Stephens and Robert “Sunshine” Stubblefield spent most of their lives on the road
traveling from town to town in Texas
with the Bill Hames carnival.
Back in 1913, Stephens hoped to make a living
as a farmer near Pilot
Point, a small community north of Denton.
Barely getting by, he made a little extra cash cutting firewood for Hames, founder
of the carnival that still bears his name. Hames liked the big man and his big
smile and offered him a full-time job.
Starting off as a “back yard boy”
or general laborer, Stephens soon graduated to operator of the show’s steam-powered
merry-go-round, or “Jenny.” And that’s what he was still doing more than a half-century
later when I interviewed him in March 1969 at the annual San Angelo Livestock
Show and Rodeo. Of course, by then he ran a gasoline-powered carousel.
Stephens’ longevity demonstrated, the Hames show got a lot of mileage out of its
regular employees. The same held true for its equipment and rolling stock. The
merry-go-round Stephens controlled had been part of the show since 1936, the year
Hames finally junked the steam model. After accommodating countless thousands
of youngsters and the young at heart, Stephens said the Depression-era carousel
still ran just fine early into its fourth decade.
Though working the clutch
lever as a wooden platform goes around and around might seem like highly repetitive
work, Stephens said his motivaton – beyond regular pay – renewed every time he
saw how happy such a simple ride made the children.
“I sure like little
kids,” he beamed.
Based in Fort
Worth, the Hames carnival traveled from event to event all over Texas,
at first by train and then by truck carvan. In the off-season Stephens lived in
Brady. But after so many years
on the road, he said, “In a way, it kind of feels like home to be with the carnival.”
He tried to quit in October 1968, he said, “but they wanted me to go to
Beaumont with them and
I did. They didn’t like it much when I quit.” So Stephens un-quit.
better known as “Sunshine,” joined the show in 1925. He and Stubblefield became
good friends, but Sunshine didn’t operate any midway equipment. Through the last
decades of Jim Crow America, he worked as dancing minstrel, a black in blackface
clowning for the amusement of whites.
Sunshine grew up in Sulphur
Springs. Like Stephens, he gave up farming for a carnie’s life.
some of the carnival wagons on their way to the train, he followed them to the
railroad siding, asked for a job and got hired on the spot as a “roughy,” or laborer.
He ended up working all night long as the Hames crew took down the tents and rides
after their Sulphur
Springs run and loaded them for the next gig in McKinney.
When he went home to get some sleep, he had his pay in his pocket – a quarter.
foreman who’d hired him said that to get on with the show full-time, he’d have
to ride with them on the train to McKinney
and sign up there. That’s what Stubblefield planned to do, but dead tired, he
overslept and missed the train.
“I walked darn near most of the way from
Springs to McKinney,” he recalled
with a smile. “I had a pair of shoes that used to call ‘gators’ and I wore a hole
At first, Sunshine did odd jobs around the carnival. But that
changed one night after the show closed when he and some friends had gathered
behind the tent for a bit of spiritous conviviality.
“I was clowning around
and dancing after a few drinks and somebody came up and said, ‘I’m gonna make
a comedian out of you.’ By golly, he did.”
For the next quarter-century,
Sunshine performed as a sideshow minstrel.
“I wore a red coat I called
my monkey suit,” he laughed. “I used to be known as the fastest dancer what ever
came through the country.”
“He sure was,” Stephens chimed in.
Hames’ carnival managed to stay in business through the Great Depression, and
unlike millions of Americans, Stephens and Stubblefield kept their jobs.
[then],” Sunshine said, “they didn’t even give us money. We got what they called
‘dukies,’ – brass coins we couldn’t spend anywhere but at the carnival. They gave
us a dollar in real money for cigarettes, providing we spent that at the carnival.”
may have had steady work, but money remained tight. Sometimes, he said, they had
so little cash that he and his friends pooled what they had to get enough to buy
the makings for a stew.
“Even the boss used to eat with us sometimes,”
continued in the carnival’s minstrel act until 1954, by which time he said he’d
gotten “too old to jump.”
Into the late 1960s, during the off-season,
Sunshine still occasionally did some night club entertaining and bar tending in
By then, Sunshine was working out of the show’s main office, doing the “runnin’,”
as he put it.
Both men agreed that the carnival business just wasn’t what
it used to be. For one thing, costs had gone way up. The merry-go-round used to
cost a dime. A hobby horse ride was 25 cents in 1969.
Sunshine lived up
to his name.
“I’ve just stayed happy,” he said. “My philosophy is, if
I do, I do. If I don’t, I don’t. When they ask me why I laugh, I tell ‘em it’s
to keep from crying.”
Cox - "Texas Tales" April
28, 2011 column