Simple Pleasures: Firemen’s Carnivals on the Eastern Shore

First published in Chesapeake Life

It’s a sultry summer night in Onancock, Virginia. The heat of the day has given up; a breeze drifts in from the Bay. Clouds are daubed against the sky, turning as pink as cotton candy in the sunset. The main street through the town is quiet; the few cars and pick-ups seem to amble along the asphalt.

At Fireman’s Field on the edge of town, a few people sprawl on the benches scattered across the sparse grass and sand. It’s day 13 of the 16-day run of the annual Fireman’s Carnival. There’s a laid-back anticipation in the air as the early arrivals greet friends and watch as the refreshment stands get ready for the night. Two herring gulls fly a reconnaissance mission overhead, marking the location of the trash cans. The lights strung above the fireman’s fairgrounds flicker on – simple 60-watt strings of green, yellow, red, and orange that barely show against the still-bright sky.

For two generations, maybe more, the fireman’s carnival was as much a part of summer on the Chesapeake as crabs and beer and as numerous as nutria in a marsh. Eastern Shore folk could spend every summer’s night playing carney games and gorging on funnel cake somewhere on the Shore. They’re a tradition from the time before the Bay Bridge brought tourists for whom the idea of a home-grown community carnival is as alien as haute cuisine in Ocean City. Rising expenses, liability concerns, high maintenance costs, and a shrinking pool of volunteers forced many departments to shut down their fairs. Now, they’re as endangered as the Delmarva Fox Squirrel. But there are still a few places where the simple pleasures from a simpler time survive…

A big crowd fills the fairgrounds in Hebron on the last Friday of the fair. The original owners of the fairground would hardly approve of the festivities. It was a camp ground for revival meetings before the firemen purchased it in the early 1940s.

The “Halleluias!” heard this night come from the Bingo stand, where corn kernels serve as markers, and players win prizes like a six-piece coffee mug set, spice rack, candy dish, and a checkerboard set.

Even more sacrilegious is the raffle for a new Chevy. The sales booth for raffle tickets is also the community gossip clearing house. The ladies running the booth call to friends and cluster together, whipping out photos of grandkids faster than a scalper sells tickets to an Oriole’s game. Ticket buyers and sellers trade information like stock brokers share hot tips with investors.

“Lorraine, her health is not good at all. I see her in church, now and again. She’s just not the same old Lorraine,” one buyer confides. The seller clucks her tongue in sympathy as she hands over the tickets.

“Now when you win this car, you remember who sold you the ticket, and give me a ride.”

In Onancock, it’s not gossip, but relationships that control the crown. Carnival Chairman Joe Colona grins as he explains the layout.

“We’ve got ourselves three places where people congregate,” he says, pointing across the fairgrounds. “The flirt zone is over by the pizza stand and the wooden benches. The older kids, they go to the Spider. That’s the macho ride, you know. The parents, they go by the feeding area.”

Fairs mean food. At Onancock’s oyster burger stand, volunteers sing out the menu to the waiting line in a well-practiced cadence. “Hamburger, double hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, hot dog, clamburger, oysterburger, onions no extra charge.”

Usually the hungry converge on the oyster burger stand, but this year, there is competition. The funnel cake stand introduced an innovation in sweet temptation – the Funnel-O. Crumbled Oreo™ Cookies deep-fried in funnel cake batter. Dr. Atkins’, the guru of the low-carb diet, might feel his arteries clog at the mere thought of the treat, but no one ever earned a box seat in Heaven staying a size 10.

Hebron’s oyster sandwiches are nearly legendary. Aficionados line up early for their fritter fix. Even before the official opening, the line stretches halfway to Mardela. Inside the kitchen, Ethel Nutter and Geraldine Robinson are the oyster queens. Ethel is the fourth generation from her family to spend most of July frying oysters for the appreciative multitude.

“My mother did it when I was born. Before that, my grandmother did it. I have a picture of my grandmother frying oysters here.”

There is, of course, a secret to her recipe. “You’ve got to have good oysters in the beginning. Salt, pepper, flour, and the right amount of milk. Then it’s how you fry it.”

The frying part is Geraldine Robinson’s specialty. After 45 years of working the fair, she has it down pat. “You can’t let them lay. You have to continue to turn them, constantly test to see when they set.” She can’t even begin to guess how many oysters she’s fried in that time. But her quality control stretches only to the appearance of the oysters and the comments of her customers. “I don’t like to eat them.”

The rides are the center of the action at Onancock. Volunteers and their children sport bright green wristbands entitling them to unlimited goes on the Space Chaser, Swinging Rocket, Black Spider, Ferris wheel, Scrambler, and Tilt-a-Whirl. Teams of kids stuck as close together as nuts in Goo-Goo Clusters scuttle by, debating their plans to maximize the number of rides taken in a single evening. Those without wristbands struggle with ways to maximize their allowance. Single rides cost $1 a ticket, but the premium rides, like the Black Spider and Scrambler, take two tickets. The best paying deal is $9 for unlimited rides all night.

Over by the Ferris wheel, Mike Truitt sweeps the dust off the seats, then pats his hand on the vinyl to summon the next group of riders. The Ferris wheel, he says, it temperamental, but “the thing about the rides that is unique is that as long as you maintain them, they will last forever.” This wheel was built in 1927. The company that made it is still in business and still has parts. “There aren’t a lot of businesses that you can call and get a part for something they built over 50 years ago.”

Mike’s been with the fire department for 25 years. That’s a lot of time to get to know the personality of each machine. He’s as familiar with the innards of these machines as Julia Child is to the gullet of a chicken. He knows the swings and bumps and rhythm of most of them, too, but – like Geraldine Robinson – he stops short of personal involvement. .

“I don’t ride ’em all. If it goes in a circle, I don’t go on them.”

Sodas spilling as they try to juggle drinks and snacks, kids work their way down the line of carney games. The prizes are simple: small plush animals, a hula hoop, a watercolor paint set. Toss a ping pong ball into a fishbowl and win a giant paper flower or Tootsie Pop™. But each winner is as excited as a contestant on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” And they won without calling in a backup.

Alan Reed supervises Hebron’s wheel game with his wife and daughter. Players try for blankets and pillows, some of the more practical prizes anyone can win. He’s given away about 15 blankets so far tonight, and the fair has a couple more hours to run. To him, the fairs are part of the way things are supposed to be.

“You try to help out with the community. I’m scheduled just to work on Fridays, but I come down here other nights. You sit up here and a lot of the same faces walk through each year.”

Summer nights sink into darkness slowly. The crowds begin to thin a little after nine, when the sky is still light. By 10:30, ‘most everyone in Onancock has headed home. Small children fight sleep while riding on their parents’ shoulders, the magic of the night reflected in the eyes of their cotton candy-stained faces. Teenagers hide in the shadows of the wall advertising the sponsors of the Fourth of July fireworks display – Williams Funeral Home, L&M Produce, Pepsi, Durbin’s Auto Body, The Corner Bakery, and three local radio stations.

In a few days, the rides will spin to a stop and the lights will flicker out for the last time.

Until next summer.