Patrick Carlson is a big burly fellow of 49 years. He’s well liked by friends and family, who know him affectionately as “Bear.” He likes children, which is a good thing, because he has seven of his own.
There’s just one other thing: he’s a carnie.
For many, the word brings up images of con artists hustling children and adults alike out of a hard-earned dollar. People think of them as travelers without proper homes living out of tents, possibly in need of a shower.
As a veteran of more than 20 years as a carnival worker, Carlson has heard it all before.
“People say we’re robbing them,” he said, as he manned the slide at the Kandiyohi County Fair in Willmar on Friday. “I say, ‘no, you’re giving us your money.’ Besides, they’re getting something in return. They get the enjoyment of it.”
Carlson is one of many carnival workers who moved into town on Tuesday. They came in out of Rock City in a caravan of trucks towing trailers packed with all the amusements of the midway: the ferris wheel, the tic tac toe games, the space-age Gravitron.
Overseeing the whole operation is 3rd generation carnival worker John Magel, the owner of Magel Carnival Midways. His grandfather, Leo Magel, started a concession stand on Harriet Island in the 20s. Just two generations and 80 years later, and his grandson John Magel is the lord of the midway.
You wouldn’t know it to look at him. On Friday, he was deep frying corn dogs at the Carousel Grill on the midway with his wife Darleyne. But the two, along with their sons, John Jr. and Justin, own all the rides and games of chance currently at the fair. They employ dozens of workers to man them. For six months out of the year, they all live on the road –– traveling to fairs around Minnesota.
“We’re all kind of a big family,” said Darleyne.
In some cases, that’s literal. A lot of the workers are members of the Magel clan. Nearly all are from the area around Pine City north of the Twin Cities.
John said that the reputation of carnival workers as troublemakers isn’t representative of the workers who travel with him.
“This is a pretty good crew we have working for us, so we don’t have much trouble,” he said.
That said, there are still the occasional problems with noise or drinking violations. That can’t be helped, he said.
“They just work for us,” he said. “We can’t control how they act.”
Many of the workers have been with them for many years, said John. People like Patrick “Bear” Carlson and Todd LaPointe, who came out to operate the tilt-a-whirl when he was just 15. Today, he’s 45, and still travels with the Magels every summer. This year at the Kandiyohi County Fair, he’s operating the spider ride.
LaPointe, who lives in Northeast Minneapolis, said that living on the road for half the year can be tough on the mind and spirit. It doesn’t pay well, either. The payoff, he said, comes in the enjoyment of the kids who go on the rides and play the games.
“We’re all natural born entertainers,” he said. “If you’re not, you shouldn’t be out here.”
And LaPointe takes his job as entertainer very seriously. He’s a member of an association of carnival workers based out of Florida called the Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association, which meets at banquets throughout the year, swapping stories and sharing ideas on how to better entertain and sell to carnival visitors.
It’s all part of the job, he said. Not unlike that of a salesman, or any other occupation for that matter.
“We’re regular people,” he said. “Just like everybody else.”