For 2 Weeks, We Were Carnies!

Working at the Fair


We worked a couple of weeks at the fair!

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work a festival?   You’re picturing an array of colorful flashing lights, roller coasters, ferris wheels, happy families, young couples hand in hand, caramel apples, funnel cakes, cotton candy, and pony rides.  It sounds intriguing doesn’t it?

We certainly thought of those things also.  But besides the “fun” of it, our other motivations for sampling this type of work were:

  • It appealed to our sense of adventure.
  • We’re continuously looking for short term temporary jobs that we can do when in between longer term seasonal jobs
  • Based on the show schedule, we thought we’d be able to work for a couple of weeks, then take a couple of weeks off, then work for a couple of weeks, etc.
  • We expected to work a lot of hours, but also to make a lot of money in return.
  • We were hopeful that we’d make more gypsy-living friends.

Here’s the way it all unfolded:

A resort co-worker in Minnesota mentioned working at the Minnesota State Fair.  He works it every year, and is able to sock away a good stash of cash.  Alas, after investigating it, we learned that many of the state fairs require you to apply for the jobs in person.  In other words, they don’t consider applicants unless you’re able to show up for a 15 minute interview in person, well ahead of the fair date.  Even when we were in Minnesota, this wasn’t practical for us, as it was a 4 hour drive to get to Minneapolis to register and interview.  With our transient lifestyle, being in the right cities at the right times to apply for fair work just wasn’t likely.  So we tabled the idea for a while.

Fast forward 2 months.  We happened to be house-sitting about an hour’s drive from Nashville while the Tennessee State Fair was in town.  We couldn’t commit to working the fair, due to our obligations with the house (pet) sitting gig.  But we did take a day-trip to the fair for research and fun.  The Nashville fair’s pretty small, and most of the booths were owned by the same vendors.  So, we sought out a manager for one of the larger vendors, and waited for him to be available.  He looked us over, and asked if we’d help him out at an upcoming venue.  It was a pretty informal agreement, he offered us a flat amount for our work at that fair, a place to park the van with electric hookup, and whatever we wanted to eat from the army of food trucks he was taking to that fair.  So we figured, why not?

Camping Conditions at the Fair

And so, two weeks later, we showed up at the Mississippi State Fair.  We parked the van in the vendor “campground” area next to our vendor’s bunkhouses.  Calling it a campground is a bit of a stretch, but it served the purpose.  We were about 1/4 mile walk to the nearest public bathroom on the fairgrounds, and another 1/2 mile past that to the nearest shower house.

Our van was surrounded by bunkhouses with one on each side, and 3 behind us.  There was about  5 feet of space between us and the neighbors.   Which would’ve been ok, except that we’re not smokers (of any kind).  All our neighbors were.  We don’t really care what other people do, as long as it doesn’t affect us.  However, we rely on fresh air to ventilate the van at night, as we don’t have air conditioning.  After a long day of work and short nights of sleep, some quiet and fresh air would’ve been a welcome reprieve.

I’d not seen travel trailer bunkhouses before, so that was interesting.  Basically, they customized travel trailers to contain a bunch of tiny independent sleeping rooms.  There was a larger cabin on one end of each, reserved for supervisors, or such.  The bunkhouses looked something like this:


Most of the “regular” staff for this vendor traveled with them from fair to fair, and stayed in their bunkhouses.  Most didn’t have their own vehicles, and instead drove the bunkhouses or the vendor food trucks, or the other supply of supply of support trucks for the vendor.

Food, Laundry & Other Misc. Curiosities at the Fair

Part of the “pitch” we’d received was that meals would be taken care of, in that we could just eat from any of the 10+ food trucks at the fair.  It sounded “fair” enough, and was fun at first.  Who wouldn’t enjoy a chance to sample all the tantalizing junk food that we weren’t allowed to have as a kid: candied apples, cotton candy, corn dogs, funnel cakes, chili cheese fries, etc. etc.   Don’t worry Mom…  it wasn’t long before we didn’t want any more fried food or sugar!   So, we settled mostly on Nathan’s hot dogs without the buns, apples (before they were dipped), gyro’s, and lots of bottled water.  There were some other items that were at the food carts, like salads and grilled meats, but they were excluded from the “meals included” list.

Laundry was another challenge while there.  We’d brought an ample supply of black pants, socks and undies… enough to get us through the fair.  We’d been told that shirts were provided.  What they meant was that two shirts were provided per person.  Extra shirts were available for $10 each.  We certainly weren’t going to buy extra shirts, so we made do.  (Of course, you have to picture that we worked 16 hour days in these shirts.)  We started off by washing them out in the shower every couple of days.  But it was hot and humid there.  We had to lock the van up tight when we went to work, so there was no practical place to hang them to dry.  In the end, we just succumbed to wearing them over and over again.

Bathing was another challenge.  The bath house didn’t feel very safe, and was so far away.  Life at the fair consisted (for us) of two things: work and sleep.  If we took time for anything else, we were taking away from the little bit of sleep that we were afforded.  We hadn’t expected to have access to showers, anyhow.  In preparation, we’d brought along an ample supply of baby wipes.  While it sounds silly, those baby wipes were a life-saver.  Even in the small confines of the van, we could easily “bathe” ourselves, or even just use them to freshen up with throughout the day.

Note: We highly recommend keeping a supply of baby wipes for van camping in general!

Working at the Fair:  The People

We always try to work along others without judgement.  We’re all God’s children, after all.  But in all fairness, if you’re considering trying this type of work, you should know that you’ll be working and living among folks that you’d probably not normally surround yourself with.  It’s not uncommon for your co-workers to have substance-abuse troubles, be ex-cons, a bit crazy, or just downright untrustworthy.  Not that everyone’s that way, but at least from our experience, it seemed to be pretty common.

The Work Itself

The hardest part for us, was standing on our feet for so long each day.  We often worked 16 hours a day, with a scattering of breaks throughout the day.  But, while at your stand, you weren’t permitted to sit or lean.  So that means, standing for the majority of the day on aluminum trailer flooring or pavement (depending on what your stand was).  We’ve worked jobs on our feet before, but never where you worked so many hours or where you couldn’t at least lean a little to take some of the weight off your poor feet.  I’m not kidding when I say that our feet ached for days after the fair was over.

The work itself was fine and what you’d expect.  I worked the corn dog stand, and mostly just took orders.  Hubby worked the lemonade stand and took orders and made lemonade all day.  The guests coming through were mostly city folk.  During the day, the guests were mostly families, elderly, or handicapped.  At night, the place turned into the world’s largest night club filled with all sorts of (very) interesting people. It reminded me a little of Bourbon St in New Orleans.  Working a stand is an excellent place to people-watch, and provided us with hours of entertainment.

I’d like to say that that the compensation made the entire experience worthwhile, but when you figured the number of hours worked against the lump sum amount paid, the hourly rate turned out to be around $4 or so an hour.  If you take any time off (whether a half a day, or a day), your lump sum is reduced accordingly.  From what others told us, if it rained and the fair was closed, you didn’t get paid for that time either.

We’d also hoped to have time off in between gigs (based on their published fair schedule).  But, that wasn’t how it was set-up.  If you continue working with them, the extra days between gigs are taken up with breaking down at one fair, and setting up at the next.  If you travel with them from show to show, but use your own vehicle, your travel costs aren’t covered.

Note:  There are larger national carnival companies that hire employees as regular hourly employees, with benefits, etc.

Lessons Learned:

We learned quite a bit from the experience, about ourselves and others.  While it wasn’t pleasant or easy, we stuck it through to the end (mostly, because we committed to it and felt we needed to honor our commitment).

Would we do it again? Maybe.  If we were stuck in between jobs and needed the money.  But it wouldn’t be our first choice.  It is a way to pick up some cash without having to make a commitment longer than 2 weeks at a time.

If we do fair work in the future, we’ll likely go through the regular hiring channels at the fairgrounds.  Those positions actually pay hourly, so while you still work a lot of hours, are far more profitable.

Where There’s a Need, There’s a Way

Ready for a change (as we often are), we stopped in at a local establishment up on the Gunflint Trail of northernmost Minnesota for dinner.  The small family owned resort’s restaurant was beyond busy.  In fact, the owner had just dropped a basket of chicken wings on the floor in his haste to try to keep up with the crowd.  We helped him pick up the wings, and asked if they might need some help. (Timing is everything!)

When we’re working, we always look for employers that provide housing.   (When we’re in between jobs we prefer to either disburse camp with our tent and van, or house/pet sit.) This resort had outgrown it’s employee housing, so it needed more help than it could provide housing for.



Our new employee housing!


Their housing was full, so they couldn’t offer normal employee apartment style accommodations.  But, they did have a “wall” tent that wasn’t being used.  We’re not picky, so we soon found ourselves comfortably set up in our own private camping site, with a large wall tent set up on a wooden platform.  They ran electricity to the tent for us, put a fridge outside next to the picnic table and fire ring.  And even ran a hose over so that we’d have water.

I keep a hanging shower shelf, as it comes in handy for so many things!  This time, it gets to be my outdoor shelf for showering and dishwashing.  With a few boards set out to stand on, we now have a great place for an outdoor shower!



Creative outdoor showering while camping!  Refreshing too!


I’ll admit that I don’t shower out there in the mornings, as it’s not heated water.  But it is incredibly refreshing on these hot summer afternoons of late. (Yes, I wear my swimsuit!  Our campsite’s not quite private enough to wear my birthday suit!)  Thankfully the resort also has a staff shower/bath room with a wonderful supply of hot water.

My point though is that if you’re looking for work while traveling, and if you can be flexible (ie. help solve a problem for the potential employer), you’ll open doors.  For example, what different types of work are you willing to do? As mentioned before, many resort areas  are very short on housing for employees.  Do you have a camper or a tent that you can use for housing, if they’ll give you a place to set up?  Find ways to help them, so that they can help you.

The best part is that with this lifestyle, nobody expects you to stick around forever as a career.  If there’s an employer you like especially, you can likely come back again later.  Enjoy the experiences, people and the places as you go.  Make the most of every day.  For us… for now:  We’re enjoying our glamor camping, our 2 minute walking commute to work, living by a beautiful walleye lake up in the remote northwoods of Minnesota, and listening to the loons sing as we fall asleep.



Sunset on the lake


Work Option While Traveling: Temping

Temporary Employment While Travelling

So far, we haven’t had much time in one place between jobs.  But now, we’re house sitting in one spot for 6 weeks.  After that, we’ll head up to our summer job in (very) remote MN.  It seems smart to go ahead and get some things taken care of while we’re here in “the city,” but it’s going to take some money to do so.

We’re not (yet) in the group of folks that have income coming regardless of where they are living.  So, that means that we need to go out and find employment.  Back in the 90’s that was an easy accomplishment.  There were more jobs than employees, the pay was more in-line with the cost of living, and office work was still plentiful.  Not so much in today’s economy.

Living honestly is something that’s important to us, and we decided that we don’t want to take jobs where the employer is expecting a long-term commitment from us.  It would be easy to argue that employers don’t offer long-term commitments to their employees, so all’s fair in love and war.  But, in the end, it comes down to principle: We don’t want to lie.  1) It makes you feel bad when you do it.  2) It’s bad karma.  3) Once started, it’s a slippery slope.  It becomes a bad habit that quickly spreads into other aspects of your life.   4) And besides, God’s pretty clear in “the good book” that he doesn’t favor liers.  So that’s my long winded explanation for why we didn’t opt to pursue better paying long-term jobs and just ditch them when we wanted to leave.

Temporary work appealed to us as the best option.  If you’re not familiar with it, temporary agencies hire people to go out and work in temporary situations for their clients.  They could have you go out to an office and answer telephones or put stamps on envelopes.  You might do data entry.  You might be packing boxes in a warehouse.  Or putting gadgets on widgets in an assembly line.  You might be digging a trench or holding a sign on the side of the road.  It all depends on what the agency has as available work that they think you can handle.

You won’t get rich doing it, but the pay is generally better than minimum wage.  And you get paid weekly, which is nice.

Some temporary agencies “do it all,” but most seem to specialize:  office work, medical, labor (factory & construction).  To find a temporary agency near your area, just search in your favorite search engine for any combination of these terms:

  • temporary agencies
  • temp staffing
  • staffing agencies
  • employment agencies

They all have a different flavor, with different requirements.  You might want to call ahead, so that you’re not wasting your time.  Introduce yourself as new to the area and  looking for temporary work.  Politely ask them a few questions, like:

  • what types of work do they handle?
  • do they have work available for immediate placement?
  • what do they need for an application?
  • what are the next steps in the application process?

Note:  I should point out that many of them require a drug test.  I don’t know if I’d bring it up directly, as it could make you look flighty.  But if this is something that’s a concern for you, you may want to ask them to tell you about all that’s entailed in the application process.  If you ask it that way,  you look professional and they’ll likely tell you if there is such a requirement.  No point putting yourself through the application process if you won’t pass the drug test.  Save yourself some aggravation and find another place that doesn’t require it.

If this isn’t an option for you, there are plenty of jobs that have high-turnover.  I consider those “temporary” employment also, just by their nature.  Plus they don’t tend to ask questions like “where do you see yourself a year from now.”  They just want people to get the job done today.  Food service seems to be the one that has the most availability and doesn’t seem to have the drug test requirement.  Remember, this isn’t your career.  It’s just a job that’s serving a purpose.

I’m working right now on a temporary assignment using a spot-welding machine in a factory on 2nd shift.  My background is anything but that:  management, office work, computer work, project management, database work, process improvement.  But that really doesn’t matter, as it’s not what I’m aspiring to do right now.  So I haven’t even brought it up with them, and they haven’t asked.  It’s a win-win.  It’s giving me what I need right now – a paycheck.  And since it’s “temporary work,”  I’ll just give my notice two weeks ahead of time and leave with a clear conscience.

If you choose to go this route, it’s easy to gravitate to what’s comfortable and what you know already.  Makes sense, right!  But, you might also think about opening yourself to other possibilities that are outside the realm of what you’re used to.  It’s just temporary work, so it’s not like you’re committing to a lifetime of it.  Think of it as “test driving” a new occupation.

Also, for it to be practical, temporary work while travelling makes the most sense when you’re in one area for several weeks.  (It can take you a week or two just to get placed in a job).  You’ll have more options for temporary work in more populated areas.  The work you find will be a job with all the frustrations and expectations that come with a “job.”  But since it’s not your life-long career, you find it keeping up at night.  You won’t dream about it.  You wont’ think about it during every waking moment, like we tend to do with career jobs.  Besides, temp work can also give you some flexibility along with the quick income.  And, best of all, it is “temporary.”

If you need a quick influx of funds and you’re not going to be in the area long, check out day-labor options.  Once you fill out their initial application, you basically show up at their office at a rude hour of the morning.  They look through the list of people present and choose who’s going out on which jobs for the day. It’s hard physical work – like road construction, lifting boxes in a shipping center, etc.   Your fellow-employees tend to be a bit of  a rough crowd, and you’ll likely learn some creative uses for curse-words you’ve not heard before.  But, there’s no commitment other than the immediate work day and they tend to pay by the day.

Temp work, as a gap-filler, works for me.  I love learning new things and having new experiences.  This manufacturing job that I’m doing right now isn’t particularly easy.  It is long hours.  The training program is considerably less than what I’m used to.  I’m (thankfully) not in any physical danger, but occasionally my thumbs catch a molten metal splinter.  But I am enjoying the challenge of this new work adventure.  Additionally, it is definitely giving me a new appreciation for how much effort goes into even just the little parts that keep our modern life machines moving at their fast pace.