Breaking up is hard to do, but it's something Matt McDonagh felt was necessary.
McDonagh, 41, is in his second season as the owner of Big Rock Amusements after buying 10 rides and a route from the old Jules & Beck Combined Shows in early 2010. Previously, McDonagh worked full-time doing just about everything for McDonagh Amusements, a Michigan-based carnival owned by his parents, Tom and Jeanne McDonagh.
Before turning 40, Matt wanted to buy his family's show and take over the operation, but the timing wasn't right, he said. Instead, McDonagh went down a different path, purchasing several rides and dates from Pat Guthrie, who at the time owned Jules and Beck.
"I knew Pat a little bit and heard he was trying to sell his show," McDonagh said. "I met him at the Michigan fair convention and we signed a deal. He's been very helpful. He joked that he would be my best friend the next few years" until McDonagh pays him back in full for those assets.
In less than two years, Big Rock Amusements has grown to a company that travels with 21 rides. After ramping up the new operation, McDonagh purchased a new Chance carousel, a Fun Slide, Sea Ray, Bear Affair, a Zamperla Rio Grande train ride and a Mouse Trap kiddie play port. Those attractions are in addition to the rides McDonagh bought from Jules and Beck and the four rides he owned and booked with his parents' carnival.
On the food side, McDonagh had a pizza wagon he owned converted for funnel cakes and bought a new Uni-Glide popcorn wagon and lemonade/corn dog trailer.
Independent concessionaires booking with Big Rock are Casper and Elena Wynn (grab joint, games), Tony Brown and Andy Prevost (goldfish game), and Kelly Jo Timms and Michael Joe Roberts (games).
Big Rock also bought three Otterbacher ticket boxes and a generator from Fanelli Amusements, a New Hampshire carnival. McDonagh had done previous business with that show, acquiring a YoYo and a Dragon Wagon.
Last winter, McDonagh's crew rebuilt the Paratrooper and the Sea Ray at the show's winter quarters in Barnesville, Ga. It is the same location where Guthrie parked his equipment in the offseason. McDonagh and his wife Kelly live in Chesaning, Mich., and at some point, the couple will make a decision whether to move winter quarters up north, Matt said.
Big Rock's route covers a lot of ground, starting in metropolitan Atlanta in the spring before heading north to Kentucky and Tennessee and settling into Michigan for 10 weeks over the summer. In the fall, the show turns back south through Tennessee and Georgia before wrapping up in mid-November. The Michigan run covers five new spots Big Rock picked up over the winter, including four county fairs.
The 2011 season has been strong. "We have been up all summer except for a few bad weather days," McDonagh said.
McDonagh's son, Sloan, 15, has worked for the carnival all summer, selling tickets and helping with teardown. Sloan plans to enter Howe (Ind.) Military School this fall, the same institution his father attended for four years. Matt's other son, Drew, 10, helps out as well.
The carnival's name comes from Chesaning, McDonagh's home town and an Indian word for big rock. "I thought it would be a good name for those spots we play in the mountains," he said. "I didn't want my name used."
McDonagh holds no ill will toward his family for not selling him the show when he wanted to buy it. At the same time, Matt felt he needed to get out on his own.
Now that he's in charge of his own operation, McDonagh does not see a big difference compared with when he worked for his family's business.
"The decisions I make, right or wrong, that's what it is," he said. "I still have the same responsibilities."
Photos by Matt Cook, taken in St. Joseph, MI - July 2011
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