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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Carnie Philosophy

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Edgar 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.

As 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.

Stubblefield, 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.

Seeing 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.

The 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 Sulphur Springs to McKinney,” he recalled with a smile. “I had a pair of shoes that used to call ‘gators’ and I wore a hole in ‘em.”

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.

“Back… [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.”

They 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,” he said.

Sunshine 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 Fort Worth-Dallas. 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.”

© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
April 28, 2011 column

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