Most people love the fair, and some people may even visit it several times during the week it is in town. For some, however, the fair is more than an annual diversion; it’s a way of life.
Imagine waking up each morning to the sight of Ferris wheels, game booths filled with stuffed animals, and food booths waiting for the crowds to come. Imagine living in a different town every week, shopping in different stores, hearing different accents echoing across the midway as the fair opens nightly. What is it like to start tearing down massive rides on a Saturday night, just to drive hundreds of miles to the next destination, working all day Sunday setting up those same rides before the fair reopens in a different city the next day?
To people who travel with carnivals, often known as “carnies,” it is a wonderful way to live.
The nomadic lifestyle takes over for eight months out of the year, with the winter season being a time to rest, recover, and spend time with family. When it’s “fair season,” however, life is a constant adventure.
That’s what Phillip Wilson says. He is employed with Amusements of America, the midway company that has brought the carnival to the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair in Statesboro for more than 30 years.
Wilson operates and owns the mechanical bull, water ball and other rides, and has spent the past 40 years in the carnival business.
It is in his blood, since his family boasts five generations of carnival workers. When asked what he loves about the life, he said, “The freedom, the smiles, the smell of cotton candy — what’s not to like?”
But he has seen changes over the years, changes he doesn’t necessarily like. The business has “political ramifications, stringent rules, and we are under constant scrutiny where it used to be a family business,” he said.
But, oh, the places he’s been and the things he has seen.
“I’ve seen it all — freaks, illusions, high-wire acts,” he said. “There are not as many families now, more kids and young people attending. It’s more businesslike now, but still a lot of fun.”
Mel Melton was busy Thursday as he prepared a bounty of “fair food” for the Statesboro Kiwanis Club’s lunchtime meeting. He owns a food booth with the midway and offered the club an array of delights including pizza slices, Italian sausages and fried chicken — all of which were available on the midway.
Melton has been with the carnival for 32 years. He said he started working with the company at age 11, and was paid $15 a week.
Working with a traveling carnival company is “better than going to a factory every day,” he said. “I’ve seen a little bit of everything; nothing surprises me.”
Carnies are people just like your neighbors. Maybe they don’t always have the ties that bind them to one certain community, but they enjoy the life and are generally good people, he said.
“They just want to be left alone to do their jobs,” Melton said. Amusements of America is “like a big family. They’re the best ride company in the United States.”
Not all carnival workers were born into the business or started when they were young. Helena Vivona, married to one of the Amusements of America owners, Dominc Vivona, entered the adventure later in life.
She was already a grandmother when she married Vivona. Her late husband was a fair committee member in a South Carolina town, and the family had become friends with the Vivonas. After her husband died of a heart attack at their fair and Dominic’s wife died in a car accident, fate brought them together again when she found herself at the fair, with a disappointed granddaughter who could not win a prize.
She called Dominic to see if he could help appease the child, but was distracted and they didn’t connect that night. However, she said, Dominic called back the next day to announce he was coming to her house with a stuffed dog for her granddaughter.
Soon, the two were married, and Helena left her cozy South Carolina life for an adventure in traveling with the carnival.
She drives the couple’s luxurious motor home, parking it right along with the other carnival employees’ RVs, and the Vivonas work side by side with the others.
“We’re always with the show,” she said, strolling along the fairgrounds.
Life really did change for her, having grown up on a plantation and now traveling to a different place every week.
“It is a lot of fun, lots of hard work,” she said. “But we love it.”
Was it hard to leave her roots and family? Maybe a little, but “My family is happy for me, and know I have a great husband who takes care of me,” she said.
It’s the adventure that is most attractive to most carnival workers. Eric Powell, from Selma, Ala., said he enjoys traveling to places he has never seen and learning about history.
He has been with Amusements of America since 1990 and operates the giant Ferris wheel.
The job was just “something to do at first, just an adventure. I never thought I’d make a life of it,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of places. I like my job – it’s what you make of it.”
He has “opportunities to see things other people don’t get to see,” in his travels. “How many people get to do that?”
One of the most bizarre things he has ever seen was watching people eat — and enjoy — guinea pigs. “It’s a delicacy in Peru,” he said. “I now have a different perspective of guinea pigs.”
Today, the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fairgrounds are empty, almost with a sense of abandonment after the week of excitement, as club members clean up the aftermath in preparation for the next year’s fair.
In the meantime, the carnies are driving to their next destination, tired from a long but good week in Statesboro and dissembling the rides and attractions, looking forward to their next adventures.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.