By Patricia Beech
When Bess Brinkley, one of the owners of Brinkley Entertainment, Inc., agreed to provide amusement rides for the Adams County Fair, she had no plans to further expand her North Carolina-based company’s carnival season in Ohio.
“I don’t know what made me say yes,” she says. “When Liz Lafferty asked us, something just felt right about it.”
Her husband, and business partner, Bobby did not agree.
He told Bess, “You don’t know what you’ve done!”
“He’d been up here about 15 years ago with a couple rides and he was very unimpressed with the fair,” says Brinkley. “He kept saying ‘you don’t know what you’ve done, that fair was on its way down 15 years ago, it’s got to be at the bottom by now – you just don’t know what you’ve done’.”
But Brinkley, a fourth generation carnival worker, trusted her instincts and her years of experience.
“When my husband brought the first ride up to Adams County, he called me, and I told Liz I almost didn’t take the call because I knew where he was, and I just didn’t want to hear it,” Brinkley says. “But, I answered it and he said, ‘I don’t know what happened up here, but this is like a completely different fair. These grounds are beautiful, the buildings are beautiful, I know I’m at the same fair, but it’s done a 180 degree turn’ – he was excited, and we’ve really enjoyed coming up here ever since.”
Sitting in her tiny office in the back room of the carnival’s ticket-sales booth, Brinkley proudly says, “I am the fourth generation of my family to do this job”.
She picks up a photograph from the large, tidy desk that takes up most of the space in the room.
“This is my mother many years ago,” she says turning the framed picture around, “It was her grandfather who started the family business when he opened a food booth at the local county fair in Eden, North Carolina back in the 1800’s.”
While carnivals have their roots in medieval agricultural fairs and festivals, the traveling carnivals that we all know today did not become a part of the American landscape until after the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which so captured the imaginations of people across America and the world that it paved the way for America’s traveling carnivals. By the turn of the 20th century there were 17 traveling carnivals in the United States. By 1930 that number had soared to almost 300.
Brinkley says, in the beginning, it was hard times and unexpected misfortunes that drew her family into the carnival business.
Her great-grandmother lived in the mountains of North Carolina, but when her parents’ home was destroyed by fire, they were unable to feed their children so they put them on a train and sent them to work at the Fieldcrest Cotton Mill in Eden.
“My great-grandmother went to work in the mill when she was seven years old,” Brinkley says. “She worked and saved, and she lived in a boarding house which she eventually bought. So by the time she was in her twenties she had her own business, she had her own money, and she would always say she was going to stay single until she met a man so good looking she couldn’t turn him down.”
That man, it turns out, also worked for Fieldcrest Mill as a recruiter.
“My great-grandfather always dressed up in a nice suit and rode the train to try to get people to come to Fieldcrest to work,” Brinkley says. “My great-grandmother was in her mid-twenties when she married him – that was considered old back then, but they still managed to have nine children.”
Brinkley’s grandfather, Woody McBride, who she lovingly calls “Papa”, was one of those nine children.
After the 1929 stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, Brinkley’s family, like most other American families, struggled to survive.
“During the depression when things were so rough, my grandfather’s older brother left to work in a carnival,” she says. “He sent a postcard home saying, he’d found heaven – ‘You don’t get money,’ he wrote, ‘but you do get to eat every day’.”
Brinkley’s grandfather decided to seize the opportunity.
“Papa and one of the other boys met up with the carnival in Danville, Virginia,” she says. “And the three of them stayed in the business for the rest of their lives.”
When Woody McBride returned home to North Carolina 1932, he still had a taste of the carnival in his blood, but he’d decided it was time to settle down.
“He had worked for other people and decided food was what he liked,” says Brinkley.
McBride founded the family’s carnival food business that same year, and set up his first stand at the Rockingham County Fair, though he was also making the rounds to as many other fairs as he could manage, including the Dixie Classic.
Over time, McBride Foods became the largest independent concessionaire at the Dixie Classic and the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh.
His only daughter, Bess’s mother, Bettie joined him in the business and added the North Carolina Mountain State Fair to their festival route. Today, the family has the most real estate in all the large fairs across North Carolina.
However, Brinkley says when she was young she had no plans to continue her family’s carnival tradition.
She attended Carolina University and earned a journalism degree that she hoped would lead to a career in sports broadcasting.
Even though the Title IX Education Amendment of 1972 had passed making sexual discrimination in the U.S. unlawful, Brinkley says she found the “glass ceiling” was still firmly in place.
“I was repeatedly offered a lot of weather-girl jobs, and I found out real quick I had a degree I couldn’t use,” she says. “So, I decided to go to law school.”
She was visiting the Syracuse University Law School when she had a change of heart.
“Papa was working at a nearby fair so I rode out to see him and he said, ‘I don’t know how it went at the college, you can tell me later after we close, but right now, I’m short a grill man’, so I started working the grill for him, and by the end of the night, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to law school.”
Brinkley says her grandfather McBride was the greatest influence during her early years, even introducing her to her future husband.
“It wasn’t love at first sight,” she says. “I had suitors who were more interested in my Papa than they were in me, but Bobby was very much like my grandfather. He doesn’t say a lot, but when he does, he means what he says – it’s bankable, he has that kind of integrity. Of course, my Grandfather was very happy about it. He said “Bess has married me an electrician.”
When Bess and Bobby came on board the family business, they expanded the company’s corporate event catering, and Bobby completely renovated the company’s equipment into a modern and well-maintained fleet of concessions.
But, they were determined to start their own traveling carnival.
They purchased three amusement rides, then started saving for more. Today they have a fleet of 20 rides in addition to their game and food concessions.
Brinkley is a past president of the North Carolina Association of Fairs & Events, and one of the association’s first class of certified event planners. Bob Brinkley is a certified ride inspector through the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials (NAARSO) and serves on the advisory board to North Carolina Department of Labor Commissioner, Cheri Berry.
Additionally, both the Brinkleys and their company have received the Vendor of the Year Award on numerous occasions
The powerful work ethic it took to build a successful carnival business, Brinkley says was seeded by her grandfather McBride.
“Papa would always tell my mother, ‘work like a man, and act like a lady’ – that’s what he heard his mother tell her daughters, and that’s what I was taught as well.”
She keeps her staff working year round at festivals and fairs across the eastern United States.
Because they work, live, and travel together, Brinkley’s “carnies” share a strong bond – they consider themselves family.
She says her employees take distinct pride in what they do—and she laments her inability to compensate them accordingly.
“I pay them the best that I can, but I certainly don’t pay them what they’re worth,” she says. “ I couldn’t stay in business if I did that and still charge the public what they can afford to pay. It’s a constant balancing act where that’s concerned.”
She says her greatest concern running a carnival is for the safety of the riders.
“Safety is the life of this company,” she says. “God forbid something happens to someone, particularly a child, I don’t know that we would ever personally be able to survive that, it would finish us emotionally and on every other level – that’s the end all, period.”
Needless to say, the Brinkleys are extremely diligent about inspecting their rides and adhering to the standards set by the state they’re currently working in.
Asked what she loves about her work, Bess says, “Some days – nothing, most days – almost everything. I will say it’s never boring.”
Asked what she doesn’t like, her response is immediate.
“People treat my employees like their second class citizens,” she says. “ I don’t appreciate the stereotype of the carnival worker.”
To most people, the life of a carnival worker is one that seems shrouded in mystery. While fairgoers are drawn to the lights of the midway, they are not equally drawn to the people who work in the shadows but instead often see them in a negative light, labeling them as dirty, untrustworthy, or even criminal.
Brinkley says that such inaccurate stereotypes stigmatize the workers and open them up to discrimination from those around them. Some discriminate with comments, while others just tend to avoid the carnival workers, not wanting to associate with them.
“It amazes me that people have this view, they look down on the ‘carnie’ but at the same time, they put their children in our care,” she says. “Isn’t that fascinating?”
According to author Ruby Jenkins, the public’s sense of separation from carnival workers “constructs part of the magical illusion that carnivals have.”
“If carnivals did not have the strange allure of the fantastic, the otherworldly and perhaps even of the sleazy, they would not be a carnival,” she writes. “Carnies have taken what excluded them from society and used it to form their own society.”
Brinkley says working as a “carnie” is not a last resort.
“This work is what we choose, it isn’t our only option,” she says. “Our employees enjoy going to different places instead of being inside a mill or any place where the work is repetitive and uninteresting. In a carnival there may not be a different experience every day, but there’s always that possibility and I think that’s what attracts my people to this type of work.”
Brinkley says that having such a narrow view of others is something carnival workers can’t afford.
“To work in a carnival, you have to enjoy people, and you absolutely must like children,” she says. “Almost nightly someone will say, ‘let me tell you about this kid today’ or ‘let me tell you about something a child said’.”
Despite the carnie image people hold, the Brinkleys strive to run their business with integrity.
“There are more people like me, than unlike me, I am not a rarity in this business in that respect,” she says. “I think that people who succeed in any career must have principals and integrity, but as a company, a successful company, I know very few people who own carnivals that survive more than five years if they’re only in it for the money, or are just doing it to run away from doing something else they believe is too hard or too complicated, or too expensive.”
She says she has no regrets.
“I’ve had a very blessed and fortunate life,” she says. “We weren’t able to have children of our own, but some of the people who work for us have been here for generations – their kids grew up around the show, and now they’re grandchildren are growing up with it. They’ve become our family.”
Brinkley is devoted to her adopted carnie family. She even hired a full-time kindergarten teacher to travel with the show so the children wouldn’t fall behind in school.
“The kids have zero idea that we’re not blood-related,” she says. “They have their actual grandparents, and then they have us, MeMe and Bobo, and they have absolutely no clue that we’re anything else.”
Brinkley believes it’s critical that adults help children discover “a sense of their own self-worth as people, especially young girls”.
She returns to her grandfather’s sage advice – “Work like a man, but act like a lady”
“Acting like a lady isn’t about petticoats and makeup, it’s about knowing your own value as a woman, and I think that’s something that many young girls today aren’t getting enough of,” she says. “If you don’t start soon enough giving them their own sense of worth, then they’ll never understand what that truly means, but if you do, then you will see them, as we say in the south, sallying forth, and doing a fine job of it.”