Two dollars gets you in to see both Robby, “The World’s Biggest Rat,” and Bubba, “The Big Pig” — a two-header bargain that John Wadsworth hopes is impossible to resist.
Now in his 10th turn at the N.C. State Fair, Wadsworth knows how draw customers to see his pride-and-joy pets, ushering fairgoers in with a friendly call and smile past a pumpkin display carefully arranged by his wife, Angie.
“World’s Biggest Rat” is kind of a misnomer; Robby is actually a capybara, a South American rodent — but a big one at that. “Big Pig” Bubba is the real deal — 1,100 pink pounds with wonky tusks and gentle, hazel eyes who loves apples and prefers VO5 shampoo.
“We’ve had Bubba three years, he’s 5 years old now,” Wadsworth said, scratching Bubba’s belly. “He came from York, Pa. — a lady and her two daughters had him as a pet living in a row home. When he hit 400 pounds, they didn’t know what to do with him, but they knew about us.”
Fifty-five years old and a third generation carny — a word he uses proudly — Wadsworth is one of the hundreds of festival workers who converge yearly in Raleigh to staff the state fair, which this year runs until Oct. 27. Some are hired for the month from the Raleigh-area to run rides, others travel across the East Coast with carnival contractor Powers Great American Midways — still more are vendors from around the nation with a local following.
But almost all of them have been here before, and many are fair veterans.
For Wadsworth, who made the trip to Raleigh from Myakka City, Fla., the carnival got into his blood.
“I grew up here,” he said, looking out around the fairgrounds. “Even if I’m at home for a couple of months, and I take a trip up to South Carolina or Pennsylvania to visit family and I see a fair, I see the Ferris wheel, I gotta stop.”
Staffing a carnival
While the State Fairgrounds has about 60 full-time employees throughout the year, the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services hires 900 temporary employees to run ticket booths, exhibits and contests each year — mainly from the Raleigh area.
Hundreds more are hired by New York-based company Powers Great American Midways, which has contracted with the fair since 2006 to run midway rides and attractions. Powers contracts with fairs up and down the East Coast, and many carnival staffers travel the company’s route throughout spring, summer and fall.
Rick Schwartz, a mechanic out of Tulsa, Okla., runs the MegaDrop with partner Levar Denkins — a Raleigh native.
The ride, a 150-foot drop taken at 66 miles per hour, intimidates even its operators.
“I’ll run it, but I ain’t riding it,” Schwartz said. “Nuh-uh, Ricky stays on the ground — sorry.”
For 30 years, Schwartz worked carnivals in Tulsa to stay near and take care of his mother. But after her recent death, Schwartz felt he needed to hit the road.
“I like it though — gets me away from home,” he said of traveling with the carnival. “My mama’s gone now so, time for me to go.”
Denkins, who works as a chef at a local Zaxby’s restaurant for most of the year, also keeps family on his mind at the fair — working to support a 14-year-old son and a baby on the way.
“Hopefully it’s a girl — if it’s a girl I’ll stop making kids,” Denkins said.
For both men, the highlight of carnival work is bonding with others who work around the grounds. Fair employees meet up after hours in their on-site RV housing to kick back from the day.
“Throw a couple drinks back, talk about the day, prepare stuff for the next day,” Denkins said. “You make a lot of friends, a lot of connections, people from different places — especially if you ain’t been nowhere … If you like working hard and traveling, then the fair is the place.”
Serving a tradition
Just a couple of hours from Wadsworth’s hometown of Myakka City is Ormond Beach, Fla., home to Doris Drury, or — as her fans know her — “The Iced Tea Lady.” Along with her tea, Drury is best known for her mini doughnuts, which she’s been serving at the N.C. State Fair for 33 years.
“I was young once upon a time,” she laughs, pouring a generous heap of cinnamon sugar into a bag of freshly fried doughnuts. “I’ve made a lot of friends in 33 years.”
And as she prepares her trademark treats in her vendor’s trailer, some of those friends wander over for a reunion and a snack.
Some customers share stories of trying their first of her doughnuts in grade school. Now middle-aged, they greet her with a grinning, “Hey, Miss Doris,” razz her gently about adding a health-conscious Splenda topping option to the menu and thrill at finding an uninitiated first-time customer in line.
Matt Daly, a year-round Facilities Supervisor with the State Fairgrounds, said fair organizers are as loyal to longtime vendors as customers are.
“There’s a few new ones — most of them are repeat vendors,” Daly said. “Because when they come in, they kind of get a spot.
“Say you came in here and you said, ‘I have a deep fried Twinkie that I want to sell,’ (we’ll) say, ‘Well that’s really cool but we already have 12 deep fried Twinkie places here, so we’re gonna put you on a list.’ But if you come in and say you have fried “lumpia” — a Filipino dish — they’ll be like, ‘Come on in, we don’t have that yet.’”
But conflicts between old and new do arise — when a second mini doughnut stand came to the fair, Drury fretted over competition.
“First I cried, then I was mad, then I cried, then I was mad ‘cause I wanted a second location and they didn’t give it to me,” Drury said. “And then, one of my friends said, ‘Just concentrate on your customers,’ so I put a sign up that said … ‘The original N.C. State Fair mini doughnuts.’ And I have people coming up to tell me they’ve been coming to me for 33 years.”
Adapting a culture
A fair doesn’t get to 160 years old without evolving — but for Wadsworth, some changes come more easily than others.
“The carnival business now and the carnival business 25 years ago is totally different,” he said. “The games have changed, a lot of the rides … (had) hand-painted signs and everything — now everything’s airbrushed or decal stick-ons. It’s not the same as back when I was a kid.”
While Wadsworth said he still sees the fair as one big family, it’s less insular than when he first got into the business.
“Not so much nowadays but in the older days we had our own language,” he said, referencing a little-spoken carnival worker vocabulary he called “Kizzee,” which sounds like pig Latin with a hearty helping of ‘z’s thrown in.
“It’s mostly a lot of the older carnival guys, like myself, over 50 that talk Kizzee,” he said.
But for some fair workers, no matter how old you get, the fair keeps its sense of magic.
Two years ago, ride supervisor Johnny Todd got tired of his job framing houses in Orlando, Fla. After being goaded by friends in North Carolina to run off and join the fair, he never looked back.
“It’s a big family,” Todd said. “And plus, you wake up and you got a carnival in your backyard, so, what else could you ask for?”
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