Growing up my family always joked about the "Nelson's" infamous "gift-of-gab", we are said to have never met a stranger. I never really thought about the impact of that statement until last night.
Backing up to a few days ago, after a very busy first week of classes for me and work for Mitch, we decided to take the day off and go to the local lake (McMurtry) for some kyaking, fishing and swimming. The freakish August rains we had been having cooled the water down to the perfect swimming temperatures and with fall on the horizon, the humidity was lower as were the temperatures and wind, making it the perfect day! After spending many hours out on "our island" as we so affectionately call it, we decided it was time to come home and stopped for supper at one of our most favorite restaurants in Stillwater. "Palominos" is a beautiful mexican restaurant that always has superb food and service, their ambiance is second to none in Stilly.
As we are dining, pickups with very large motors are racing on the sports channel of their TV, Mitch and I comically watched as pieces of metal were flying in all directions because the track was so bumpy. Of course coming from Minnesota (where even people's "junk" is organized and clean), I commented smartly saying "wow, it looks like they're driving on Oklahoma roads" after a short giggle we realized we were not alone and an unfamiliar couple from across the floor was laughing too. Much to my surprise the gentleman commented "Missouri is even worse" and we had a chuckle. I was intrigued by this couple as they seemed to be light-hearted and friendly. As our meal progressed I overheard the woman say to the waiter how much she loved their salsa and asked if she could order some of it to go. With all my Palomino's pride, I couldn't resist asking her if it was their first time eating at the restaurant, she responded that it was and they loved it, also that they were not from this area. So naturally as conversation flows I asked what brought them to Stillwater? In all my wildest dreams I couldn't have fathomed the answer I was about to receive......
Mind you, these are well dressed, clean, slightly older than middle-aged individuals who carried an obvious amount of class about them......
...her response......."We own the carnival that is in town."
The look on my face must have reflected what my mind was thinking because they instantly started laughing and began explaining how they had inherited it from her father (who started it in 1944!) and it was a family business. Immediately (being a entrepreneurship masters student) my brain started flooding with a million thoughts and questions, after all its not every day you get the chance to talk to real life, civilized "carnie's!"
However, in an effort to not ruin their meal, I refrained and settled with letting my brain wander. When they got up to go they invited us to their carnival and told us where we could find them if/when we arrived. As a child who grew up living for our annual fair (no joke, I used to sneak into our 4-H horse barn nearly a week early and guess where my stalls were going to be and dream about one day owning my own barn!). Coming from a town of 1800 people it is no surprise that it was a pretty exciting time when the county fair came to town! However, there was always one thing I dreaded......the creepy carnies. My mom, being the overprotective, paranoid worry-wart that she is (aren't all moms?), was ALWAYS warning me to have a friend with me anytime I went to the midway and to avoid the carnie's at all cost because she was certain they were all criminals. I mean, why else would anyone want to travel around the country setting up rides and eating fried food? I always thought she was being ridiculous until one year they actually arrested a man who was on America's Most Wanted that had been traveling with the carnival in town and that same year I had a creepy encounter with a carnie while I had one of my riding lesson students with me. That pretty much solidified what my mom had been beating into me all those years and made me all the more thankful I had an overprotective australian shepherd at my side that day (who may or may not have bit said creepy carnie who wouldn't back off)!
So it is now Thursday evening, Mitch and I decided we would take those nice people up on their offer and I had a ridiculous craving for a huge corn dog....so off to the Payne County Fair we went. We walked through the fair, ate a ton of junk food (fried snickers, corndog, nachos, etc...and yes I'm almost puking thinking about eating all of that...not quite recovered yet), while simultaneously watching the opening game of the OSU Cowboys CRUSHING the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes (Go Pokes!)The final score was 24-59 Cowboys for those of you who missed it. Thank goodness college football is as sacred as religion here in the Bible Belt of America because all the commercial booths had the game playing so we could periodically check the score! After a fun evening we decided to stop by and say "hi" to the woman we had met at Palominos early that week and thank her for the invitation, also as a fellow business owner I know it is great to get feedback, and since we had really enjoyed our little trip down memory lane, I thought we'd tell her so!
Much to my delight and surprise, she was right where she said she would be, working alongside a young man in the cotton candy booth! My first thought was, how cool is this lady? She OWNS this carnival and yet she is out here, wisps of vibrant blue cotton candy in her hair and all over her wonderfully logo'd polo shirt busting her butt right alongside the staff she employs. She is the definition of an entrepreneur! Even more delighting was the fact that she remembered us! I told her we were about to go ride the "Freak Out" (which they previously had recommended when Mitch asked what their number one selling ride was) and of course my comical husband had to jokingly ask if it had passed inspection (but I knew he was really terrified).
If I wasn't already impressed and amazed by this lady she certainly tipped the scales with what she did next....
She asked if we had purchased our tickets yet, I replied we were on our way to get some, her eyes lit up! She was brushed off the cotton candy from her shirt and said "don't bother, we are going to go ride that ride!" (mind you she had already refused to let us pay for our delicious caramel apple, referring to us as "her new friends!"), she spoke to the young man she was working with briefly and exited the mobile cotton candy shop. She walked us over to the ride and we (all 3 of us) got a first class ride on the "Freak Out", which as it turns out was appropriately named!
After the awesomely nauseating ride (awesome for me, nauseating for Mitch), we had the opportunity to chat with her for awhile. I had no idea I was only minimally blown away by this woman before. This family business they own an operate is incredible and shatters all the stereotypes, not only about the typical "carnie" but also about owning and operating a family business. This carnival was truly entrepreneurship at its finest!
This woman owns the carnival with her brother, she and her husband both work there (her husband was previously a PRACTICING ATTORNEY) who was looking for a change of pace. They raised three successful children while traveling and working within their business, two of which have joined them in the family business and who play integral parts of the carnivals success. On top of that they have figured out multiple ways to combat the stereotypes of "carnies" starting from the hiring process of their midway workers, which is incredible and unique but I am not sure I should share all the details as such things could be labeled as "trade secrets" and they have a great thing going, I certainly don't want to ruin it for them! But you should know that they have multiple employee's who have worked for them for many years, some as many as 7+ years, that is not an industry "norm" for most industries, let alone carnivals! Their workers are all clean shaven, polite and hard working, their carnival is sanitary, welcoming and FUN! After speaking with her we decided to go check out the farris wheel, I couldn't resist myself and had to ask the gentleman working it, who was from South Africa, if he was a surfer (avid "Blue Crush" fan, I'm pretty sure I was a surfer in a past life...haha.). He laughed liked he was either amused at my American idiocy (which I wouldn't blame him because asking a South African if they can surf is probably like asking an American if they like french fries?) or perhaps he had been asked that question before and he responded politely "actually, no. It scares me!. For which I laughed and smiled about the rest of my farris wheel ride, a South African afraid of surfing....who would have thought? We finished out the night with one last epic ride on the "Freak Out" and left not only having made some memories but having gained a new friend and hopefully future mentor!
You can find their schedule/locations on their website and/or facebook page (links below). Take the whole family, it'll be worth the trip! This company is single-handedly recreating the traveling carnival industry, breaking down one barrier at a time! Perhaps they are not "the last of a dying breed" but instead are the pioneers of new breed?
Moral of the story, sometimes the "gift of gab" truly is a gift and of course the "never judge a book by its cover" comes to mind also! But really, networking is so important for everyone, so don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and ride the "freak out" because you never know where it'll take you! I promise you it'll grant you nothing short of a memory.
If you haven't been out to check out Ottaway Amusement Company, you are missing out! They have superb reviews on facebook, check them out at https://www.facebook.com/Ottaway-Amusement-Co-200659673290991/?pnref=lhc and/or check out their website at http://ottawayamusements.com/