Fergus man reflects on his days as a carnival worker
Dale Brown, of Fergus Falls, has a few cherished autographs he has gathered from his travels throughout his life. He met Johnny Cash in Nashville in 1977. He met one of the Oakridge Boys, William Lee Golden, at the Cactus Garden in Perham. He got an engineer’s hat and patch from the singer Box Car Willie. While working at the county fair in Marshall, he met Scarlet Ribbons recording artist Jim Ed Brown (no relation).
Those memories are a small portion of Brown’s life as he worked the carnival circuit for 16 years. He was raised in Richville, Minn. He has six brothers and one sister. Three of his brothers worked the carnival off and on with him over the years. It wasn’t an easy life.
“We stayed in a town for three days. Everything was torn down the third night. We drove 100 miles or so and set up for the next show that afternoon. It took three hours to set up the merry-go-round and four hours to take it all down. My job with the carnival was Kiddie Land or Toyland.”
“I set up the merry-go-round, boat rides, tank rides and antique rides for all the munchkins and squirts.
Sometimes the kids didn’t like to be belted in. Some of them cried, but I told their folks they had to keep those seat belts on.”
Brown started employment with Ray Drescher’s Midway of Fun Show in 1977. It was based out of Detroit Lakes, Minn., with winter quarters in Texas. In 1979, the show was sold to Roger L. Hildebrandt and moved to Pelican Rapids.
“The most popular rides at the carnival were the Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round. The bullet, tilt-a-whirl, sizzler and roll-a-plane were popular with the older set. I always reminded the riders to take their wallets out of their pockets before they went on upsidedown rides or it might end up on the ground.”
“I only remember one accident on the wild rides. A door came unlatched, and someone fell out, The person didn’t die, but the ride was shut down for a while so insurance investigators could do their job.”
Brown’s former boss, Roger Hildebrandt, was the owner of the carousel horses that now entertain thousands of children each year at the Prairie Rose Carousel in Wahpeton, N.D. The 1926 wooden, 20-horse, two-chariot Spillman carousel was purchased in the early 1990s from Hildebrandt for $50,000.
Hildebrandt had owned the horses for 15 years before that time. Parts of the mechanism were wrapped in newspaper dating back to 1965. Although the majority of the carousel was in good shape, some of the restoration was extensive. There were up to 130 screws and nails and metal scraps removed from one horse. Over 17 layers of paint had to be stripped off the horses. At the time of its unveiling in the park, the Prairie Rose Carousel was the only wooden carousel in the state.
As caretaker to the horses he showcased on the carnival rides, Brown did the basic upkeep. He would touch up the paint, change light bulbs and keep his colorful animals clean and shiny.
The 20 horses at the Wahpeton Carousel were adopted by various businesses for $2,500 each to help pay back the $50,000 loan. They were given names by their individual sponsors. For example, the Wahpeton Airport named their horse, “Pegasus,” the flying horse in Greek mythology. A local bank called their horse “Cash.” “Sugar” was the name given to the horse adopted by Minn-Dak sugar beet plant.
Brown said his merry-go-round horses were not named. “Sometimes they called them “jennys,” he remarked. (The word jenny is derived from jennet, meaning a small Spanish horse or female donkey.)
The Prairie Rose Carousel is housed inside a custom designed building across the road from the Chahinkapa Zoo in Wahpeton. Brown never had the luxury of working indoors with his horses. When the weather turned cold in Minnesota, he traveled to the Ray Drescher winter home in Texas so he could work year round.
Neither ride holds the brass ring of earlier models. Liability insurance costs put an end to that fantasy. But both rides ring out the sound of the calliope, welcoming riders young and old to climb aboard.
Brown has never been to the carousel located 24 miles west of Fergus Falls. Photos of the beautifully painted steeds generate his curiosity. He takes a magnifying glass and examines the photos. He takes note of the interior monkey faces (mirrors) and the rounding boards. He compares them to the merry-go-round he set up at fair grounds for 16 years.
The photos set him into a memory mood.
“We worked at Turkey Days in Swansville and Box Car Days in Tracy. We usually spent Fourth of July in
Winona for their Steamboat Days. I remember giving boat rides to the children at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. We also set up closer to home at Water Carnival Days in Detroit Lakes.
Looking fondly at the photos of the Prairie Rose Carousel, Brown softly says, “I sure would like to see that merry-go-round one day.”