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Thanksgiving As A Carny

Have you ever wondered what the holidays are like when you work for a carnival? Thanksgiving 2001, I was a carnie. And although I was hundreds of miles away from my family, missing out on the traditions that I had grown to love, this will go down in history as one of my favorite Thanksgivings ever!

I didn’t know what to expect. I had only been a carnie for a few months and this was the first major family-oriented holiday that I had spent with these people. It was also the first that I had spent away from family. Sure, I spent Halloween with this new chosen family of mine, but that was different. I have always seen Halloween as more of a ‘for fun’ holiday. This was one that was actually about something – being thankful for what you have.

The day started out fairly normal. The only exception was that I heard rumors that the bosses were going to feed us before work. We cleaned up, loaded on the bus, and rode to the San Antonio K-Mart parking lot we were working at that week. Some friends and I went into the store for drinks and to look at the neat stuff. I was expecting my first child at the time and was particularly interested in the children’s books and toys.

We went out to see if the food was ready yet. It was not, so my boyfriend and I wondered over to the Ferris Wheel. We got on and ya know what? The silly ride jock who was running the thing just left us there! Up at the top – no way down. It was nice, looking down at the world, enjoying the breeze, being alone with no interruptions. But it also got a little frustrating when I needed the restroom and we saw that they were starting to serve dinner with us up in the air! Someone let us down though just in time to enjoy one of the best Thanksgiving dinners I ever had.

The food… Was good. Can’t compare to what my aunt and grandmother make, but it was the only home-cooked meal we had in months. And the company… It doesn’t get much better than being surrounded by your best friends in a relaxed environment where you are free to enjoy yourself.

After dinner, our day continued as normal. I went to the concession stand where I would spend my day making Cotton Candy as my significant other headed for the bumper cars. Then we spent the rest of our evening bringing smiles to the faces of some of the wonderful people of San Antonio, Texas.

47 Comments

  1. Gwen Tabler on June 4, 2016 at 10:56 PM

    I worked for the Dillard’s, I ran away from home and lied about my age, I was only 16. Said my name was Iesha. Either 89 or 90. I remember standing to close to the road and bill Jr, getting upset. Many of you know they had a sister hit and killed. They always treated me like one of their own. Love them

  2. Debbie on August 16, 2015 at 4:55 PM

    I don’t know if anyone remembers me, but I was only 17 when I met my kids father at Arkansas State Fair who worked the twister and drove trucks for Bill Dillard shortly after that I went to work for them as a ticket seller. The Dillards was the nicest people I ever worked for made me feel like family even though I was only with them for a short time. I remember in Feb 1993 I went to hospital after working 16 hours we were setup in McAllen Tx I was having labor pains and didn’t realize it until doctor told me I was in premature labor and told me that there was only a 50/50 chance of my baby girl or me coming out alive. That was the scariest time of my life and no one knew I was pregnant but my kids dad. Sherry Dillard was even nice enough to give me a surprise baby shower when I got to bring my baby girl home from the hospital. I just want everyone that was there for me back then to know how much I appreciated everything you done for me, especially Sherry Dillard and Billy Dillard for not firing me from my job and being so supportive and understanding. Just so everyone knows my baby girl is 22 years old now and you would never known she was a month premature. If there is anyone that remembers me please feel free to email me sometime at debbiehill1974@yahoo.com would love to hear from any of you. As for my kids father well he turned out to be no good low life who has had nothing to do with his own kids for over 18 years now. I hope to hear from everyone I worked with and work for.

    • Michelle on August 17, 2015 at 2:42 PM

      So glad things turned out well with your daughter and that you had a good carnival experience! Thank you for sharing your story 🙂

  3. Buffi bruce on February 25, 2015 at 1:17 AM

    My mom was in the heart of America shows. Back in 1989 and 1990. That’s how I came about. My father is supposed to still be doing it. I’ve never met him, he ever wanted to be apart of my life.

  4. Christie Raines pennington on August 24, 2014 at 9:17 AM

    Alexa….my dad worked for your grandpa back in 1987…my mom and I travelled with the show that summer. In fact I worked the popper once in a while and the first month or so I babysat you and Amy. I have so many great memories from knowing your family. Francis and shirley were office staff. My dad was safety manager…wes raines. I am sure your uncle Billy would remember him. I have some pics of u and Amy from then. If u would like them pls email me at racinggirl73@sbcglobal.net

  5. Jennifer green on May 12, 2014 at 1:58 AM

    I used to work for carnival Americana in 2003. I started in Loveland Colorado and ended at the Texas state Fair. I was on crutches by that time because of an injury at the previous stop. I had alot of fun and now I’m looking to come back and bring my family with me. Any suggestions on what company to go with when it comes to hiring a fam of 3 with our own Rv?

  6. jerry on February 8, 2014 at 1:49 PM

    Alexia,

    You don’t know me. My dad was Donald Jurden ahd his wife them was the accountant for Bill and Nancy My dad’ nick name was Blackie and he was the head electrician for your granddad. Thanks to Bill he flew in his private plane my Dad to Hot Springs Arkansas to be buried January 1978. My dad died in Bentonville Ark on January 1, 1978. Funny thing I never saw my Dad alive . His wife at the time lived in California where Roy Rogers died.
    However my dad and Mother was married in Minnesota and Iwas born in Tennessee. They met at the Bill Dillard stop off .

    also, I never met Bill or any of your family but I am sure he was a good individual as he treated Don Eugene Jurden as part of his family.

    Jerry

    • Kevin White on March 23, 2015 at 2:24 PM

      Wow, small world. my younger brother and I worked for Bill on and off from 1979 to 1986, he was nicknamed Blackie, after your Uncle, and I was Whitey..

  7. Tony Hoeppner on January 2, 2014 at 4:59 PM

    I was a carnie and worked several shows like Key City, Kistle rides & shows, Cumberland Valley, Zabel’s and finally in 83 n 84 with Bill Dillard. It was on Bill Dillard I was Tony “Torpedo’ Diaz Jr’s ‘ruffie. I could back then know who had what joint and needed people and knew what was going on because I was working for the concession mgr!! So I knew Billy, Sherry, Nancy, Big Bill n his wife along with Big Tony and Mary Jane! We went from the Rio Grande Valley to North Saskastchewan, Canada and back in those days!!! I would help on laying out the midway and setting up the joints, stocking the joints and staking everything down because we where in high wind country all year!! Wow, Big John got canned after I left, Big Jim died and Nancy got killed after I helped Tony slou in Harlingen, Tx round 88 (on the way to where I 4get because it was almost a circus jump, a drunk struck Nancy on the side of the highway with her hubby seeing it-Mike McCann, show electrician) and since then I lost track. I understand the show is sold and Tony Diaz Jr with his wife Daphne are working for a huge show in my home state of Indiana that was mainly Conklin Shows!! Tony was ‘Showman of the Year’ sometime back- proud 2 have worked for him!!! Any1 who wants to connect ect can on facebook- Tony Hoeppner . I have so much to tell!!!!

  8. reefer on December 8, 2013 at 12:54 PM

    wow, i worked for the show 30 yrs ago in canada. 5 years during summer break. holy memories ! big john is the reason im an electrician now. billy ,larry , willy , torpedo, were a huge part of my growing up.

  9. Moises Gonsalez on September 25, 2013 at 8:22 AM

    Ive always remembered the bill dillard show, they used to come to my home town Pharr Tx, when i was a young boy. They usually set up by the old TG&Y building next to payless shoes. Im not sure but they where the first i remember to do the all you can ride thing . I think they charged $5 or $7 for a stamp on your hand that allowed you to ride all you wanted. Me and my friends always went when bill and his show came to town, we had such great times that are now cherrised memories. What happened to bill and his show? Where are they from? I think alot off us owe them a big thank you and miss you. Thank you Bill Dillard shows, all of you that ever worked there.

    • Edward Salinas on March 24, 2016 at 11:45 AM

      Bill Dillard actually lives here in the RGV one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He still owns some equipment mostly stuff for kids, he regularly has stuff going on at Abundant Grace Church in Edinburg.

  10. jack aka john sloan on July 13, 2013 at 8:30 PM

    I worked for a lot of carnivals in the past ran the zipper for bill back in 91 and part of 92 and moved on to others were i got on the gravitron for murphy bro. in 96. i shere miss it

    • karl on March 27, 2014 at 3:09 PM

      I worked for the show started off in kiddie land and worked up to running the zipper, that year we were hit by a tornado somewhere in tx. I took over the zipper sometime around then when we got to colorado. If your the guy I took over for, I have a story for you!

  11. les (sundance) hopper on June 11, 2013 at 1:33 PM

    Hi Bill jr & the Dillard Family, I miss work for the shows. Alexa i’m sorry of about your Mother death. i like her& I knew your Aunt Sherry and Big John,Hairry Larry,Pappy .. God Bless you all !! my # is 6054563585

  12. momma on March 27, 2013 at 9:32 AM

    I was going some comments when i came accross urs i worked on Reed shows also reed expedition shows and the is a guy by that name Slim and he is very tall …… if u goa nd look up reed expeditions shows u can find a number to contact them i he is still there hope that this will help help u not sure if u found him or this is him but check in to it …

  13. Robin on January 25, 2013 at 2:48 AM

    I worked for the bill hanes show in the 80’s …Corpus Christi Tx (many more towns there after) was a 2week spand I made 25 cents on every dollar I brought in..I worked in the booths(miror)it was a blast and I made good money taught me alot loved it…anyone from that time still around?

    • big mark on April 3, 2014 at 10:11 PM

      hey, I used to play buccaneer days too, got on the road in 76 stayed till 96 the business just changed too much for me, worked all the joints but my fav was the old bushels, learned how to make a basket from the best, used to sell them to other agents for a yard each lol had a blast

    • sue stoner on January 2, 2017 at 3:54 PM

      I worked for Bill Hames Show early 90’s ran the computer portrait joint for Fuzzy, my lil brother also worked for the show ran the snow kabob ride and floated with some of the bigger rides… i actually got on the show in corpus christi bccaneer days. I loved every single second of it,,, I got 10% of every dollar i brought in, my best day ever was in greeley colorado. when i left the show i went around and took a picture of every single carnie so that i would always remember the good times with them. you can find me on facebook suzi stoner

  14. Alexa on November 7, 2012 at 1:49 PM

    To the person who originally posted the article about having Thanksgiving with The Bill Dillard Expo.

    My grandfather was Bill Dillard himself. I grew up in that carnival till I was about 10. My mother, Nancy owned and ran the popcorn wagon till she passed in the summer of 1990. You probably knew my Aunt Sherry Dillard. It was great reading such a wonderful memory someone had of the carnival. Thank you for posting. It truly brought a huge smile to my face. Thank you!

    • Ted on April 17, 2013 at 5:36 PM

      What a small world…I worked For Bill and Nancy…knew all those…I remember you…you was a little one then…Pappy…big John…Hairry Larry..Doc…just to name a few.

      • Chris on June 26, 2013 at 2:25 PM

        Alexa & Ted
        Wow what a trip to wander through the net and come across your posts!! I traveled with Dillards for years from the 70’s into the beginning of the 80’s. Worked for Tony Diaz Jr and I remember Nancy very well and I’m so sorry to hear of her passing. Tho I imagine a lot of the folks I knew from back then are long gone as well.
        Pap and Big John, Hairy Larry and Buckshot, Ruben, Tara and Yoyo, Fuzzy and the rest and reside in my memories. It was THE best time in my life and to this day every time I see a show on the road I get homesick.

        • tonyhoeppner on January 2, 2014 at 5:34 PM

          Chris, I worked for Tony in 83 n 84, u also???

      • nina chalmers on September 23, 2016 at 11:24 AM

        what memories. I married Doc in 81, when we left the show..

    • connie on July 9, 2013 at 2:31 PM

      I worked for Bill Dillard in 1976, they were wonderful people, Think of them often, I have some very wonderful memories from that summer out on the road.

      • connie on July 9, 2013 at 2:32 PM

        I said 1976 I was wrong it was actually 1977.

  15. lil tony on January 18, 2012 at 11:52 AM

    I have been a carnie sense i was 17 years old I am 32 now i started on pride on texas shows and loved it I am now a ride supervisor at crabtree amusements. I have my cdls so I make extra money every time that we move. Anyways my point is any job these days is a good job. Now if you enjoy what that you do is all up to you.

    • Pete on April 3, 2013 at 7:15 PM

      Lil Tony, what years did you work for pride of Texas? Maybe you and I crossed paths. I was there from 90-95.

    • sherry billings on December 26, 2013 at 11:25 PM

      I too started w “pride of texas” shows 1999 working for moss concessions,2013 season i worked w moss concessions also but on “heart of america shows”have enjoyed each season i worked for either show as @both we worked together as a family many have crossd my path as ride jocks as well as jointies but none touched me as Karl May did he was in his 70’s when i started w Sammy moss told me stories too many to remember all but the answer to how the public became refered to as a “Mark ” sticks in my head stronger than the others Mark can anyone tell me how that came to pass????Well ole Karl sure could

  16. Jennifer Lee on November 20, 2011 at 3:40 PM

    I am desperate for help my Uncle is missing his name is Joey Oliver Sisney his carnie name is Slim he is 6 foot 7 very skinny has no teeth and brown eyes he has a tatoo of a women wearing a somberrow on his back with his families name on it he also has a tattooe of the metal thing you pin the rides together with on his neck and a memorial tatooe of my mother Diane Harmon on his leg and more tatooes too he last worked for Southern State Shows they wear red shirts with this logo on it he also likes to drink alote we are so worried if by some chance this gets to the right person contact me at 2549186851 day or night

  17. Robbin marks (tx mad dog) on October 27, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    I was born into the business and from the messages I have read all the respondents sound like forty milers. I bet they couldn’t find the donikers! Heck they don’t know the difference from a cat rack or a six cat. Anybody know what a Possum Belly Queen is? My Pop wouldn’t let me me stick my nose in the front end of the business. I had to start by handling punk rides but I soon wised up & started to count the marbles 3,6&9 look on the board for #39 ! The scratch came easy & large, man it was soft for a long time. Any other clerks like me still around? Respond to Texas Mad Dog at Razzle Counter Yahoo.Com.

    • Peewee on March 10, 2012 at 3:32 AM

      I wasn’t Robbin, I only took the wads they kept givin’… Longest arms on the midway!!!

    • tonyhoeppner on January 2, 2014 at 5:44 PM

      U must have been a jointy by using that name!!!!

  18. Rebecca Westcott on September 25, 2011 at 8:38 PM

    CARNEY, I LOVE IT, THE ONLY THING BAD , IWOULD OF LIKED A SHOW THAT STAYED OUT LONGER THAN SIX MONTHS,I GOT MY NAME DIGGITY BECCI, FROM MANAGING A CORN DOG TRAILOR, I WOULD ALWAYS SAY IT NOT JUST A CORN DOG ITS A DIGGITY DOG,IVE MET SO MANY FREINDS ALONG THE WAY THERE LIKE FAMILY, WHEN I JOINED THE CANIVAL, I THOUGHT I HAD FINALLY FOUND HOME, HOURS WERE LONG, BUT U WHERE THERE TO INTERTAIN,, HERE IT IS THE END OF SEPTEMBER, HAVENT BEEN OUT SINCE JULY, MY MOM PAST AWAY, IM LOOKING FOR A NEW SHOW, SOMEWHERE OUT WEST, SOMTHING DIFFERENT, IVE ALWAYS BEEN ADVENTURSOME,IVE BEEN IN THIS BUSINESS 12 YEARS, THE PEOPLE, IVE MET, THE ADVENTURS,THE HARD WORK, I LOVE IT ALL,IF YOUR A FREE SPIRIT THIS IS WHERE ITS AT,NOW IVE HAD GREAT BOSSES AND SOME ASSHOLES, TRYING TO FIND ANOTHER GREAT ONE,THIS HAS BEEN SOME OF MY BEST MEMORIES, DIGGITY BECCI

  19. Isaac on June 17, 2011 at 8:04 PM

    Worked for a small show named Magic valley rides. Its owned by Roger and Helen Brown. Had a great time because the crew were some really fine people. No crack heads or tweekers on this show. I was the CDL driver for the show and also worked the ticket booth. Only trouble I had was getting paid. Since the show only works every other week the show owners wife decided that my salary should only be paid every other week. So she expected me to sit around and not get paid two weeks out of the month. I’ve been in an out of this biz since I was 17, I’m now almost 50. I’ve worked for some of the greatest showmen in the business and some of the worst rag bag shows to. Thing is ya just gotta find a hole on a show ya love. Ya may have to change shows every week but hopefully you will find a home. Keep yer nose clean, give up the bad habits and you become valuable in this business. Good Luck!

  20. laura on June 15, 2011 at 3:11 AM

    I was a carnie at one time too,and it was the most facinating thing for me…i mean the way that world is different from the norm.i really enjoyed it and i hope to go back and work some more one day. i started when i was 18 and left to continue on with life at 24. i have had a baby since, its like one big family there.and id like to go back and see some friends i made there one day.

  21. Tammy on October 16, 2009 at 8:03 PM

    I was a carnie for a while and I loved it. You get to see a lot of places and meet a lot of new people. I worked for the Reed Exposition Midways and it was like one big happy family. I made good money when I worked for them and I agree the work was hard at times. We had long days at times but seeing everyone have fun made it all worthwhile. I did just about everything you can do from selling lemonade to selling tickets, running rides and doing the games. I also did trash pickup and set up rides and made extra money that way. If you don’t have family and want something to do that will be entertaining with a lot of hard work become a carnie.

  22. victoria on September 6, 2009 at 1:04 PM

    Being a carnie sucked for me. the reed show only pays 115 a week, and me and my 2 kids had to survive on that. i loved bein able to watch the kids smile n play, but it wasnt worth 115 a week.

    • Michelle on September 18, 2009 at 8:43 AM

      Wow. … $115 a week for a family of 3 does stink. I hope you have found something that works better for your family. – I got $200 – $250 a week depending on how busy the spot was. (and bunk house rent was only 20 a week, so that left me at least 180 for food, clothes and whatever else I wanted / needed)

  23. David on August 6, 2009 at 9:26 AM

    I met my first wife when I was 17 on Gene Ledel Shows in 1980 at the Lea County Fair, Lovington, New Mexico. She worked the popper, and I was second man on the scooters. She was Cotton Candy Annie and I was Scooter Dave. Wrights Amusement is working that fair this year.

    We had many adventures, and 2 daughters along the way. By the end of 1992, I ended up as the ride supervisor on Bill Dillard’s Expo, and she was managing the popper there.

    After that last season, we left the road but continued in the business with ride repair and restoration, trailer/joint framing, and anything else we could find. My wife passed away 2 years ago this month.

    Your story sounds so familiar to me, and I hope that you too have many good memories of your life on the road. I am getting myself ready to go back out next season, but will probably just be a fixit man since I have a bad back. A result of years of humping pig iron and getting old, ha ha!

    Don’t give up on the site! This is a great idea you have here. Texas carnival shows are unique to the business, and I wouldn’t want to winter anywhere else than in my home state of Texas!

    Scooter

    • karl on March 27, 2014 at 3:17 PM

      Holy crap on a stick!! Dave you were my super on the zipper! My name Karl remember me and leslie? I’m so sorry to hear about your wife, you guys were always good to us! I hope you get this and can write back my email is karldammann@gmail.com.

    • David on March 27, 2014 at 9:01 PM

      Wow, hey Karl! I do remember you and Leslie. I remember being in Kansas City (well, that suburb) and having to install new drive cables on that old Zipper. It’s been what… 22 years, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. I am still in show business, but a different kind, light-camera-action stuff. I have your email and will contact you soon. Good to hear from you!

      • karl on March 28, 2014 at 6:12 PM

        Awesome, can’t wait to hear from you!

  24. Darren Westenhaver on May 25, 2009 at 7:46 AM

    I am filming a documentary about carnies and your story is perfect. Could I come and film you and you boyfriend? Could I get the contact information for your boss? Carnies have facinated me for years which is why I am making this film.

    Let me know if you are interested. Have you had your baby yet?

    Thanks

    Darren
    512-633-9195

    • Michelle on August 3, 2009 at 1:08 PM

      Sorry I didn’t notice your comment sooner. I’ll keep a closer eye on comments from now on!

      Yes, I had my baby in 2002. 🙂 We recently celebrated her 7th birthday. I’ll have to get more details about your documentary. Sounds interesting.

  25. shawn on April 1, 2009 at 10:17 AM

    being a carnie is a joke you work 100 hrs a week for 225 thats if u get it stay away from century 21 shows

    • Michelle on August 3, 2009 at 1:06 PM

      I agree that it’s hard work for low pay. And some shows aren’t as good as others. – Sounds like the one you were with worked you pretty hard.

      I know I often worked more than full time for $200 – $250 per week. Then again, my expenses were also low and I LOVED meeting new people every week! It’s not for everyone. But it was for me a while back.

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