Chicago, Carnivals & Cows: "Welcome to the 30"

08/02/2013 07:54 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013

Amid the bunkhouses, vans and rusting carnival rides, 40 Black Angus cows roam "The 30," aka the carnival quarters for Modern Midways in Chicago Heights, Il.
This short video shows a carny saying "I just woke up" and shooing away cattle from the bunkhouses in the carny quarters at "The 30."

"What I have ever sighed for is to retreat to a Swiss farm and live entirely surrounded by cows - and china."
Charles Dickens

I spent my first night in a filthy carnival van, scratching and flicking off bugs when I was woken by the feeling that eyes were watching me.

Looking from the seat, I saw a cow's big dumb face looking at me, its snout practically pressed against the window.

If he had said "Good moo-ning" it would have been perfect.

Crawling out of the van, I walked around the cow and saw a herd milling about between the carny bunkhouses, cars and rusted-out carnival rides.

We arrived in the far-south suburb of Chicago Heights after working a show, so I knew we were parked in a field. I knew the owners had cows. I didn't know we lived in a field with 40 Black Angus cows.

Then, walking out of nowhere came a carny on his way to the donniker. His name, of course, is "Ham Bone."

Apparently, my awe of the cows and the widespread decrepitude gave Ham Bone a good laugh at the new guy.

"Welcome to The 30," he said. "Wait till it rains, then it'll be, "Welcome to The Dirty 30."

He was referring to US Route 30, the coast-to-coast highway called the Lincoln Highway in these parts. The Lincoln Highway was the first bi-coastal highway in the country. After US Route 66, this is the most fabled road I have traveled. One morning a carny pointed at the rising sun and said, "My house is right on this highway out that way, in Ohio."

The 'winter quarters' of Modern Midways is along Route 30, on the edge of Chicago Heights, a far southern Chicago suburb.

Ham Bone was right, it rained that day as it did much of last month. Each morning and evening, I was greeted by ankle-high, sometimes shin-high recipe of mud and cow poop.

One morning I woke myself up with the greeting, "Mud and cow shit everywhere, honey, what's for breakfast?"

Chicago carnival history

Chicago is the birthplace of the North American carnival, specifically the 1893 Columbian World's Exposition in Chicago.

Among its many firsts, the Chicago World's Fair featured the first Ferris Wheel and the midway layout has become a standard for carnivals.

After the World's Fair closed, traveling carnivals popped up featuring portable "Ferris wheels," albeit much smaller versions and midways with games, rides and shows such as burlesque and freak shows.

These days the burlesque shows are gone and most freak shows too, but midways remain hotspots for carnivals games and rides, including wheels such as the Big Eli, a direct descendent of the after-glow of the 1893 World's Fair.

Illinois remains one of the top states for the number of traveling carnivals. Two of the biggest in the Chicago area are Modern Midways and Windy City Amusements. North American Midway Entertainment is the largest in Illinois and claims to be the largest traveling carnival company in the country.

Like most traveling carnivals, Modern Midways and Windy City are both family run. The Briggs brothers own Modern Midways and the Salerno Brothers own Windy City. NAME is the umbrella organization but numerous family-run organizations operate within it.

Traveling carnivals often supply carny quarters for workers who travel with the carnival, sometimes charging rent and other times making carny quarters part of the worker's contract pay. At Modern Midways, carnival quarters were included in the $275 a week pay.

Anthropomorphizing cows

I spent the first week in the van, suffering innumerable bites. My skin felt like a scratchy, infested overcoat.

When a few carnies quit, I was told there were rooms in the bunkhouses but no rooms had doors that closed or windows with actual windows in the frames. Any sort of mosquito, bug or cow could come in the front door or window.

Still, anywhere was a relief from that van, which I'd compare to an old, trashed Petri dish on wheels.

Coming out of the rancid showers you were likely to be more dirty than going in. At one trailer shower, the door was off the hinges and on the back read, "The girls don't like seeing your hairy ass so close the door."

In my weeks there, the showers often didn't work or were cold. That along with the lack of a nearby laundromat made the human stench in the van rides back and forth from the shows "a kind of hell on earth," one carny from Florida remarked.

The donnikers were more than 100 yards away through an obstacle course of mud and wood planks. In a hurry, sometimes, your frantic run for the toilet was blocked by a bull.

That concept prompted Marine Eric to object.

"If you have diarrhea, you'll never make it. You'll have to do it next to the cows. Say, move over cow."

The cows were also a great source of humor for us all as they began showing up in stories about cows operating rides while we sleep, or sneaking into bed with us to keep warm.

The cows could have superpowers, they could even outsmart us. Cows had attitudes and were guilty of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.

During my final tear down in Chicago last month, Peanut told me that I was going to miss my family, the carnival. Even the cows, he said.

He was right for linking the family with the cows.

I loved The 30, I just didn't know it when I was shin-high in bullshit.

Writers note: I write about the carnivals I've worked in only after I have left. Last month, Chicago was my fourth carnival and- because I live on carny wages- I hitchhiked 4,000 miles across the country between jobs