In the heart of baseball season, T.J. Schmidt & Company is in the midst of playing its own Murderer's Row of Michigan county fairs.
The Standish, Mich. carnival is owned by Terry and Sandy Schmidt, lifelong carnival industry folk whose parents were both unit managers with Wade Shows.
Now in its sixth season, the carnival has developed a strong route exclusive to its home state, the foundation of which is seven agricultural fairs.
From late June to late August, a period stretching 10 weeks, the show travels northern part of Michigan starting with the Montcalm County 4H Fair, Greenville. The fair route ends with the Houghton County Fair in Hancock. In between are stops in Caro, Bad Axe, Hale, Marquette and Iron River.
The Schmidts know the territory well. After learning the ropes on Wade Shows, Terry and Sandy spent 25 years with Schmidt Amusements, a show owned by Terry's parents, Sherman and Joy Schmidt.
Terry and Sandy Schmidt owned several rides with Schmidt Amusements and formed their own operation in 2008. Sandy's parents are Ivan and Agnes Arnold, who have owned and operated their own carnival, Arnold Amusements, for many years.
Doug Burtch, T.J. Schmidt's business manager, has his own interesting story to tell. Burtch, 36, grew up in Standish next to the Aranac County fairgrounds and remembers the carnival coming to town every year to play the event. As a young boy, Burtch use to move his toy trucks from room to room in his house as he mimicked the show's setup and teardown routines.
Burtch got to the know the Schmidt family and at age 16 he started working with the carnival, operating an elephant ear trailer.
He went to college and specialized in music education, earning an undergraduate degree from Saginaw Valley State University and a masters in conducting from the University of Central Michigan.
Burtch plays the piano and clarinet, and during the winter months he conducts the East Shore Wind Symphony in Standish.
He might be the only musical conductor in North America that owns a Scrambler. Six years ago, Burtch started investing in ride equipment. He also also owns a Fireball.
The 2013 season has been very good when the Schmidts get the weather, Burtch said. It's the same old story but in Michigan, it is an encouraging sign. The city of Detroit recently filed for bankruptcy and the rest of the state feels the repercussions of the financial struggles facing its largest community.
"The economy in Michigan is going through a very slow recovery," he said. "Companies are going through a lot of restructuring which results in downsizing. The auto manufacturers are healthier but on a much smaller scale."
As a result, the carnival keeps its ticket prices in check, charging $1 a ticket with three to four tickets required per attraction. Pay-one-price wristbands cost $15 to $22 depending on the location.
"We haven't got to $25 yet," Burtch said. "It's still the most popular promotion. We have to be careful how much we charge for wristbands. You have to look at the area you're playing and the size of the show you're setting up, and make the best decision you can."
The carnival owns 23 rides and splits into two units early and late in the season. This year, the show has focused on upgrading its infrastructure, purchasing new canvas for its Hampton kiddie rides and four tents to provide rest stops for families. The carnival did take delivery on a new Schantz elephant ear trailer over the July 4 holiday.
All, told those investments cost about $200,000, according to Burtch.
"We're looking forward to a good fair season and positioning ourselves for ride purchases in 2014," he said. "We've got our eyes on a few pieces."
The show's current list of attractions include two pieces unique to carnivals playing Michigan, Chance two-trailer Sea Dragon and an ARM Quasar, a cross between a Flying Bobs and a Himalaya, Burtch said.
Despite those two pieces standing out on the midway, the Tilt-a-Whirl remains the show's top-grossing ride, he said.
"It's a classic family ride, it grinds out money all day, Burtch said. "The same is true for the Scrambler and the merry-go-round. From open to close, they're both making money."
The carousel is a Chance three-abreast model with 30 total horses. The carnival owns all the food concessions under management of Sandy Schmidt.
The show booked a new date this year that will result in its biggest jump of the season. Shortly before Labor Day, the carnival will leave the Houghton County Fair near the tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and head 600 miles south to Southgate, a small city about 10 miles south of Detroit.
"The most we can get set up there will be 15 rides but this event should be stronger than the date we had previously and worth the drive," Burtch said. Standish alone is 285 miles north of Detroit, he said.
The final event of the season is "Appleumpkin" in mid-October in Tecumseh, Mich. The event's name is a play on words to reflect the fall harvest of apples and pumpkins.
The carnival believes in the power of social media and officials are active on Facebook and Twitter to promote its business. Both social media outlets are linked to the show's website, Burtch said.
A popular promotion was connected to a festival in Bridgeport. The show posted a photograph of a carnival ride racked on a truck and the person to correctly identify got a free ride pass for the event. The show also posts QR codes on its food and game trailers that takes users to its website for more ride promotions, Burtch said.
"It definitely helps with marketing our events to families and teens," he said.