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George Weston: Strates Shows' GM talks roots and routes

5/29/2013

By Linda Van Slyke

Photo courtesy of George Weston

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Although George Weston's life has followed some long and winding routes since childhood, his inner roots remain firmly planted on the banks of Maine's Kennebec River.

It was there that young George first learned about the power of imagination.  Growing up in the era of "Tom Terrific" - the animated children's TV series that featured a boyish hero who used his magical thinking cap to become anything he wanted - Weston quickly learned to transmute his own sparse lifestyle into a kingdom of adventure.

Even accessing "Tom Terrific" back then was challenging since George was 13 years old before the Westons had electricity.  Living in a "tar paper shack" in the woods, he learned how to create his own excitement from the natural wonders all around him.  Using logs from the nearby river, George and his friends woulPhoto By George Westond build makeshift rafts. 

They would then sail over to some islands that were teeming with blueberries and raspberries.  After picking their fill, the young boys would deliver their wilderness bounty to the local grocery store.  Such entrepreneurial ventures helped to foster a keen sense of self-respect and hard work that would carry Weston through some very tough times.

Skowhegan, Maine's natural surroundings also taught George an early appreciation of animals.  A local farmer offered him any horse he wanted at the end of the season if George would put in a summer's worth of work.  Weston stated that he "ended up with a horse called Sugar when she was eight months old."

He further explained:  "I went down to the river to swim and Sugar came with me.  She was now 10 months old, and I hadn't even ridden her yet.  When I finally did, I never needed a bridle or a saddle.  At the end of the day, Sugar would come into the house along with the dogs.  In fact, she probably thought that she was a dog."

There was another very special part of growing up in George Weston's shoes, and that was the annual Skowhegan State Fair.  Weston reminisced:  "Each year when the carnival came to town, all the kids would show up to work.  Age back then was not a factor." 

By the time he was 13 or 14, Weston was on the road. "I would travel to other places in Maine and play a small circuit and then come home.  Back then you slept in a truck or in one of the barns", he said.  Food was fairly easy to come by.  George remembered, "They always had these Granges where they cooked really good meals.  You could go there and eat.  If you were a kid and looked hungry, the women would always feed you."

These early roots would bear much fruit in Weston's later life.  Because he had worked in so many midway-type settings as a teenager, he developed as astute understanding of how a carnival worked.  Even though he went another route as a young adult by serving his country in the military, he later returned to his roots, spending as of this writing almost-35 years with the James E. Strates Shows.

From his childhood years with the Skowhegan State Fair to his adult years with Strates Shows, Weston has had an insider's view of what carnival life is all about.  While speaking about the sweeping changes that have taken place over the years, he explained how things used to be:  "In the mid-60s, the pay was $5 a day no matter what you did - working in a cookhouse, selling tickets (every ride had its own ticket box in those days), tearing down rides all night, whatever - still $5 a day.  There were the burlesque shows and the side shows - some were just acting, some were the real thing.  And the biggest thing to come to town was the fair.  Not so much the circus, but the fair."

He continued:  "The first time that I walked into the fair in Skowhegan, I went to the forestry exhibit and they had pine trees, deer, rabbits, raccoons, and a stream with real trout in it.  Every now and then there would be a baby fawn with them.  The animals would walk around freely and interact.  I never forgot that.  I felt like I was in the middle of a real Maine forest.  You don't see that anymore.  These days the wild animals are usually stuffed."

Although Weston certainly has a penchant for the simplicity of days gone by, he also has a deep appreciation for the evolutionary progress that has taken place.  He explained that E. James Strates is "one of the founding fathers of the new modern carnival."  Strates and his company made pioneering strides with centralized tickets, uniforms, picture ID cards, pricing, and many other innovations.

The beauty of Weston's experiential timeline is that he can now draw from the best of what both past and present have to offer.  He believes that future success will depend upon retaining the essence of what has worked in the past - traditional foods such as candy apples and funnel cakes, rides that thrill, and animals that kids can become more familiar with - and presenting them in ways ever new. 

Weston further explains his preference for incremental change:  "I'm not saying you can't take down a building and put up a new building, or take something and make it better.  But when you start changing too much, it loses its identity.  What a lot of people don't get is that we are all just caretakers - keepers of the times..."

What ultimately makes it all work, according to Weston, is the people - people of many shapes, sizes, colors, beliefs, capabilities, nationalities, and economic backgrounds.  Weston emphasized that carnivals attract folks from all facets of life, drawing them into a transformed world of extraordinary experiences that binds them all together for a common purpose - producing the magic that is the fair midway.  It's a world made possible by the powers of imagination, teamwork and respect - those very same powers that George and his rafting buddies first developed during those "lazy, hazy, crazy" summer days on the Kennebec River.

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