Della Bossman stands on Wednesday at one of the traveling game stands she and her husband,
Dennis, own at the carnival in Island Grove Regional Park at the Greeley Stampede. (Joshua Polson)
Louisiana native Della Bossman, 49, has been part of the carnival life for … well, her whole life.
On the Island Grove Regional Park grounds at the Greeley Stampede this past week, Bossman patrolled the Carnival
midway area, checking in on the stands and games she and her husband, Dennis, own and operate at various stops on the carnival
circuits around the country from February to November.
I visited the carnival as a warmup to seeing the Clydesdales parade, eating a pork chop on
a stick, and then watching the PRCA bull riding competition. The food area is right out of the Cooking Channel’s “Carnival
Eats,” but I didn’t spot either garrulous host Noah Cappe or deep-fried cotton candy balls.
And in the carnival area, the refrain was: Oh, you gotta talk to Della.
So I did.
“I’m a third-generation carnival person,” Bossman told
me proudly. “Both my parents and both sets of my grandparents were in this business. So when I was born, my parents
had kiddie rides and games and food, and I eventually just took over.”
Bossman’s family first started
with carnivals in Louisiana and Mississippi, not traveling far, enabling her to be anchored in Louisiana through high school.
She and Dennis have been in charge of their own operation since 1994, shortly after the death of Della’s father, Ed
Whalen, and they’ve wandered farther than Whalen did.
“We get to see a lot of places and meet new people,” Della said. “There are a lot of people
we see every year. If I didn’t see them, I think I’d miss them.”
And within the traveling carnival
“More than anything, it’s the people,” she said. “It’s kind of a tight-knit
community if something happens.”
Bossman said their circuit isn’t the same every year, but similar.
“We start in Texas, come up through the Midwest and do several state fairs — Wisconsin, Montana, Minnesota,
Utah, Arkansas and Oklahoma,” she said. “And we finish in Louisiana. This one here is a new one for me. This is
my first year in Greeley.”
She laughed and added, “And so far, so good.”
said the owner of Carnival Americana, Alan Cockerham, who provides the carnival at the Stampede, called her in May and asked
if she could bring some stands to Greeley. In a busy time of year on the carnival circuit around the Fourth of July holiday,
he had taken stock and decided he needed to beef up the lineup for the Stampede.
Carnival Americana, formerly Bill
Hames Shows, is based in Fort Worth and provides or oversees rides, games and food for events in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming
and South Dakota. But many of those working the midway at the Stampede don’t work exclusively for Carnival Americana
or its events. If there’s a spot on the schedule, it’s a spot to work. For somebody. Somewhere.
done some other events with him in the past,” Bossman said. “Actually, my husband and I are divided up right now.
We have some of our equipment here and some in Minnesota. He’s in Swanville. That’s a new one for us, too.”
I couldn’t resist asking: What’s in Swanville, Minnesota?
“Only about 300 people,”
Bossman said with a laugh. “That’s what my husband told me this morning.”
carnival stands at the Stampede are two balloon games, a “Big Mouth” game, two machine guns, a “Frogger”
fishing game and a bottle game.
“The very best part is watching the kids and the families making memories,”
The Bossmans actually do have a home base — a house in Hartford, S.D.
have three daughters, and they’ve all grown up there,” Della said. “The youngest is 16, so we have two more
years of high school. I was either at home with them or I would fly out for certain weeks. Or back and forth every week to
two weeks. I have a lot of flying miles. I’ve been doing that for 20 years.”
Nomadic Michelle Hamblin is one of the operators of the “Frogger” game in the Stampede’s
Carnival midway. (Terry Frei)
Nearby in the carnival area, Michelle Hamblin, from Detroit, was running
Bossman’s “Frogger” game.
There, the trick is to use a reel-like metal stick with a magnet at the
end of a line to click on the metal plate in the snapping and circling plastic “frogs” and pull them out.
The more frogs the contestant pulls out, the bigger the prize.
Hamblin is a carnival veteran,
but she said this is one of her first stops working for Bossman.
“My husband has been in the business for 20
years, and we’ve been married for about a year,” Hamblin said. “He’s been best friends with Della
and has worked for her for six years.”
Hamblin said the carnival life can be stressful, but enjoyable.
“There’s a lot of work to it,” she said. “It’s not as easy as people think. We’ll
be with Della up until August, and then we go on our own. We’re free agents, so we go wherever we go. It’s almost
like the gypsy life. It’s a free life. It’s not for everybody.
“You have to be used to
standing out here for so many hours in the sun and deal with people. But you get to travel the country and meet so many people.
So I like it.”
At the Bossmans’ balloon game stand, where contestants toss small beanbags at
balloons, attempting to break them, Anastacio Garcia, 51, was behind the counter and pitching passers-by to give it a shot.
Don’t ask Stampede Carnival balloon game operator Anastacio Garcia where he’s from
in California. He won’t get any more specific than that. (Terry Frei)
Part of the carnival
life can be the relative anonymity. After I asked Garcia where he was from, he said, “California.” Twice, I asked
where in California. Twice, he came back with, “California.”
OK, fair enough.
what you call a balloon agent,” Garcia said. “Its an easy game. The balloon pops, you win a prize. This is a tradeup
game, so the next time you play, you get a bigger prize. We have six levels here.”
Garcia said he has
been on the carnival circuits for 10 years.
“It’s challenging, mainly because of the hours,” he
said. “And all the driving. It’s rewarding, too, though. The money’s OK.”
the games generally are owned and operated under the watch of Carnival Americana by independent contractors, such as Bossman,
the rides are a mix. Some are independently owned, some are owned by Carnival Americana.
At Carnival Americana’s
Rio Grande Railroad ride — where a small open “train” with bench-type seats, targeted for kids, goes in
a small circle — John Thomas, 52, from Elizabethtown, Ky., was in charge. Thomas is a Carnival Americana utilityman,
going from ride to ride when needed.
Kentucky native John Thomas, a utilityman who can operate several rides, stands at the Rio
Grande Railroad ride in the Greeley Stampede’s Carnival midway. (Terry Frei)
“I can run any
ride out here,” he said proudly.
Thomas conceded the Rio Grande ride isn’t complex. A single ride
is five loops of the small track.
“It can be set up and torn down in about 45 minutes,” he
said. “It takes four of us. We lay out the track, bolt it together, check out the lights and make sure they’re
working. Things like that.”
Thomas said he has been in the carnival business “off and on for
Off and on?
“I went into the service for six years, got out and came back,”
he said. “Then another time I left for three years to take care of some personal business and came back. I keep coming
back because I like the people and I like the travel. You meet a lot of interesting people. Every once in a while you meet
celebrities. One of the nicest guys I’ve met so far is Kid Rock. He was real laid back, a real nice guy.”
The Carnival Americana workers stay in trailer “bunkhouses” at each stop, usually arriving at the
trailer 15 minutes after the carnival closes.
Thomas bunks with 17 others.
The previous stop for the Carnival
Americana folks was at a mall in Pueblo, and they’ll also next head up to the Cheyenne Frontier Days.
one’s really interesting because people fly in for that from all over the world, mainly to watch the rodeo and the concerts,”
Thomas said that when he has down time at each stop — there isn’t a lot, but some —
he tries to explore.
“This year, I’m going to go to Mount Rushmore,” he said. “I
haven’t done that yet.”
That got me thinking.
Anybody for a Mount Rushmore ride?