I love to learn people’s stories – to find out what brought them to all the moments in time that led to the present. As parents, I think it’s particularly important for us to listen to these stories as a way to understand each other.
Parenting is hard and we’re all trying to do the best for our families – including earning money to take care of ourselves and our children. This is the first in a three-part series that tells the story of parents with unique jobs – the kind that may make you wonder: How did they end up there and how does that work?
If you take a deep breath, you can smell it. If you close your eyes, you can see it. If you listen closely, you can hear it. The sausages, fried dough, and corn dogs are ready. The crowds, the performers, the bright lights against a late summer sunset are just waiting for their picture to be taken. Shouts of nervous excitement, belly laughs, and music pumping its way from speakers attached to rides fill the air with joyful noise.
It’s fair season, and parents are getting ready to step foot on fairgrounds all over the country as part of their annual family adventure or as the start of a new tradition.
While we cultivate our children’s childhood memories, our own become entwined with theirs. Our excitement over cotton candy and carnival rides easily matches that of our kids. Olivia Bray, mother of three, understands this as well as the limbs attached to her body. The fair is an extension of her; it is her identity and passion. Going to the fair is just as much of an adrenaline rush for her as it is for her own children, but it’s also another day at the office during her industry’s busiest time of the year.
The fair business is family business
Olivia grew up in the business. So did her parents. Olivia’s maternal grandparents owned and ran Myers International Midways, Inc.; her paternal grandparents owned and ran Interstate Amusements of America, Inc. Olivia and her younger siblings spent two months on the road each year as her parents worked fairs in the southeastern part of the country.
Her parents eventually bought out her grandfather’s business and ran Interstate Amusements as their own. But shortly after this transition, when Olivia was 13 and making her own transition into being a teenager, tragedy hit.
“I was 13 and both of my parents passed away. My mom had been battling cervical cancer for two years, and my dad had a heart attack. My dad passed away in February and my mom passed away in November of that same year.”
Olivia, as well as her younger brother and sister, moved in with her aunt and uncle. But the loss of her parents was not the end of her travels. Her aunt and uncle worked for her mom’s side of the show, Myers International Midways, Inc., so Olivia found comfort and enjoyment in the familiarity of life on the road. She also found a home with her high school sweetheart, Mike Bray.
Life is a highway and marriage is a carnival
Mike Bray may not have known what he was getting in to, but he knew he was in love with a woman who would surely help him understand. When he was a kid, he assumed the fairgrounds owned the rides and games. “I really didn’t know anything about fairs until I started working at fairs,” he said.
His new wife was about to show him the ropes. His first job after high school and as a married man was for Myers International as a hand stamper and armband seller. But after that first season of married life on the road, Mike and Olivia tried to live the “normal, get real jobs” kind of life. That lasted two years.
They had just had their first child, son Ayden, when Olivia looked at Mike and said, “I’m really bored. Let’s go back out on the road.” Ayden was born in February and by May the family of three did just that. Olivia did whatever needed to be done on the midway in order to keep things running smoothly. Mike gravitated toward the internal workings of the fair equipment. He earned his commercial driver’s license and mastered the art of welding. He also learned about ride reconditioning and repair.
In the next few years, daughters Angie and Adalyn joined the Bray family, as did two rides purchased from Olivia’s family. The Silver Streak and the Jungle Walk are Mike and Olivia’s babies, too. They started touring, still under the name Myers International, with James E. Strates Shows, Inc., as independent contractors, taking their rides to any location Strates Shows ventured to. “Any time they’re open, we are open.” And they are open from November to February, traveling to and from fairs and festivals in their two bedroom, 52’ motorhome.
When asked about being called a “carny,” Olivia was quick to clear up any misconceptions of what most people think of carnival workers. That term feels derogatory and far from the truth.
“We like to call ourselves showmen; we are in the amusement business. The image of how it used to be was never really like that when I was growing up. Probably [during] my mom and dad’s era, the carny with no teeth, that was people’s image of a carny. That word reminds me of that image. I get it. It’s a lot to take in. I don’t expect anyone to understand it fully right away. You don’t always hear about the good parts of our business.”
If you’re willing to listen, though, Olivia and her husband will tell you about their feelings of pride, professionalism, and honor. “Honestly, in this business, we don’t have job titles out here. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing. If it’s busy, you have to pick up the slack wherever you are.”
From selling tickets to loading and unloading rides, if something needs to be done for her rides or any others, Olivia and her co-workers are ready and willing to keep things humming. Partly out of the need to make money, but mostly out of their desire to work hard and make a good impression for fairgoers.
She and about 150 other Strates employees will be at the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction, Vermont for 10 days, while several other independent contractors will be selling food and running games. They are a close-knit group of individuals, living side by side in motorhomes by night and working to put on a great show on the midway by day. That show must be fun, clean, and safe. Now a technical supervisor, Mike takes pride in the fact that he’s responsible for every ride passing state inspections during each location’s show.
Olivia reminded me that another misconception of fair workers is that they’re not conscientious and the rides they operate are not safe. “Our rides get inspected every week by the state and every day by our employees. Most amusement park rides maybe get inspected twice a year.”
And because Strates Shows is the only show in the country to travel by railroad, the equipment experiences less wear and tear between fair locations than rides that travel by road. If a ride should be damaged during transit, Mike was also quick to say: “The Strates family doesn’t want machinery that is scabbed together. They are willing to spend money to make sure it is completely fixed and looks nice. It’s the big time.”
“My main concern is them.”
First and foremost, Olivia is a mother to three young kids. When asked how her job shapes her as a parent, she referenced her mom and dad, showing once again that it’s hard to sort out where one generation of family business and values end and where the next begins: “This [carnival life] is all I know. However, my parents did everything in their power to make sure I didn’t miss out on anything. That is what I strive for, making sure my kids get to participate in everything they want to do.”
Seven-year-old Ayden is a busy, energetic boy who loves soccer and his dirt bike. Four-year-old Angie played soccer and did cheerleading this spring. Two-year-old Adalyn will soon join her big brother and sister in whatever activities she wants to try.
Olivia also knows the life her kids have on the road is a privilege that not all kids get to experience. They explore each new town they travel to, most recently heading to the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building while working a fair in New York. Olivia hopes to take her girls to Vermont Teddy Bear during their stay in Vermont; her son will be back in Florida, staying with family as he begins a new school year.
School is a priority and until the family settles back to their Florida home for the off-season, Ayden will spend most of his time at a private school. He will still get his wish to be on the road part of the time, though, since the school is willing to work with the family to be sure Ayden gets his work done while out of the classroom.
Oliva has been thankful for the amount of time she gets to spend with her kids. “When my oldest two were little, I worked in the office and they came to work with me every day until a year old. With my third, I took that year off and actually stayed home in Florida. She was due in August, plus my oldest son started kindergarten. That was a huge benefit, to stay home and just enjoy them.”
Now when they travel together, Olivia brings a babysitter so she can focus on work. But when she doesn’t have help, her only role is that of mom. “My main concern is them.”
It always comes back to family
In one of very first photos of Olivia and Mike’s son, Ayden, he’s riding on a carnival carousel. He sits supported by two proud parents, on a painted horse named in memory of his grandmother. The merry-go-round life is all he knows. It’s all Olivia knows. It is home and it defines their family.
While on the road, Olivia admits to missing her extended family, but the people they travel with for months at a time become a second family. “I can’t think of nicer people to be around. It takes a village to raise a child; I firmly believe that and am thankful for mine.”