COOKEVILLE — People are more likely to remember the carnival rides or the candied apples over any people they may meet at the fair. The faces change every so often, as do the rides, but some things are constant: the husband-and-wife team of Jerry and Joanna Geren, who bring the fair to town every year; their adorable Dashchund Minnie, with her sparkly, monogrammed collar; and Joanna’s “traveling garden,” pots of flowers and vegetables that line the walkway to the Gerens’ office trailer in the middle of the Putnam County Fairgrounds.
Geren Rides is a family business in every way. The family’s affiliation with the midway began when Jerry’s father ran away from home many years ago. “He joined the carnival,” Jerry said. “A lady that had a food booth more or less took him in, fed him and gave him a place to sleep, and he did whatever it took to make ends meet.”
For years, the business has been run by Jerry and his wife, who was a dental assistant before she married her husband more than 50 years ago. “My parents said, ‘Uh-oh!’” said Joanna when asked of her parents’ reaction to marrying a midway man. “Really, they just wanted me to be happy.” “I told her, ‘We aren’t going to be like normal people, where I go one way and you go the other and we meet up later. We are going to be around each other 24 hours a day,’” Jerry said.
“He’s 75 and he’s never had another job but this, so we’ve been around for a long time,” Joanna said. “I’ve looked at him for over 50 years, and I still enjoy looking at him.” The Gerens pride themselves on running a family-friendly business, which she explained is par for the course when your own family is on the road with you the majority of the year. “Midway families tend to be real close. You’re family is right here with you,” Joanna said. “As soon as they’re old enough, they start having responsibilities. They’re taught to work. And traveling from town to town, they tend to learn real quick.”
The Gerens’ son picked up on the business, and then some. He operates his own unit of rides in Coney Island in New York. While his unit is stationary, Jerry, Joanna and their fleet circulate the southeast, primarily Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi. “The best part about the job is the smiles you see on children’s faces,” Joanna said. “And families are out here having a good time together and they make memories that they will have for the rest of their lives. The first time they put their baby on the merry-go-round is a big memory.
“The hardest part is getting it all put together and moving,” she continued. “We started, this year, the last of March and will run until a couple of days before Thanksgiving. We always try to get home to cook a turkey and have a family dinner. But sometimes, when we’re on the road, we’ll go out.”
At each stop, Joanna pulls out her barrage of flowerpots, some of which house tomato plants and hibiscus flowers. (Status: The flowers aren’t blooming like they were last year. Probably the weather…)
“We like to make it as close to home, as normal as possible,” she said. “We can’t grill out or have a swimming pool, but we like to keep it as close to home as possible.”
From November to March, the Gerens return to their home base of Valdosta, Ga., but there is no real down time — a lot of that time is spent in ride repair and maintenance.
“Each city is different, and we really enjoy going to all of the places,” Joanna said. “We’ve met a lot of people, met a lot of children, and now their children are riding our rides.” And the Gerens have learned over the years that, in order to run a fun, clean, safe fair, they have to have friendly, accountable workers to ensure those positive memories. “The family-friendly (aspect) is the people we have around us,” Joanna said. “We strive to show everyone a good time when they come out here. We’ve had a lot of compliments over the years of our employees, how they’re very friendly and courteous.”
After the Putnam County Fair ends on Aug. 15, the Gerens’ next stop is Louisville, Ky., for the Kentucky State Fair. It takes them a few days to set up the rides, food stands and game booths at each stop before the public has access to the park.
So, after years in the business, what have they discovered about their patrons? What are the most popular rides? “It depends on the age. The Himalayah is really popular among the teenagers, and the merry-go-round is an old-time favorite,” Joanna said. “In the age group maybe 10 to 12, 13, they tend to like the bumper cars. And of course, (there are) some of the rides the little ones can ride. We really have more rides out here this year than we’ve had in the past, and I think it’s going to be a really good fair this year. We just invite everyone to come to the fair and make some good memories!”
The Putnam County Fair will run at the Putnam County Fairgrounds off of Veterans Drive until Aug. 15.