show chickens. He is president of the Black Rosecomb Bantam Federation and winner of the American Poultry Association Master Exhibitor Award and the American Bantam Association’s Master Breeder Award.
He is also superintendent of the poultry show, held during the second week of the State Fair.
The poultry show, which added bantam ducks to the standard and bantam chicken categories this year, is making a comeback after losing many of its exhibitors to regional shows.
McAfee, who works as a machinist, expects about 40 exhibitors to show 350 birds this year. That’s just a third of the 1,000 birds that McAfee found when he began showing his birds at the fair in 1977.
“The number is not as high as it once was, but from a Texan’s standpoint, this is the ultimate of state fairs,” McAfee says.
His backyard is stacked with chicken coops, each holding one or more Black Rosecombs. McAfee reaches in here and there to pull out chickens in order to display their finer points. The Rosecombs are smaller and seem far more docile than the foul-tempered hens found in many backyards.
Show chickens must impress judges with their appearance and spirit. Judges award 28 points alone on a Black Rosecomb’s head. To prepare a chicken for competition, McAfee washes its feet and head with a toothbrush and swabs Vitalis on the grisly, red comb.
During the State Fair, he will show birds hatched in February. For a female, show time is “just when she lays that first egg, about six months. After awhile, egg-laying takes the color out of the face,” McAfee says.
His most important task is to preserve the genes of the best birds. Thus, even in the Bible Belt, it’s considered good form to mate parents with their offspring.
“When you get a real good chicken, you want all his good genes. Mate the female back to her son, and you’ve got good genes both ways,” McAfee says.
“With two unrelated birds, it might take four to five years to get good show birds.”
At birth, he tags the chicks with colored pieces of Mrs. Baird’s bread wrappers and places them in incubators. At two weeks, he wraps numbered tags around the birds’ feet and begins to look for winning qualities.
McAfee sells birds that don’t make the grade at the First Monday sale in Canton, Texas. Older birds and other, promising chickens that spoil their looks in barnyard squabbles still may be useful as breeders.
He separates the better birds as soon as he can to minimize casualities, but sometimes he’s too late. Holding a young male, McAfee says: “I’m not gonna send him to Canton just because he’s got a nick in his feathers.
“It’s hard to get everything all in one chicken.”
But that’s part of the fun, McAfee says.
“Competition adds to it, to try to raise a better chicken than the next man,” he says. “Of course, the rule book (called the Book of Standards) is open to interpretation like the Bible, but the judges can usually pick out the best bird.
“The most-asked question at the chicken show is: ‘What’s a pullet?’” McAfee says without prompting. The answer: A pullet is a female less than a year old. A male less than one year old is called a cockerel.
Chicken showing is a long tradition at state fairs. The American Poultry Association, founded in 1873, is the oldest livestock organization in the U.S. McAfee keeps up with his hobby by reading the Poultry Press, a tabloid with a circulation of 10,000.
State Fair visitors will see many colorful breeds of well-groomed chickens. Buff Cochins resemble powder puffs. The Polish breed appear to be wearing Superfly wigs. The fuzzy Silkies actually resemble rabbits.
One Black Rosecomb looks like another to the untrained eye. McAfee views his chickens a little differently.
“Some stand out like star football players. You don’t have to ask anybody who Roger Staubach was. He wore Number 12.”
“Watching them hatch, see them come to life and raising them all the way up to show time lets you see nature at work,” McAfee says.
“It’s part of the beauty of raising chickens.”
Behind The Scenes, He Has Worked to Make Fair Park Shine.
Herschel Brown’s first memories of the State Fair involved quarter-horse racing and hay.
During the 1930s, Brown and his brother hauled prairie hay from their farm in the Casa Linda area to the old race track at Fair Park.
“Dad sold the hay for the people to bed down their racehorses,” Brown says.
In 1936, when Brown was 16, the state held its Texas Centennial, and Brown admits he barely noticed the grand, new buildings amid all the excitement.
“You talk about a fair. That really was a fair,” he says.
Many of the Centennial buildings survive more than a half-century later, although they’ve long required extensive repairs.
Brown, who celebrates his 72nd birthday Oct. 1, has developed a nagging sense of history since his first visit to the Fair and today is working to save those now-historic buildings.
Brown is a behind-the-scenes man, a community leader whose office wall is decorated with golf trophies, commendations from civic groups, and even a 1960s-vintage picture with future president George Bush. But he emphasizes that community work is a team effort.
“Don’t be saying: What have I done? It’s what have we done,” Brown says.
“My role has been to see that capital improvement programs are carried out. I work with the board, State Fair staff and the City to get those improvements done.”
Specifically, Brown serves as a liaison between the State Fair board of directors, which he joined in 1978 at the invitation of Tom Thumb supermarket magnate Robert Cullum, and City Hall. He serves on the finance committee and is a vice chair of the executive committee. In 1987, he helped negotiate the State Fair’s latest, 30-year lease.
Brown and other members of the State Fair board would like to see the park’s historic buildings survive that lease. Since 1988, the board has spent millions of dollars of Fair-generated funds to fix roofs, add rest rooms, and paint and replace electrical systems and air conditioning.
“We spent $6 million since 1988 for roofs alone,” Brown says. “I’m talking about crisis repairs, things that had to be done.
“These are the things Mr. Cullum started and this board has continued to press for – to do whatever is necessary to make Fair Park one of the finest parks in the country.
“Dallas has a jewel if we can build it up so we have a facility that’s in constant use. If Fair Park isn’t a diamond in the rough, I don’t know what is.
“But it’s a diamond that has to be polished,”
Brown views his role in the community as that of “caretaker,” owing to his family’s long neighborhood connection.
He met wife Frances while both attended Woodrow Wilson High School, and joined his father in developing 300 acres of farmland that established the Casa Linda community and shopping center.
Although the family sold its real estate holdings in recent years, Brown has worked successfully to build the thoroughfares that link our neighborhoods with the rest of the City.
He says he’s always looking to the future but affectionately recalls his days on the family farm, driving four mules while steering a wiggle-tail cultivator through the fields.
“We’d be out there plowing that tough, black soil with the mules, my brother and I. Finally, we’d come up to Buckner Boulevard, where we had to let the mules stop for a blow.
“Well, we’d sit there and watch the cars speeding by, and I’d say: ‘Someday I’ll be rich and drive one of those big cars.’ It’s funny when you’re young, how simple your dreams are.
“Back then, I would look 20 years into the future. I wouldn’t do that now. You’re lucky if your plans don’t change in no time.”