Life at the carnival

Friday, September 14, 2012
Kenneth Thompson sets up the rock-climbing wall to prepare for another day at the fair. Thompson has traveled with Zerebko Zoo-Tram, a subcontracted company under Gold Star Amusements, for the past two months. (Photo by Kate Padilla)

For two weeks, the carnival workers at Gold Star Amusements live in Spencer. They call the Clay County Fairgrounds "home," and they spend their days running the rides and serving sweet and savory treats to excited fairgoers.

But when the carnival season ends in November, each of these carnival workers heads back to their own home, their own job, and their own life.

For many of these workers, going "home" means boarding a plane back to South Africa.

Marijke De Villiers and Lelani De Villiers, from Cape Town, South Africa, applied with an agency to be sent overseas as carnival workers. The job lasts eight to nine months, and many of the expenses are paid by the company.

"We love seeing other places," Lelani said. "It's like student life, but we're working and we're traveling."

Both Marijke and Lelani serve lemonade in the lemon-shaped stand.

"Where the lemon goes, we go," Marijke said.

When they get back to Cape Town, Lelani works for her father. When the next season comes, she may sign up once again to work in the carnivals.

"Some repeat seven or eight years," Lelani said.

Vashna Dumont and Kirsten Kreyfelt are also from South Africa. Dumont lives in Cape Town and Kreyfelt lives in Johannesburg. While this is Kreyfelt's first year in the carnival circuit, Dumont has been working in the carnivals for the past three years. When she gets back to Cape Town at the end of the season, she considers it a vacation until the next season begins.

"It's hard work," Dumont said. "Each carnival is different. It's long hours, but it's fun."

Kreyfelt and Dumont have worked predominantly in the food stands this year, though they've also worked in ticket sales.

Kreyfelt heard about the position from her friend's brother, who signed up last year. When she gets back to Johannesburg, she works in sales and with her mother in graphic design.

"I'm an adventurous person," Kreyfelt said. "It's great because we can travel around, but there are still people to look out for you."

While in the States, the workers tour from fair to fair. As the season starts to slow down, however, they are also given vacation time to explore other areas of the country.

For Gold Star Amusements, the season ends in New Orleans, where the employees will enjoy a final experience at Halloween on Bourbon Street.

"I know I'll dress up, but I don't know what I'll be yet," Marijke said.

Most of the food vendors are employees of Gold Star Amusements, but many of the rides are sub-contracted to other companies.

Mason Purdy, from Tampa, Fla., has his own ride, which he contracts to larger amusement companies throughout the season.

Purdy is a fourth-generation carnival worker. He was raised amid the rides and food stands, and when he grew up he decided to follow in his family's footsteps and join in the industry himself.

"It's fun when you're young, to grow up here," he said.

At one point, Purdy's family was approached for a reality show, but they declined.

Shane Cather and Kenneth Thompson work for the Zerebko Zoo-Tram, a company contracted by Gold Star Amusements for the Clay County Fair.

Cather was picked up in Cape Girardeau, Mo., where he worked at the zoo training exotic animals. His favorite animal to train was the camel, and Zerebko hired him for their petting zoo. An idea he has for next year is to acquire a camel. Cather would train the camel to give rides.

"Camels are remarkably intelligent," Cather said. "Very food-motivated. They're really easy to work with."

Thompson joined the Zerebko Zoo-Tram in Marshall, Minn., after helping to tear down the carnival passing through town. He had just moved from Houston, and was working at a composite fiberglass company.

"The job fell in my lap," he said.

When he was 16, he joined the carnival for a few months during the summer.

"You meet a lot of cool people," he said.

Some of the carnival workers have made a career of the road. Skool has been with the carnival since 1976, and can't think of anything he'd rather do.

Skool, a musician with a traveling gospel group during the off-season, was called from Detroit to work on the road. The father of his gospel show ran the carnival, and he "made them so much money."

"I love traveling," Skool said. "You get to see cities and meet people. I'm a people person."

During the off-season, Skool continues to travel with his gospel group. While before the carnivals he would travel overseas, recently he's been staying within the United States so that he can rejoin the carnival when the season begins once again.

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  • While reading this I thought of a book I read not long ago, 'Water for Elephants'Both your article and that book made me wish I were sixteen again. I hope, before I get too much older, to attend my first carnival/fair. The one in your city would be my first choice.

    -- Posted by MEMOBLACK on Fri, Sep 14, 2012, at 11:45 AM
  • Very nice story just goes to show there really is alot more to the people that come in with the carnival... nice to know. Thank you

    -- Posted by windchimes3 on Fri, Sep 14, 2012, at 1:19 PM
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