H.L. Kinney planned 1852 Lone Star Fair to put South Texas on the map

One hundred and seventy years ago, on May 1, 1852, Corpus Christi hosted the Lone Star Fair, the first state fair in Texas and the brainchild of Corpus Christi founder Henry Lawrence Kinney. Kinney, the celebrated “hustler in the wilderness,” envisioned a fair along the lines of the great exhibitions of Europe to promote the region, its agricultural potential, and to attract new settlers who he could supply with all the necessities needed to create a viable homestead. Although the fair did not ultimately live up to Kinney’s promotional bluster, it proved to be a significant event in the development of South Texas and marked an important transition in the life of the sparkling city by the bay. The fascinating and complex story of the Lone Star Fair captures all the elements of the Texas frontier between the Mexican American War (1846-1848) and the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865).

H.L. Kinney had big plans for the region when he established a trading post and the beginnings of a town along Corpus Christi Bay in 1839. Kinney, an ambitious man who saw opportunity where others only saw challenges, intentionally settled south of the Nueces River in disputed territory claimed by both Mexico and the newly independent Republic of Texas. Mexico, refusing to concede the independence of Texas, claimed the Nueces River as the southern border of what it considered a rebellious territory. The Republic of Texas claimed the Rio Grande as its southern border. Until the Mexican American War settled the issue in 1846, Kinney had to make himself acceptable to both sides. In doing so, he proved himself to be an excellent diplomat as well as a shrewd businessman who was not afraid to take risks and even skirt the law in search of profit. Soon after settling in the region, Kinney developed a very lucrative trade smuggling goods to both sides of the border.

Despite Kinney’s ambition, the disputed nature of the territory and the remoteness of the South Texas frontier hindered settlement. Prospects changed briefly when the U.S. Army selected Corpus Christi as its point of departure for the Mexican American War. When the U.S. Army under Gen. Zachary Taylor arrived in 1845, the population of the town boomed with the addition of close to 4,000 troops and numerous camp followers. The town population, excluding the soldiers, topped out at little over 2,000. However, the population dwindled as soon as the U.S. Army marched south. Even some of the original inhabitants including H.L. Kinney briefly went with the army. The California Gold Rush further depleted the population as settlers and potential settlers chose to go further west to seek their fortunes. According to the first federal census of the region in 1850, Nueces County – organized in 1847 – contained 698 inhabitants and 151 dwelling places.

Despite the obstacles in his path, Kinney worked tirelessly to reverse the decline and to draw settlers to the region. In 1851 Kinney latched upon the idea of the Lone Star Fair as a new promotional angle. Kinney most likely drew his inspiration from the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” – also known as the “Crystal Palace Exhibition” – then underway in London, England, from May 1 to October 15, 1851. To promote his Texas version of the exhibition, Kinney placed advertisements in regional papers like the Texas State Gazette and the New Orleans Daily Picayune. He printed up 20,000 brochures and circulated them throughout the United States and in Europe. In London, Kinney instructed his agent Reuben Holbein to set up the Nueces Valley Land and Emigration Office to advertise the fair and to recruit prospective settlers.

To underwrite the cost of the fair and its extensive promotion, Kinney sought out high profile Texans to lend their name and financial support to the effort. He raised $50,000 from local supporters including John Peter Schatzel and Forbes Britton and from other notables throughout the state including Ashbel Smith, General Hugh McLeod, and James Barnard. Ashbel Smith – a close personal friend of Sam Houston, a noted doctor who had served as the surgeon general of the Army of the Republic of Texas and with Zachary Taylor during the Mexican American War, and an accomplished diplomat for the Republic of Texas – agreed to serve as one of the “Managers” for the fair. Smith had attended the Great Exhibition in London as a representative of the U.S. government and written extensively on it. Other members of the “Committee” recruited to promote the fair included current and former governors, state legislators, and military leaders including Governor J. Pinckney Henderson, William Bourland, Governor P.H. Bell, Governor George T. Wood, H. Clay Davis, General Memucan Hunt, and General James Davis.

With the “Committee” in place, financing secured, and advertisements sent around the world, Kinney had made significant preparation for what he hoped would be the start of a bright future for Corpus Christi.

This is the first in a three-part series on the Lone Star Fair.

James Pruitt has a Ph.D. in U.S. Military and Diplomatic History from Texas A&M University. He currently serves as a commissioner with the Nueces County Historical Commission and with the Landmark Commission of the City of Corpus Christi.

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: H.L. Kinney planned 1852 Lone Star Fair to put South Texas on the map