To the “carneys” of GoldStar Amusements, every day is a new adventure. On the road for nine months out of the year, preparation for the 37th Annual Walker County Fair and Rodeo begins long before the rides, cotton candy, and funnel cakes. For the more than 50 GoldStar traveling employees who provide all the food, games, and rides, logistics begin with an advance party. This group lays the groundwork for what will be the largest event in Walker County. A number of them come from as far away as South Africa. To them, it’s a way to see and enjoy a side of this country they may never have otherwise seen. For others like Marcus Jones, it’s a means to further their education while learning valuable skills. By all appearances, the family-friendly fun goes off without a hitch.
Noon – For the past four days, the advance party crews of GoldStar Amusements have been working frantically, measuring the area, staking out positions for the various rides and food vendors. Nothing is left to chance. Hundreds of miles of wires are hooked up to large generators, producing electricity for all the rides, as well as the living quarters that will serve as “home” for the next two weeks. Rides are assembled and inspected, as well as health permits secured for all carnival food. This little “city” is bright, shiny and polished, in contrast to the ever-threatening rain clouds on this Good Friday.
With the opening less than an hour away, many last minute details need the attention of Jessica and Timmy Bessette. This husband and wife duo is in charge of this year’s carnival at the Walker County Fairgrounds, from April 3 to April 11. Jessica, who handles most of the office chores, searches for and then finds 500 special gold armbands. “We have to get these out to the front booth. It’s for unlimited rides,” she said. “These are some of our biggest selling items.” Aside from the threat of rain, news arrives that one of the generators is experiencing low oil pressure. “I’m on it. We’ve got to get this thing fixed fast,” Timmy said. “This could be an expense we’re going to have before we even open.” The electricity furnished by these generators supports this “little city.” Timmy must work quickly to ensure that several of the carnival’s popular rides have power.
12:40 p.m. – Brand new GoldStar uniforms arrive just in time to be circulated to all crewmembers. Richard Hanson personally gives every member his or her new shirt. Hanson is a special element to this traveling show. He does all the booking, marketing, and promotions, among other duties. “GoldStar is like a family,” he says. “I’m just here to do whatever I can. There are no official titles here because this is a family business.”
12:50 p.m. – Jessica conducts a last minute inspection of the cotton candy vendors. “Each bag has to be just right,” she explains “The taste, smell, colors, and textures have to remind adults of their childhood, as well as foster new memories for their children.”
12:55 p.m. – Timmy comes running back with news that the generator is up and running again. He quickly excuses himself to wash the oil from his hands and change clothes. Hanson completes a final safety check of all rides and equipment. With the skies darkening, rain seems unavoidable. “Places everybody,” Hanson yells, “It Showtime!”
1:20 p.m. – Back in the office, Jessica gathers expense receipts for fuel and other miscellaneous items. “Even when it rains, we still have the same expenses, and payroll must still be met.”
1:30 p.m. – With the rain still falling, an employee informs Timmy, Jessica, and Hanson that he must suddenly leave due to a family emergency. They quickly put their heads together to come up with a plan to switch operators around, ensuring a qualified operator is working the ride just vacated.
1:35 p.m. – The rain, which only moments earlier seemed unending, stops. Another quick inspection of all rides, equipment, and electrical connections is completed. Everyone takes their “places.” It’s “Showtime”—take two.
1:40 p.m. – A few families with small children begin to “trickle in,” seemingly undaunted by the weather. As part of his almost constant inspections, Timmy replaces several lights, damage caused by the rain.
1:45 p.m. – Even though the “little city” has just opened, Hanson is already working on a schedule for employee breaks, beginning at the top of the hour. Marcus Jones, 24, hailed by many at GoldStar as a model employee, is certified on many of the rides. The future veterinarian will assist in rotating others out for breaks.
2:00 p.m. – Breaks begin. Timmy is still preparing for the “Night Lights of the City” by checking and rechecking lighting and fixtures while he has the benefit of sunlight. “It’s better this way, because you really don’t want to be out here scrambling in the dark with all the customers around,” he said. “We want everybody to have fun, and they can’t do that if they are looking at me fixing lights. I want our presence felt as little as possible.”
Hanson receives news of a potential misprint in dates, times, and prices of armbands. He must act quickly to make sure the potential problem is avoided.
2:15 p.m. – With the problem averted, the temperature begins to become quite steamy, rising almost 20 degrees after the rains stop. More families begin to come in. “Things are beginning to look a lot better now,” Hanson said. “Our routine starts now, because this is what we do. When this thing fills up, it’s like we’re on cruise control.”
3:30 p.m. – Jessica spends more time balancing receipts from the previous night’s “Sneak Peek.” It’s the largest Thursday night opening on record. Momentum appears to be gaining. For her, it’s “Showtime.” “This is the time we really get out and shake hands and meet and greet everybody,” she said. “All the while, we each are checking to make sure everything is running like a well-oiled machine.”
4:00 p.m. – Long lines begin to form around the ticket booth. Hanson orders a second booth opened. “We like long lines, but we don’t like our customers waiting in them,” he said. “Kids come to have fun and eat foods they don’t usually eat—not wait in line.”
4:15 p.m. – Despite the change in temperatures and poor forecast, more families arrive. Both booths are at full capacity.
5:00 p.m. – A group of special children are granted free entrance to the “little city.” “Their smiles couldn’t have been any wider,” said Hanson. These boys and girls are part of the “Special Kids Rodeo.” “We’re going to give them free food and T-shirts, too. These kids really appreciate and understand the meaning in all this,” Hanson said. “It means so much for us to do this.”
This special group of “cowboys and cowgirls,” some in wheelchairs, will have an opportunity to ride, rope, and rodeo. “We do this because everybody gets a chance to enjoy the fair,” said Sidney Grisham, past president of the Walker County Fair Association (1980-82).
6:00 p.m. – Jessica and Timmy take advantage of some family time by taking their two little children out for a day at the carnival. “We realize that our kids are just like everyone else’s,” said Jessica. “They like to ride the rides, eat the food (especially the sweet pretzels), and enjoy the magic show.”
7:00 p.m. – The weather begins to change again. This time temperatures dip into the upper 60s; however, the tickets booths are still full. Many are seen walking around with large turkey legs and cotton candy, all washed down with Jessica’s homemade lemonade.
Timmy makes another check of the generator. “All’s well,” he said. “Right voltage, right temperature and right oil pressure.”
8:00 p.m. – The “little city” is filled almost to capacity. More than 2,000 people have turned out thus far for the Walker County Fair and Rodeo. As the night lights illuminate the carnival atmosphere, everything appears to be back on “cruise control.”
9:00 p.m. – Everything is in full swing. GoldStar employees make frequent safety checks and also restock vendors’ food supplies.
11:30 p.m. – The “little city” closes for the night. All tickets are turned in. All rides are powered down. A crew is assigned to conduct final clean up. Final inspections are done on all rides.
12:30 a.m. – Jessica and Timmy finish the night’s receipts. “Things picked up after the rain stopped. I think that made the crowd a bit slimmer than usual,” Jessica said. “But all in all, it was still a very good evening. I think we’re on par for another great year with the Walker County Fair.”