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Life In the Carnival Is a Non Stop Ride

Updated: Jun 2

By Elisha Nelson, Elise Sandlin and Georgia Smith MTSU Seigenthaler News Service

The glowing lights of the Ferris wheel excite people as they approach the carnival. Photo by Georgia Smith

At the age of 7, Amanda Stine began working her first carnival game. By then she was already immersed in carnie life because her parents ran carnivals, traveling across the country each year. She followed in their footsteps. “I had so many family members in this business, and I had so many mentors. It was easy for me to expand quickly,” said Stine, who recently spent a week in Winchester when the carnival came to town.

Shelby Carlton manages the carnival with Stine and specializes in food preparation. Her family has been involved with carnival life for five generations and has 52 family members still working in the business. She grew up surrounded by the bustle of carnival life and fell in love with the job, as hard as it often is.

But the life has its advantages, too. She met her husband on the circuit.

Stine and Carlton’s childhood memories include ever-present crowds, the glow of neon lights and a whole lot of funnel cakes. When they were teenagers, they started to manage various aspects of the business and haven’t left for a nine to five job. Each year they travel to stopovers in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee, and manage their own apparel stores in Pigeon Forge when they aren’t working at the carnival.

Young boy rides on his dad’s shoulders while holding his drink at the High on the Hog carnival. Photo by Georgia Smith

What brought them to Winchester was the High on the Hog Festival. Through the week thousands came out for a night of tummy-twisting rides and sugary treats.

For many people the sight of an illuminated Ferris wheel brings forth butterflies in one’s stomach and the other sights and sounds on the midway – the peals of laughter, the ebullient yelling and the mock screams from those on the fast rides – bring back memories of earlier carnival visits. There’s also the rumbling of one’s stomach after surviving the gravity-defying Ring of Fire ride. And the rumbling of another kind after consuming too many funnel cakes, and fried Oreos washed down with a large lemonade. It is this satisfying melding of simulated chaos and treating yourself to a treat that is the draw.

Carnivals are a great place for family fun and for giggly, jejune middle school students to join their friends for some excitement. While standing in line, waiting for the double-car Avalanche ride, you can hear them gossiping about their peers and rambling about who will sit next to whom. It is an important time in people’s lives; a time that will make lasting memories.

Another important aspect of carnival life is the fusion of cultures. Most of the people who work for Stine come from Mexico, but she has employed people from all over the world.

“It’s interesting meeting people because we have employees from Mexico, South Africa and sometimes even Turkey and Russia. It wasn't like that when I was a child. It was all Americans. But now I would say meeting them is one of my favorite things,” said Stine.

It can be difficult for workers to operate efficiently in the beginning due to the language barrier. Stine likes to assign them to the food trucks, taking orders and money from the crowd, which aids them in their English-speaking abilities. At first, they are a bit nervous about the job, but soon start navigating through conversations more smoothly.

Blas Vasquez has been a part of the carnie family for nine years and running. After a busy night of tending to the fry stand, Vasquez and the rest of the crew wind down by sharing a potluck of dishes that they would eat at home, from rice and beans to carne asada. Throughout the long carnival season, workers are unable to celebrate their birthdays at home, but they are able to bring the Mexican traditions with them of tossing batter and flour on each other on their special day. He doesn’t like leaving his four daughters back at home but enjoys the people that visit him every night.

“The people of Winchester have always been kind to me, they’re really nice people,” said Vasquez.

Vasquez’s sister makes the trip from Mexico to Tennessee as well, where she works for Stine and Carlton’s apparel store in the carnival’s offseason. Occasionally he makes the trip to Pigeon Forge to see her and to help out Stine and Carlton with their business, and travels back to Mexico to be with his family, where he enjoys watching Barcelona soccer games and playing with his 3-year-old daughter. For Vasquez, it is year-round work, but well worth it to provide for his family.

Stine said she has picked up many new qualities and practices that she never would have acquired without being involved with different cultures. She now eats different foods, can speak broken Spanish, and overall has a better understanding for cultures besides her own. It is a life changing experience.

Stine recommends people to come help at her carnivals because it is a great opportunity to gain many skills. Working with people that are not like you in a fast-paced environment forces a person to work in more challenging conditions, which will build critical thinking and communication skills.

“If you have a teenager, encourage them to go work at your county fair for the week and make them stick to it the whole week. It'll be good for them,” said Stine.

Carnivals are much more than loud music and greasy food. It offers knowledge about different cultures, good work ethics, and a greater comprehension of the world around us. Stine and her employees will continue to provide entertainment and break cultural stereotypes to people all around the southeast.

During their off-season, Carlton misses the routine of her work. “When I stay at the stores in the summer a lot, I can’t wait to hear the noise, the generator that runs our stuff. Where’s that noise? I got to hear it, smell it. It’s a harder life, but it’s a good life.”

A funnel cake being freshly made in hot oil to later be delivered to customers. Photo by Georgia Smith

Elisha Nelson, Elise Sandlin and Georgia Ann Smith are three of nine Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who recently spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing stories for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.

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