Swyear Amusements has been steady force in southern Illinois, providing quality entertainment at agricultural fairs for 56 years.
Brothers Terry and Roger Swyear and their families run the show out of New Athens, Ill. Roger's unit ramps up this month in Florida after completing winter quarters work in Gibsonton. Terry's unit will get going in mid-April playing shopping centers in Illinois.
The brothers will merge into one unit in May and play a string of eight county fairs in Illinois before splitting up again two weeks after Labor Day, said Terry Swyear. Roger Swyear will take half the equipment back to Florida and play some still dates and celebrations until Thanksgiving to end the season. They also dip into Arkansas to play county fairs in Conway and Pine Bluff.
Together, they move more than 20 rides plus a full contingent of food and game concessions.
The story of how the Swyears got started in the carnival business is a bit different compared with the typical history behind multi-generational show folks. Ray Swyear, Terry and Roger's father, was a professional house painter who met a woman that owned a few kiddie rides. He bought a small train ride from her and Ray Swyear Rides was born in 1958.
"By the time I got in high school in the late 1960s, he had a decent-sized carnival," Terry said.
The family as a whole ran the operation until Ray died in 1997. At that point, Terry and Roger took over the carnival with the assistance of Janice, their mother. Over the years, their wives and kids have joined the business. Terry's wife Kathy and Roger's wife Teresa help run the office and make sure things go as smoothly as possible.
Janice Swyear, the show's matriarch, has retired and won't be going out on the road this year after spending close to 60 years in the business, Terry said. Adam Swyear, 39 and Terry's oldest son, owns about five rides and a few games.
"My other kids tried the business but decided to do other things," Terry said.
The Swyears picked up a new fair this year after signing a contract at the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs convention in January. The Ford County Fair and 4H Show in Melvin, Ill. may not be the biggest event on their route but it is an upgrade over last summer's street festivals in late June, Swyear said. This year's Ford County dates are June 22-28. The carnival also plays the Vermilion County Fair that week.
In addition, Swyear's summer route covers fairs in Champaign County, Coles County, Edgar County, Iroquois County, Macon County and Sangamon County. The Swyears have longstanding relationships in those farming communities, ranging from five years in Macon and Vermillion county to 30 years in Coles and Sangamon county, Terry said.
Last year's fair run held its own after a wet and rainy spring and revenue stayed on par with 2012, he said.
The Swyears upgraded their ride lineup with a few additions for 2014. Roger bought a Wacky Sack fun house from Ross Owen and a Dragon Wagon from Wisdom. Those pieces replace an old Mardi Gras glass house and a Raiders jungle gym that the family traded in for the newer attractions. Last summer, the show purchased a Rock Star from ARM that proved to be a real good piece, Terry said.
Another recent acquisition has been a Tilt-a-Whirl, which stands out as the final one made by Sellner Manufacturing before it filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, he said. The Tilt is a 2010 model. Larson Manufacturing acquired Sellner in 2011.
Like many other carnivals, Swyear Amusements uses international labor to supplement its workforce. The medium-sized show employs about 40 Hispanic workers over the course of the season through JKJ Workforce Agency.
"I just can't find enough [U.S. citizens] to pass the background check and drug tests," Terry said.
The economy, meanwhile, continues to send mixed messages.
"It depends on where you're at," he said. "The farming communities were not too bad but when you got around the bigger cities it got a little tough," he said. "In 2012, though, we had a drought in Illinois and it was just the opposite. The farms had no money. Last year was a role reversal."
The games and food operations are shared by family members and a few independents. Kathy Swyear has three food trailers, a sandwich diner, corn dog, nachos and pretzels, and funnel cakes and ice cream. Roger Swyear has cotton candy and popcorn.
Cory Van Damme and Matt Wilson both book eight games with Swyear Amusements, joining Adam in trying to make a buck on the most difficult part of the midway to turn a profit.
"It's tough," Terry said. "The customers will ride and eat and then play games. It's last on the list."
For 2014, the Swyears are holding the line on ticket prices, charging $1 for single tickets, a sheet of 20 for $18 and 40 coupons for $35. Unlimited ride armbands cost $20 in some spots.
It's been about eight years since the carnival raised ticket prices because "people only have so much money," Terry said. "I don't price myself out. In all reality, I should charge $10 to ride the Ferris wheel .. but that's the way it is."
CLICK HERE to view photos of Swyear Amusements from their 2011 season