There’s no place like a county fair to spend a carefree summer day, spinning on a carnival ride or watching a magic show.
For the people behind the fun, it’s more than just seasonal shiftwork. Many performers and carnival workers devote their whole year to the rides and shows most people just see once a year.
“When people say they’re going back to a real job, this is as real as it gets,” said Jim Dowis, a third-generation carnival worker who does maintenance work for Davis Amusement Cascadia, the company running the carnival at the Umatilla County Fair. “We work hard out here.”
Davis Amusement is one of several carnival ride companies across the U.S. that travels around on the county fair and festival circuit.
Dowis has been working at carnivals since 1990, and with Davis Amusement since 1998. During his career, he has operated, set up, or fixed every ride at the carnival.
They start the season in Las Vegas in February and move north as the weather heats up. They are at fairs in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho until Labor Day, and then head back to Nevada.
Once the weather turns cold, many of the carnival workers will spend the time working on the rides — from painting to technical maintenance.
“Safety is always the first priority,” Dowis said. “We’re not here to hurt people. We’re here to make money, but safety is our number one priority.”
The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is a time for some carnival workers to find other jobs, or just go home.
“A few of us will stay here and work,” he said. “Some will go work at Walmart, some will sell Christmas trees. And sometimes they just go home and visit with family.”
For some, a temporary job has turned into a lifestyle.
Zoe Jones, who runs the balloon game for the carnival, said she was a college student at Boise State University when she became friends with the daughter of the Davis Amusement owners.
“She introduced me to this life,” she said. “I get to travel, meet an entire town, and the goal for the entire week is just to have as much fun as possible with the town.”
Jones said there are many curiosities about carnival life that people don’t consider.
“Did you know we all live in these tiny bunkhouses?” she said. “I never thought about carnivals before this.”
Dowis said while some aspects of carnival life have endured, the business is changing.
“We do safety meetings, comply with the state,” said Dowis. “We’re pretty close to being just like McDonald’s.”
He said that includes random drug tests and suspensions for violations.
“The days of long-haired, not tucking your shirt in are going by the wayside for everybody,” he said. “It’s not like it was 20 years ago.”
On the stage
Working with birds is a year-round affair for Chris Biro, who performs the “Pirate’s Parrot Show.”
A staple at county fairs since 1991, Biro developed what was initially an interest and a hobby with his pet macaw into a career.
At one of his four daily shows at this year’s fair, he spends some time educating his audience about the birds before they impress the crowd with tricks.
“Parrots are one of the few species of birds that use their feet to pick things up,” he said. “And, they can move both the upper and lower parts of their jaws.”
He devotes about 16 full weeks each year to traveling to different county fairs, but the rest of the year he does bird trainings, both at home and abroad, as well as teaching animal training classes online.
“This year, the macaws are flying better,” he said.
He also does conservation work with birds, and is currently preparing to travel to Honduras after fair season ends to work on a macaw breeding and release project.
“There’s the conservation side, the fair side, and the free flight side of it,” Biro said. “I stay very busy.”
“We’re all small business owners,” said Louie Foxx, a magician performing at this year’s fair. “We all have emails to return, receipts to log.”
Foxx performs all year, with fairs and festivals packing his busy season, May to October.
“In the offseason I perform at all sorts of venues,” he said. “Corporate events, arts schools, comedy clubs. I’m fortunate to be fairly busy year-round.”
Foxx said the nomadic lifestyle is hard on some.
“Some people will pop in for a year, and say, that’s not for me,” he said. “It takes a very versatile sort of performer.”
But Foxx enjoys most aspects of the job.
“At the end of the day, I’m hanging out in the sun and there’s a bunch of us that all know each other,” Foxx said. “But we don’t have the same routes. So next week I’ll go to the next fair, and see a whole new crew of people I know.”
In chatting with audience members between shows, Foxx said he’s been introduced to lots of things he’d never see otherwise.
“People will send me to crazy restaurants, or say, right outside of town is the world’s largest ball of twine,” he said. “I like to come to different communities and experience your community.”