At Arlington County Fair, carnies can’t get enough of the midway


The Ferris wheel provides a bird’s-eye view of the Arlington County Fair's midway. “It’s a job that you can still enjoy yourself and put a smile on peoples’ faces,” carnival worker Melissa Rachubka says. (Bettina Lanyi/For The Washington Post)
August 13

On the midway at the Arlington County Fair, set up on the fields behind Thomas Jefferson Community Center, the bungee jump was one of the most popular attractions. Well-harnessed youngsters bounced high into the air as Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” blared from speakers. Kelly Spaulding strapped in each child, then watched to make sure one tentative participant made the most of his $7 ride:

“Push down with your legs,” she called out. “Have fun!”

Spaulding, 40, has been working carnivals since age 14, when she lived a life surely described in more than one country song.

“The fair came to town, and when it left, I left with it,” she said.

Married to another carnival worker, Spaulding works 11 months out of the year. The biggest draw of carnival work? “The traveling,” said Spaulding, whose job takes her through the South and up the East Coast. “Seeing everything. New place every day. I love it.”


Carnival worker John Hall helps Noah Priddy, 7, hit his balloon target with a dart as Noah’s father, Dave Priddy, looks on at the Arlington County Fair. (Bettina Lanyi/For The Washington Post )

Then there is the work environment.

“You don’t sit at a desk. This is our desk,” Spaulding said, sweeping an arm through the air. “You know what I mean? I got music, sun, nice weather and a lot of fun.”

Most of the workers who made this year’s 38th annual fair happen were local:

→ The 20 Arlington County janitors who were on the grounds at all times.

→The more than 50 people who volunteered.

→The 11 board members who met monthly year-round to plan for the five-day fair that 60,000 visitors attended.

And most of the food vendors, such as Willie’s Po’ Boy, were from the Washington area, as well as a couple of Richmond vendors that offered specialty items, such as ribbon chips and funnel cakes.

“They do everything — the cheese fries, the big stacks of potato chips. People love them,” said Amy Doane, chair of the Arlington County Fair’s Board of Directors. “We have them back every year because they’re super-popular.”

For the nomadic carnival workers operating games and rides on midways, the Arlington fair, which ended Sunday, was one stop among many: running the amusement rides and the games of chance and skill, hawking carnival fare such as cotton candy and caramel apples.

The county contracts with Cole Amusement, which subcontracts with smaller carnival companies that travel together in a network of state and county fairs in the Southeast from April through November.

Carnival workers sleep in bunkhouses, usually on location, as did most of the workers for the Arlington fair. Quarters can be tight, said Elisa Brown, 23, of Virginia Beach, who shared a shower and slept with about seven others in a bunkhouse trailer in Manassas.

Brown, who works as a nanny and waitress during the rest of the year, said carnival work has its downsides.

“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s really hard because it’s hot all the time, we have really small rooms, and we have to use Port-a-Potties a lot, which I don’t particularly care for.”

But she said she likes to work the games where nobody loses.

“I’ve always been in games where there’s a prize every time,” Brown said. “I don’t like being in games where kids don’t win cause it breaks my heart every time.”

Last year, it was the balloon game, where kids popped balloons with darts; this year, she ran the target practice game, where they used toy guns to knock over cups.

The travel brought Brown back for a second year.

“We actually went to D.C. for one day; got to go to the museums,” she said. “I like to get to see all the different people in each different area. This is one of the most diverse areas. It’s kind of like a melting pot here — it’s all different cultures, people of all ages — it’s really cool.”

Some workers are drawn to the fun of the carnival itself — and the camaraderie.

Melissa Rachubka, 34, sold soft-serve ice cream, chocolate-covered cheesecake on a stick and other edibles out of Stuart Confections’ trailer in the center of the midway. She had been working as a bartender at a TGI Friday’s in Manassas five years ago when she met the owners of Stuart Confections, a Florida-based company. They hired her to work for them seasonally.

She said her friendship with other workers is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

“You make friends at almost every state you’re at,” Rachubka said. “Which is nice, cause every year we get to catch up and meet up with our friends [who] we’ve met from time to time, so it’s a really nice close group. Honestly, for a lot of us, it’s the best way of feeling a sense of family.”

Working a job where strangers are happy to see you is an added perk, she said. “It’s a job that you can still enjoy yourself and put a smile on peoples’ faces. It’s ice cream. Ice cream and rides. There’s nothing better than that.”

Lanyi is a freelance writer.

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