By Tony Hooker
For the better part of 4 decades, Kent Brinkley and his company, Clay County Amusements, has brought enjoyment to young faces all over Illinois, including Villa Grove Ag Days. I was able to catch up with Kent about how his carnival came to be, and more importantly, what the future holds for the Flora resident.
How long have you been in the carnival business?
You’ve probably seen a lot of changes over the years, right?
I’ve seen a lot of changes, and I can’t say that most of them are for the better! <laughs>
What’s been the biggest change since you started?
Our biggest change has been help. We can’t find help to operate. We can’t find help to set up and tear down.
Did the pandemic kill it, or was it already dying?
It was dying out a little bit before covid, but that just added to it.
I suppose liability and that sort of thing has added to it, as well?
Liability insurance and that sort of thing has pretty well stayed steady the last ten or fifteen years, so that’s not really been a major issue.
How about rides? Do you have difficulty finding new rides?
No. There’s all kinds of rides out there for sale. There are different places you can go on the internet, and most carnival people stay in touch with each other, so we know when someone has a ride for sale.
Do you just work through the summer, or do you head south for the winter months?
I work from the last week of May through the first week of October. I don’t go south for the winter.
Are there any carnival associations that your part of, or is it more informal?
Basically, there’s the Illinois State Fair Association. Other than that, there are different associations. There’s a national amusement association and an Illinois association.
What’s been the biggest change over the years?
Regulations. The state has begun to regulate more and more, with having your help have to pass background checks and things like that.
How about the kids? Have they changed?
I can’t say the kids have changed much.
How about their parents? <laughs>
<Laughing> Now, the parents have changed, but the kids haven’t!
How has business been affected over the last two years, with more folks electing to stay at home?
Actually, our business has been really good the last two years. After covid, we’ve had two of our better years. People still want to get out and do things, but they don’t want to travel too far from home, especially right now with gas prices where they are. The last two years have been really good in the carnival business. The thing is that the small carnival like I have here is just about a thing of the past. You’re either going to have to be one of the bigger carnivals where you can bring in foreign aid workers to run your rides or you’re going to go out of business because you can’t find the help you need to operate.
You own all the rides and pay the people to operate them, correct?
Yes. They’re my employees.
Does this include the game booths?
All of the games up here belong to me. The jewelry stands and all of the vendors are independent.
How did you get interested in the carnival business?
I was the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Flora, IL., and I promised them a carnival for the fall festival, and I couldn’t find one to hire! I went out and bought a bounce house, a swing ride and a Ferris wheel and started my own carnival! <laughs>
And you just fell in love with it?
I was working for Dow Chemical at the time, and I could take three or four rides out on a weekend and make more than I was making, working for Dow.
We’ve talked about this before, but is it coming to an end for you?
As of October 1, I’m retired. I’ve already sold some of my rides and a few of my trucks. I’ve got down payments on them and I told them that they can have them on the first of October.
Will Clay County Amusements remain?
No. It’s going away. My son is an electrician with his own business and my daughter is a schoolteacher, and neither of them want it. <laughs> They’ve been out here all their lives, and we’ve decided we’re just going to sell it one piece at a time and take on a new avenue.
What are you going to be doing?
My wife and I are both going to retire, but during 2020 when I was shut down because of covid, I went to pulling campers from Elkhart, IN to locations all over the United States, and I think we’re going to go back to doing that. That way, we can travel the US and see what we want to see and do what we want to do.
What’s been your favorite memory of the past 34 years?
I can’t really put my thumb on one single memory, to be honest.
How about not so good memories?
It happened right here in Villa Grove when the little girl fell off the slide. That’s not a good memory.
Is there anything you would like to add?
<becomes emotional> It’s been a long time, thirty-four years, but as you can see, I hate to give it up.