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Nebraska carnival company struggles to survive

Last Updated Jul 31, 2020 at 10:18 pm PDT

LINCOLN, Neb. — Hey, buddy. Step right up.

And think about how Mike Lynch should be spending this carnival season.

If this were a normal year — like the first five years he owned D.C. Lynch Shows, or the 39 years his parents owned it before him, or the 18 years his grandparents ran it before that — he wouldn’t be frying food in a mall parking lot.

Instead, his caravan would have rolled out of Chapman in late April. The eight semis carrying the Zipper, Cliffhanger, Ferris wheel, Tilt-A-Whirl and another dozen rides. The trucks hauling the games and pulling the trailers that serve snow cones, funnel cakes and deep-fried Oreos. The campers that provide quarters for a dozen family members and more than twice as many employees.

The traditional first stop for this parade of nearly 40 trucks and trailers? Grand Island, just 10 miles west down U.S. 30. The last, in September? Humboldt’s Richardson County Fair.

And in between? Thirty more small towns and cities in Nebraska and South Dakota.

Pull in, set up, work hard, tear down, load up and move on. Week after week after week.

“When we leave home, we shut our houses down,” Lynch told the Lincoln Journal Star. “We’re going all summer.”

They’ve found a rhythm in their routine, returning to some of the same fairgrounds for decades.

In Spalding, they’re a reason people circle their calendars. The Greeley County Fair Board president starts getting quizzed a year in advance for the dates of the next fair because so many former residents plan family vacations around them.

The board can’t afford popular performers, said Dan McManaman, so D.C. Lynch is always the star of the show.

“The carnival is what we rely on to bring people in. It makes our fair. If we didn’t have that carnival, we wouldn’t have that much going on.”

But the caravan provides more than the entertainment. The company buys fuel for its trucks and for the generators that keep the rides rolling. Its employees stock up at grocery stores and spend money at restaurants and bars.

“They get a lot of revenue from us when we come to town,” Lynch said. “We try to buy everything local.”

And it serves steady summer work to seasonal employees who prefer life on the road.

Like Wes Iiams, who as a young man tried working at the Buick and Olds dealership in Columbus, and then on the factory floor at Behlen.

“But I didn’t get along well with regular work, I guess,” he said.

He joined the carnival in 1975, and they put him to work setting up and tearing down the merry-go-round, and driving a truck carrying kiddie rides. He worked his way up to head mechanic, and now he’s responsible for the generators and wiring.

The life isn’t for everyone, he said. He learned to like working outside, finding himself in a new town, surrounded by new people, every few days.

“You’ve got to have a feeling for it. And I guess I had it.”

But the 65-year-old was home last week, and the weeks and months before that, laid off from the carnival after 45 years. He decided not to look for another job.

“I haven’t been home for a summer since 1975,” he said. “There’s a few things I need to catch up on around here.”

Lynch had tried to salvage the season as the coronavirus spread, but directed health measures effectively put them out of business as usual.

“Up to June, we were trying to postpone and postpone. We finally made the call we weren’t going to do it the first week of July. We weren’t going to do anything.”

He’d already had all of the rides — including the new Crazy Dance from the Czech Republic, which cost hundreds of thousands — unpacked, assembled and inspected, ready to go on the road.

“But we had to tear it all down and put it away.”

This was a first for his family. His grandparents, Roy and Louise Harvey, had launched the company in 1957 with a merry-go-round and a few homemade rides. They’d joined up with another carnival company before branching out on their own.

“Back then, it was a little different,” Lynch said. “Everybody did what they could to get started. It doesn’t work that way now; everything has to be tested and engineered.”

His father and mother, Dennis and JoAnne, took over in 1975, and Mike Lynch — who’d grown up to summers on the road, the smells of frying food, the soundtrack of screams and generators — became the owner in 2014.

“It’s the only thing I’ve known my whole life,” he said.

This year was different. They didn’t rehire the 20 to 30 employees they normally needed, but his family did what it’s always done — it hit the road.

They call it Carnival Eats, and they’re trying to hit the fairs and festivals they’d already booked, serving funnel cakes, turkey legs, corn dogs, cotton candy, caramel apples and cold drinks.

“We’ve been taking our little food trailers around, trying to get a little bit of money to pay off expenses,” he said.

They parked four food trucks in the Kearney mall parking lot this weekend, and they’ll take them to Spalding in early August, as they have been for more than a half-century.

McManaman, of the Greeley County Fair Board, will be happy to have them, even without the rides.

“I didn’t want to break the tradition. It’s been a long run and I said, ‘I don’t want to break that run.’”

D.C. Lynch is established enough that it can weather a mostly idle year, Lynch said. But he worries about newer, debt-laden companies.

“It’s going to put a lot of carnivals out of business,” he said. “There will be a lot less carnivals around the nation next year.”

The president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association hadn’t yet heard of any carnivals calling it quits, but Greg Chiecko has heard of plenty struggling to survive.

Carnivals in warm-weather states were busy in January and February, he said, but the industry has essentially shut down for the season nationwide.

Some companies, like D.C. Lynch, are taking their food trucks to the people, and others are drawing the people to their food trucks by hosting drive-in movies.

“They’re doing anything and everything they can to try to make some money,” Chiecko said.

This year’s food truck tour has been hit and miss, Lynch said. They’ve had some good days.

But he’s banking on a turnaround next season. He wants to finally unveil the Crazy Dance to the public, put people like Iiams back to work, return to the familiar rhythm of his summers.

“I hope to have a banner year,” he said. “I hope everybody’s going to be ready to hit the carnival.”

Peter Salter, The Associated Press