Life is a carnival for the Schmidts, Standish's first family of summer amusements for 25 years Saturday, August 25, 2007
By HELEN LOUNSBURY

BAY CITY TIMES WRITER

''Twenty five years and still the same old Schmidt.''

That's how one Michigan fair board printed T-shirts to celebrate Schmidt Amusements' 25th year as carnival hosts in their Upper Peninsula community. Celebrating ''the carnies'' has more family feel than most communities' relationships with their midways.

But Standish-based Schmidt Amusements is nothing if not based on family. Three generations of Schmidts, including all four children, their spouses and nine grandchildren, have stuck with the family's carnival tradition for 41 years - 25 of them as Schmidt Amusements.

''This is our family farm,'' says Sandy Schmidt, a second generation co-owner by marriage, known to family members as the Elephant Ear Queen. ''Grandma and Grandpa run the hub in Standish. The rest of us work a million hours in the field, making hay while the sun shines.''

The sun shines for the Schmidts, as for other Michigan carnival operators, May 1 through Labor Day. But unlike the stereotype of rough-shod transients, these traveling show-givers possess a stability many home-grown families would envy.

Stability, in fact, permeates their relationships within and without, both Schmidts and their customers say.

''There's no margin for conflict, no room for aloofness,'' says Peggy Schmidt Anderson, 44, another second-generation co-owner. ''If we're not a tight community, getting along, it makes for a long summer. The demands are too constant. ...''

The Schmidts, like others in the industry, specialize in creating a world apart, in miniature, every week, all summer, on a fresh dirt. Their cosmos starts with housing - fifth wheels, campers and supply trucks converted into bunk rooms.

In tow come the food and

beverage supply trucks, their tonnages meant to keep fair crews and their masses well-fed and watered for a week.

Their semitrailers, meanwhile, drop rides, slides, game booths and prizes to keep Schmidt world citizens smiling, if not a little queasy. Powerful generators guarantee the entire midway runs uninterrupted.

''If the whole town loses power, our bulbs are blinking and our rides are whirling,'' says eldest son Terry Schmidt, Sandy's husband.

In practice, the four Schmidt children - all in their 40s - subdivide their business into twin carnival worlds. Two Schmidts run each operation, separately and distinctly, along with their spouses and kids.

Sixty full-time employees join each unit, traveling with the carnivals through their five-month road season. Crew members, all in uniform, say they enjoy the same stability the Schmidts do. A majority have worked for the family for years; some have retired from Schmidt Amusements, the owners say.

''The carnival's not what most people think it is. It's amazing, really,'' says Roxy Brewer, an employee for 13 years. ''We live together, here on the fairgrounds. We eat together, play together, work together.

''And it's a safe place for my daughter,'' adds Brewer, mother to a 5-year-old. ''Our kids are well-supervised because we all know each other. We all look out for the kids.''

The Schmidts' carnival career started in the 1960s, when founder Sherman Schmidt was selling Farm Bureau Insurance and serving as president of the Arenac County Fair Board. Wife Joy Schmidt was home raising the couple's four children. As fair week reached its peak, the owner of W.G. Wade Shows - a Mason-based carnival handling Arenac's fair - offered Sherman Schmidt a job.

The couple never looked back.

Peggy Schmidt, the baby, was 3 when her parents took to the road. She remembers taking naps in their mother's popcorn wagon. So do her siblings. While their mom boxed and sold popcorn overhead, the foursome took shifts sleeping in the ''sugar cupboard'' below her.

''We were all born and raised in this,'' muses Sandy, who, though a Schmidt by marriage, grew up working for W.G. Wade Shows. ''When we were tall enough, we stood on milk cartons to help make cotton candy...

''Nobody forced us to work as kids,'' she adds. ''We just made this cool connection early on that if we were working, we got paid.''

By 1982, W.G. Wade was ready to retire and sell, the Schmidts say. When he did, Sherman and Joy decided to go it alone and formed Schmidt Amusements.

Five months a year they transplanted towns, weekly if not more frequently, to morph anew. But the uprootings, rather than diminish a common life, incubated it. Such is the nature of carnival work, family members say.

''I think the carnival drew us closer,'' says Sandy. ''We grew up knowing that we all have our part to play. If we don't do it, things don't work.''

As it is today, Sandy, Peggy and their counterparts, Kathy Schmidt, Nancy Schmidt Mardon and husband Larry Mardon, own and oversee food concessions in their respective carnival units. Tony Anderson is head of maintenance and a state certified ride inspector. Terry and Doug, also certified ride inspectors, oversee everybody in their respective units, the family says.

But the midway's most demanding work isn't the relentless noon-midnight shift, the siblings agree. It's set-up and tear down.

Giant pieces of Tilt-A-Whirl, Ferris wheel and merry-go-round rides are hauled, cleaned, rebuilt and re-inspected for each new set-up. Game booths and their multitudes of stuffed critters, too, are hauled and hung. Pizza, hot dog and cotton candy wagons, equipped with caseloads of consumables, similarly rise from the dirt.

''It starts and ends with an empty field,'' says Terry. ''Before we even start, we level everything, lay all the rides out, figure how it all fits where. Then we transform it into a little city.

''Then we tear down and start over.''

Yet the work and lifestyle suits Terry. After earning a four-year degree in civil engineering from Michigan Tech, ''I still came back to the carnival,'' he says.

Brother Doug is an electrical engineer. After graduating from Northern Michigan University, he, too, came back to the family ''farm.''

So, too, their children, though required to attend at least one year of college, have so far followed suit. Jackie Schmidt, 16 and still attending Standish-Sterling Central High School, says she, too, likes the lifestyle.

''I don't miss summers at home because I've never been there for the summer,'' she says. ''Here, I know I've got a job and, like my mom says, I learn a good work ethic.''

Michigan's slack economy has pinched the amusement industry a bit, but not gravely, the Schmidts say. Fuel prices are the biggest culprit, given the equipment-heavy business depends on dozens of trucks crossing state highways multiple times weekly. Still, the Schmidts say they haven't compromised their services.

That includes grilling only all-beef hot-dogs and making their own elephant ear dough.

''My motto is if I won't eat it, I won't sell it,'' says Peggy, hot dog wagon manager. ''And why not serve the best elephant ears in the business. Sandy's homemade dough is a matter of pride.''

Rising costs have pushed armbands, or passes for all-day midway rides, to an average $16 this year. The Schmidts say they can't do it for less.

''Some people think we're ripping them off,'' says Tony Schmidt. ''But with 17 rides to ride all day, that's only a buck each to ride. That pays our people, our fuel, supplies and upkeep, our workman's comp.''

''Then we pay the fair boards a percentage of our sales,'' Sandy adds.

The Schmidt business strategy includes supporting 4-H. Just as the youth organization depends on the carnival to attract its public, the carnival depends on 4-H, the family says. So Schmidt Amusement rules include buying 4-H livestock at every fair. The family then returns the animals so the organization can resell them.

Another Schmidt tradition involves opening the midway to special populations for special hours. Preschoolers and people with disabilities, for example, are often invited to ride at no charge, before hours.

Back in Standish, meanwhile, where all 19 Schmidts live during the off-season, the family is also a well-known booster. Residents say members volunteer on civic boards and donate amusement resources often, especially to the local elementary school.

For Michigan's fair boards, choosing the right carnival carries considerable weight, directors say. They use the midway to draw crowds to other fair mainstays, from horse-racing to poultry auctions.

But Bay County fair board president, Leo Bouchard, says Schmidt Amusements isn't so unusual in that it brings a safe, clean operation to town.

''The biggest difference from my standpoint is their honesty,'' Bouchard says. ''They'll tell us from the start, say, if a ride is down, if anything's amiss. That's the margin they're known for. That and the fact that they give 110 percent effort.''

For the Schmidts, it's just another day at the fair.

''There's an old saying in the business,'' Peggy says. ''Once (the carnival) packs up, 'All that's left are the popcorn sacks and the wagon tracks.' Well, we hope we leave some good memories, too.''

- Helen Lounsbury covers regional news for The Times. She can be reached at (989) 450-9994 or hlounsbury@bc-times.com