Ever since the summer of 1947, the employees of Davis Amusement Company have carted their carnival wares up and down the west coast, bringing cotton candy and exhilaration to new communities. I recently spent three months traveling through Washington State and Oregon alongside this fourth-generation family-owned business, watching the employees work from Memorial Day to Labor Day. A transient group, many of these workers travel with their own entire families to work the carnival from town to town during the summer months.
Katherine travels with the carnival year-round, and she usually attends to the games. While erecting a games tent, she wears a tutu to celebrate her birthday. During personal downtime, workers can wear whatever they wish. But during carnival operation hours, they must be in uniform and presentable. During summer months, the carnival moves each week from one location to the next. Sometimes it travels 30 miles, other times 300. The carnival usually operates from Tuesday afternoon through Saturday night. That leaves Sunday, Monday and part of Tuesday to disassemble, transport, plan and then reassemble everything before the next opening. That’s two and a half days to set up all rides, games and food stands, to recreate the vast playground of color and amusement that people have enjoyed for decades. A girl poses in a bikini as carnival workers set up a ride called “The Ice Storm.” These metal panels, which act as the backdrop for the ride, weigh approximately 60 pounds and require much manpower to set in place. Teamwork and communication are essential to preclude an accident from occurring. Bobbie, a carnival worker who only travels during the summer to make money for school, sits on a perch inside the “Ring of Fire” carnival ride to secure several bolts. Other workers from below look on and give direction. At each carnival location, workers are usually assigned to a specific ride, food stall or game for the week’s duration. As night falls, Darla, a veteran worker and game manager, waits for visitors to play. When the carnival is open, workers usually attend to rides or games from noon until midnight. On a cold, slow day at the carnival, two workers, Adela and Starbuck, embrace under cover of the bumper cars ride. With the unique carnival lifestyle and work commitment, relationships oftentimes begin between coworkers. Carnival workers are trained to “bark.” Barking involves a phrase or action that entices passersby to acknowledge the game and worker. Here, Trevor strategically knocked over some balls and asked the boys to help pick them up. As the boys come closer, Trevor will engage them and entice them to play. A young girl admires a stuffed animal that she won at a carnival game. After carnival setup is complete, Steff uses her rare free time to traverse an open field towards a nearby river. She drags her air mattress, which will soon double as a floating raft. The carnival workers set up a camp with their vehicles, tarps and lounge chairs. In this kind of environment, a good shower is usually hard to come by. Steff washes her hair with water from a nearby jug and rinses it with more water from a plastic container. Working on the carnival rides can be extremely dangerous. Mike, a temporary carnival worker, accidentally dropped a 70-pound metal panel on his toe. Several other carnival workers look on in amazement as he awaits a ride to the hospital. Carnivals, like any business, have competition. Each fairground has management that takes bids from carnival companies. Winning bids translate into contracts (one-, three-, five- or seven-year) that grant the carnival a right to operate each year at the fairground location. While the carnival is at the specific location, the owners entertain fairground management. Here, inside the mobile carnival office, the fairground manager winks with amusement during conversation. Other carnival workers fill the office with drinks and cake for entertaining purposes. The traveling carnival has a tractor-trailer that is outfitted with eight individual rooms which act as sleeping quarters and living areas. Pete and his wife share one of the rooms. As Pete sits on the front step and smokes a cigarette, his wife comforts him. Families often travel together with the carnival. In camp, one woman observes her neighbors, a mother and daughter, through the window. The carnival usually travels during the summer months, so the workers’ children are not in school. As the carnival’s Ferris wheel is dismantled and prepared for movement, Danielle, the daughter of two carnival workers, sits in a van and awaits the journey to the next location. At night, a man prepares for bed in his tent while the Ferris wheel illuminates the surrounding area.