The family behind the carnival rides at the Shiawassee County Fair knows the business well – they have been involved with it for more than 150 years.
Now owned by the fifth generation, Skerbeck Brothers Shows has roots all the way back to 1857 when the Frank Skerbeck family decided to trade their linen factory for a circus in Aussig, Bohemia.
After some time, Frank’s son – also named Frank – ended up touring as a circus performer in America during the 1870s with P.T. Barnum’s show before immigrating in 1880 and settling in Wisconsin. He started a circus with his family there in 1882, touring the Midwest in the 1880-90s.
Frank Skerbeck attended the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, where he saw a new innovation, the Ferris Wheel.
“This tremendous mechanical invention directly led to the birth of the American carnival,” according to family history.
Because of what he saw, Frank bought his first merry-go-round in 1897 and began to transition his business from the traditional circus to a carnival.
Frank’s son Joe Skerbeck operated wild west shows, medicine shows and traveling attractions of all types. By 1908, he joined his father in the carnival business.
Joe’s children, Eugene and Pauline Skerbeck, took over the ownership of the show in 1952, and operated it as Skerbeck Amusement Company until 1971.
Eugene’s sons, Joe and Bill Skerbeck, took over ownership in 1972 and have operated it as Skerbeck Brothers Shows since that time.
“Since 1972, the show has more than doubled in size through acquisition and growth,” family history says.
Today, the carnival has two units that travel mostly across Michigan, sometimes venturing into northern Indiana. Joe Skerbeck heads one up, and Bill Skerbeck and his wife C.J. are in charge of the other, which will be traveling to the Shiawassee County Fairgrounds.
The sixth generation is already involved in the show and on the road. Bill’s son Dustin Skerbeck, 23, graduated from Northern Michigan University and is now the maintenance and rides supervisor. Dustin’s wife, Cindy, is the food concessions manager. Bill’s daughter, Carly Skerbeck, 21, attends NMU but works in game concessions during the summer.
Bill’s mother, Arlene Altenburg, and her sister-in-law, Cheryl Kedrowicz, both work in the office at the carnival. Arlene, now 80, has been on the road with the show since she was 14 years old.
Arlene’s brother Norb Kedrowicz also is the safety manager for the carnival group traveling to Shiawassee County.
Between both touring units, the family has at least 16 members involved in the business at this time.
Most of the family involved in the show spends about six months of the year on the road and the other six months in the Escanaba area, performing maintenance and preparing for the next carnival season.
Joe Skerbeck’s daughter-in-law, Sonja Skerbeck, said it has been interesting to see the business grow and develop over the years.
“We’ve seen the organization increase substantially in terms of the events that we do each year,” she said.
Weather plays a big role in how successful each event is.
“It’s show business,” she said. “You hope for the best, that’s not always how it goes. … But, we’ve been managing to pull it off for the last 150 years.”
And the constant change in scenery keeps things going.
“We throw a party for a lot of people every week,” Sonja said.