Thursday, June 19, 2008

Hamilton Fair Loses Carnival

Pembina County Fair - Hamilton, ND
Photo by:  Bruce Wendt
When I was growing up in St. Vincent, we attended the Kittson County Fair in Hallock, and the St. Vincent fair itself in the fall, but we also looked forward to the Hamilton fair, with its harness racing. My Dad and I would attend the races together and have a grand old time cheering them on, Dad taking the opportunity of sharing about his father having seen the great Dan Patch in his time.

Now things are winding down, sadly. Populations grow smaller in the rural areas, and the results are that the fairs are slowly fading...

Hamilton, N.D. -- In the heyday of the Pembina County Fair, about two dozen carnival rides filled up the fairground midway. The Ferris Wheel. The Tilt-A-Whirl. The Octopus.

Neil Fleming saw it all in his 55 years as fair organizer: from food to farm animals, clown shows, girlie shows, freak shows.

"It was really something," he reminisces.

The aroma of funnel cakes, the barnyard odor of fattened farm animals, the resplendent beauty of fancy quilts will still exist at the three-day fair July 10-12. But for the first time in 115 years, there will be no carnival rides on the quarter-mile-long midway.

"The population is dwindling, and add that to the extra costs, and it's difficult to get a carnival," Fleming said.

The Pembina County Fair, which bills itself as the oldest continuous fair in North Dakota, will replace carnival rides with bouncy inflatable games.

Shrinking attendance, soaring fuel prices and other expenses have hurt fairs across the country, and many are doing without carnivals.

"Our fuel costs are four times as much as it was 10 years ago, and we haven't raised our prices in 10 years," said Lon McWhorter, owner of Woonsocket, S.D.-based Mac's Carnival & Attractions, the sole carnival company based in the Dakotas.

It cost McWhorter $22,000 to move his dozen-ride carnival from South Dakota to Louisiana this year, more than double last year's expenses. McWhorter's grandfather started the company in the 1920s with a three-minute photography booth and some advice: Keep the carnival on wheels.

In today's economy, that's been a nearly impossible wish to fulfill.

Carnivals in the U.S. generally range in size from five rides to about 300.

Billy Tucker, owner of Phenix City, Ala.-based Dixieland Carnival Co., said several small fairs in the South and Midwest have fizzled in the past few years, and fewer are able to afford a carnival.
Dixieland Carnival is a "small-to-medium size" show that has been in Tucker's family for five generations. Unlimited-ride armbands sell for $15, a fee that has not risen in five years.

"Everybody is feeling the pinch I am, and as bad as we need to go up, I just feel it would be a really bad PR move right now with everything else going up," Tucker said.

About 345 carnival companies travel the U.S. each year, down from about 400 a decade ago. Many are family-owned businesses, and they need to be assured of big attendance to come to a fair.

"Some have gotten fed up and tired of the fuel costs, insurance and long hours - it's a grind," said Bob Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association in Orlando. "It's a very highly regulated industry, and I can't say that it's bad, but it obviously has added to the cost of doing business today."

County fairs were established in the 1800s as a way to promote agriculture, and little has changed since then, said Jim Tucker, president of the Springfield, Mo.-based International Association of Fairs and Expositions. He is not related to Billy Tucker.

Jim Tucker's group represents about 1,300 fair groups worldwide, though most are in the U.S.

Fairs remain popular, with 150 million Americans attending them in 2007 and 80 percent showing increased or steady attendance.

"More and more people are coming up with farm animals as the No. 1 reason to visit a fair," Jim Tucker said. "A big part of the population does not interact with farm animals - and the more something becomes a curiosity, the more people come and see it."

In Hettinger County, in North Dakota's southwest corner, livestock is hardly a curiosity. Kelly Stewart, who was a member of the county fair board for several years, said fairgoers still like the amusement rides, though they've been absent the past few years.

Fair attendance has suffered as a result. "Now we are down to a small beer garden, inflatables and an egg toss for kids," she said.

Schoeppner Shows in Palmdale (Los Angeles County) has been bringing its carnival to the Upper Midwest since the early 1980s, and Pembina County was one of its annual stops.

Not this year. The carnival has decided to stay closer to home.

The skyrocketing cost of diesel and decreasing number of fairgoers hurt business, said Pam Schoeppner, who runs the carnival with her husband, Phil.

"We're carving out new territory in Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming," she said. "Just driving out to North Dakota took a huge chunk of money, and the same thing with South Dakota and Nebraska - all those little county fairs have just petered out, and there is not enough attendance to support a carnival of our size."

Schoeppner's carnival has stopped each year at the Tri-County Fair in Wishek, in south central North Dakota. The company's decision to pull out of the state prompted fair officials to buy their own carnival rides.

Tri-County Fair purchased nine rides for about $50,000, though most need work to get them running in time for the fair's already-delayed opening July 10.

"I can't see us running a fair without a carnival," said Mike Martell, who has helped organize the Tri-County Fair for 45 years. "Kids bring their parents to fairs. If you don't have something for kids, there is no reason for their parents to go."

James Macpherson, Associated Press