Shaw and Sons still a carnival favorite after 64 years
In the 1940s, Leroy Shaw wanted his son to have a good backyard toy he could share with the neighbors.
Armed with the skills of a motorcycle mechanic and sheet metal worker, he built a small train that could hold 24 kids.
More than 60 years later, Shaw and Sons Amusements still has the train, a humble reminder of the ride that sparked a family business. In its 64th year and third generation, the company has about 25 rides and 30 games.
“My son and daughter have been in it since high school and my nephew, and now my grandsons are coming along,” said Ralph Shaw, Leroy’s son and president of the Severn company, who will be 71 next month. “I still enjoy going to work every day and being around my family.”
Ralph’s son and daughter, Roy and Terrie, and his nephew, Bob, run the show these days. During the carnival season, at its peak right now, Shaw and Sons does 30 to 35 carnivals, sometimes with two or three happening at one time. Along with Jolly Rides in Annapolis, it’s one of two family-run amusement ride businesses in the county.
“We all have a good working relationship with one another,” said Roy, president of the Maryland State Showmen’s Association.
“Nobody steps on anybody’s toes. We all look out for one another.”
Roy, Terrie and Bob, who range from 42 to 52 years old, have worked in the business all their lives. Each went to college for business administration. While they share business responsibilities, Roy works with transportation and concessions, Terrie helps manage the office and heads up maintenance and parts and Bob directs nighttime operations at the carnivals.
“I’ve been out here since I was a kid,” Bob said. “When I was in high school, most of my friends worked here.”
At the age of 8, he was blowing up balloons and picking up ping pong balls at a goldfish game. Terrie was cleaning fish bowls and bagging goldfish at 10, while Roy got his start setting up the slide at 12.
“We were born into it,” Roy said. “We grew up out here.”
The company’s season starts in March and goes until Thanksgiving. About 40 employees drive the same number of tractor trailers, and sometimes the company hires up to 20 independent truck drivers for bigger shows.
Its schedule includes the Brooklyn Park Recreation Council, the Lakeshore Volunteer Fire Department, Annapolis Knight of Columbus, Woodland Beach Volunteer Fire and the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department.
A carnival can be broken down and set up within 24 hours. The average show can be broken down in about four to five hours and each ride is trailer-mounted, making transport an easy task.
In the earlier days, when each piece would have to be taken apart and packed up on a trailer, breakdowns could last 15 hours. These days, trailer-mounted rides basically pack up into themselves.
“We used to take eight rides, and we can do 35 in the same amount of time because of trailer mounts,” Ralph said.
In the company’s off season, it shrinks to 10 employees. But it’s hardly quiet. They’re at their shop everyday doing repairs, replacing parts and are often out at safety seminars and conventions.
“(We’re) just trying to stay on top of things in the industry,” Roy said. “Everybody thinks it’s all fun and games, but the carnival business is an actual business.”
Roy said the numbers are right on par with any other year, although games are suffering a bit. Because people don’t want to travel too far for entertainment, carnivals still thrive.
Over the years, Shaw and Sons has earned itself a reputation as an honest, safe company.
Richard Snader, a member of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, has worked with Shaw and Sons since he’s been with the department, about 36 years. He said his fire company has been working the Shaws since it’s had a carnival, long before his time.
“That is a family business that makes a very significant effort when they’re working with a client to make sure that their rides are operated in a safe and professional manner,” he said. “They are not willing to accept anything less out of the people that work for them and work around them.”
Mike Jones, who serves on the Maryland amusement ride safety advisory board with Ralph, said Shaw and Sons is known for a safe operation and switching it up with new rides quite often.
“He’s very well appreciated throughout the industry; throughout the country,” Jones said. “They run a good, clean operation.”
The board, where Ralph has been a member since its inception, has been a model for other states in amusement ride safety.
“We were one of the first states that instituted that kind of program and a lot of other states have followed suit,” he said. “But we were the first and we’re still the best.”
The board instituted policies like requiring a state inspector to check rides every time they are set up or moved, which Ralph says cut down the accident rate significantly.
“It got rid of a lot of what I call fly-by-night operators,” he said. “They’d flop their junk down and stuff was falling apart. We don’t have that anymore.”
In Ralph’s capacity as a board member, he helped fire departments that could barely afford to operate the one or two rides they owned when insurance regulations increased costs. Ralph temporarily bought the rides and took on the costs until they went down, something Snader is still in awe of.
“He picked up all the insurance on that equipment until they were able to get the legislation corrected,” Snader said. “That’s the kind of family the Shaws is.”