The James H. Drew Exposition has kept its head above water after a rainy start to the summer killed a big piece of business in Virginia and Kentucky.
"The season's been OK when we don't get rain," said Jim Drew, co-owner of the carnival with his family and the son of Jimmy Drew. "We got beaten up pretty bad in June."
In addition to those two states, Drew Expo plays Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and its home state of Georgia. The carnival's headquarters are in Augusta, Ga., with another office in North Augusta, S.C., over the border. Winter quarters are in Edgefield County, S.C.
In late July, the carnival had 19 rides set up in a field next to the Hamilton Town Center, a mall in Noblesville, Ind., an Indiana
polis suburb. The show will spend the coming weeks in Kentucky before eventually winding its way back to Augusta, including a date in Evans, Ga.
The Drew route reads like a road map of rural America: Morristown, White Pine and Bristol, Tenn.; Welch, W.Va.; and Prestonburg and Mayfield, Ky; Other bookings include the Vigo County Fair, held July 12-18 in Terre Haute, Ind., and a spring date at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum in May.
In addition to the weather, which is always a factor, the economy still stings a bit in places like Kentucky, Drew said. The coal industry is in decline with the federal government's push for municipalities to use cleaner, environmentally-friendly fuels. As a result, the shakeout in the U.S. energy workforce has led to a loss of 50,000 jobs over the past five years tied to the coal mining industry,according to a recent story in the Washington Post.
Many of those jobs lost occurred in the Bluegrass State. "Where there's coal [as the main industry] it seems to be hurting," Drew said. "We can see it and feel it. A lot of those communities are talking about [lack of] jobs and coal. Things are tight on the midway. The games always get it worse than the rides."
It helps a bit that the carnival has kept its single-ticket price at $1 to $1.25, he said. Wristband specials have also stayed steady at $20.
Drew said the carnival would like to purchase another portable roller coaster for next season. The show has featured a Schwarzkopf Wildcat for the past five years, a ride that takes six to eight tickets depending on the event. But show officials are looking for a second coaster that moves easier over the road.
The Wildcat rotates with other major pieces on the Drew midway. Officials pick their spots for the coaster because it's time consuming to set to set up and tear down the attraction, and it takes six to eight workers to complete the job. Outside of the logistical issues, it's a "real good,solid piece," Drew said. Another fun house could also be in the works.
The new pieces for this year are a Zamperla balloon-themed Ferris wheel and a Lolly Swing, and a Ross Owens Cuckoo Haus themed the Black Forest. The total investment for all three rides is about $600,000. Other upgrades include a "ton of canvas," he said. "It was a big canvas year."
The show converted seven rides to LED lights this year and have another five in winter quarters going through retrofits. For those familiar with Drew Expo's history and tradition, the carnival's antique band organ, made in Germany in the 1800s, still travels with the show.
The show has no issues tied to the quality of its labor force. Drew Expo hires domestically and has never been forced to tap into the international workers from Mexico and South America that other shows rely on every year. "Maybe it's just the part of the world we live in," he said.
Besides the family, James Graybill, Gary Biddle and Cliff Lowe are three key employees who do a little bit of everything to make sure the show runs smoothly, Drew said.
On the concessions side, independent game operators Harvey Miller, Eric Noel and Rick Sargent are mainstays with the show. Sargent grew up with Jimmy Drew and has had a relationship with the carnival his entire life.
Jimmy Drew, 70, and his wife, Evangeline, still travel those rural highways along Piedmont and Appalachia. The show dates to 1931 when it was known as World of Fun Shows. The Drew company name was incorporated in 1948.
Jim Drew, now 40, has a history degree from the University of Georgia and years ago he was accepted into law school in Athens, but he decided to remain in the carnival business. In his heart, he feels he made the right decision.
"I'm blessed," Drew said. "I can work with equipment of any kind,."