State Fair of Texas

State Fair Returns Without the Funnel Cake Queen

The family of Wanda "Fernie" Winter carries on with decadeslong tradition

NBC Universal, Inc.

There's so much excitement about the return of the State Fair of Texas this year.
Yet the absence of a state fair favorite may bring tears as well.

Wanda "Fernie" Winter, the concessionaire who brought us funnel cakes, died this past June at the age of 95.

She and husband John Winter opened their food stands back in 1969. Their "nachitos" - just good 'ole cheese and chips with jalapenos - won fans over.

Then in the '80s came the funnel cake, and fans fell in love with Fernie's Funnel Cake. The Winters didn't create it but they sure perfected it.

And now as the family moves forward without Fernie, they'll do it with memories, love and lots of fried dough and powdered sugar.

"It's very emotional hanging all these pictures and looking at her face," said daughter Christi Erpillo as she and her sister Johnna McKee got the concession stand at The Dock ready for opening day. "But we're doing exactly what she would want us to be doing. And we have her little chair over there. And we have her shawl she always wore. And it's gonna be sitting there all fair long, and hopefully, people will come take their picture with her throne."

"Up until she was 93, she was here every day sitting in her chair, and people would come in wanting to have their picture made with her," McKee said. "We're going to do everything we can to honor both our parents. I just get chill bumps. Because we would not be here were it not for mom and dad just spontaneously deciding they were gonna work here 52 years ago."

The family invites guests to sit in the "throne" where Wanda "Fernie" Winter held court as the Funnel Cake Queen.

A wall in The Dock is packed with pictures of Fernie with her family: husband John Winter who died in 1899 and their four daughters and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who followed. There are also pictures of Fernie with guests, which is what she called customers, who came year after year to see her and get their funnel cake fix. The Dock is where the funnel cake was born and where a grandson Johnathan almost was, too.

"We were the original people who brought funnel cakes to the State Fair of Texas. The very first funnel cake was served behind that counter back there. Johnna went into labor making funnel cakes back there," Erpillo said.

That grandson Johnathan McKee is the third generation to work in the family business. Other family members will float in and out during the 24-day run of the fair but primarily it will be him, his mom and aunt with a team of seasonal workers who've been with them through the years.

They'll fry countless numbers of funnel cakes and this year, they'll add something new: Fernie's Fried Coffee Toffee Crunch Cake, a Big Tex Choice award finalist. It's another tasty concoction thought of by Erpillo, named after their mom who probably knew they'd found another winner.

"When my mom was so sick, close to four weeks before she died, and not a whole lot of communication going on with her, Christi and I were sitting at the end of her bed one day and we were talking about the Big Tex Choice Awards and we had heard mother hardly say any words in weeks. And, we're just talking and all of the sudden, she looks up and she's like, 'did we make it in? and Christi and I looked at each other and we're like, 'What the heck? We haven't heard you say anything! And did we get in?' So, I think she knows we're in."

The family is glad to be back with their guests and with the other concessionaires they consider family. And while there will be moments when the absence of Fernie will be too much and the tears will come, they will celebrate a woman whose claim to fame will forever be the fried dough and powdered sugar so many crave this time of year.

"We say, we put the fun in funnel cakes and that's what we believe," and that's what Fernie would've wanted.

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