Making the Midway

It is four hours before the 98th Hickory American Legion Fair opens, and the Midway is rather quiet.

Maroon flags flutter and flap atop an intimidating 50-foot high “ride,” and a worker pounds a hammer against metal underneath a menacing “Himalaya” tilt-a-whirl.

The fair is back.

However before boys and girls, moms and dads, line the fair’s many entertainment avenues off U.S. 70, a normally unseen group of workers set up the rides, food stands and carnival games that make the fair what it is year in and year out.

This year is no different, and men and women from throughout the East Coast were hard at work Wednesday, mere hours before Catawba County patrons flood the fair’s gates.

Along the midway on Wednesday, two fair workers named “Snake” and “Bones” were putting the finishing touches on a ride that spins buckets up and down. The two work for Drew Exposition, which is contracted to provide most of the fair’s rides.

“I nearly got my finger tore off earlier,” said Snake, adding that his finger got caught in-between ride equipment that can weigh up to 400 pounds. He lifted up his hand and showed off a bruised right index finger.

Snake was the first truck through the fair’s gate Sunday, and he and Bones started assembling the ride Monday. The two go to fairs up and down the East Coast.

Christina Wade, who also works for Drew, said the rides go to fairs in Kentucky, Indiana, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. While most of the fairs are at similar American Legion locations, Wade said some are on other types of fairgrounds.

“I do it so I can interact with the kids,” Wade said. “It’s nice to see the kids happy. That’s a different experience for me because I’ve always worked in the restaurant business.”

Wade has worked fairs since the fall of 2010, and said all Drew Exposition workers are assigned to their own rides.

At most, her tilt-a-whirl-style ride takes an hour and 45 minutes to put together.

After the park closes, the fair workers don’t stay in hotels, but camper-style rooms in RVs spread around the fairgrounds, Wade said.

While some fair workers, like Wade, are new to the industry, others like David Wicks have been toiling in the business for years. Wicks, of Shelby, has been working at fairs for 42 years. On Wednesday, he made candy apples inside the “Candy Shack” food stand.

Inside the Candy Shack, summer heat combined with heat from the machines to make a sweltering environment. After plugging a stick into the bottom of a green apple, Wicks dipped each treat into a vat of whirling chocolate and stuck a paper coaster on its bottom.

“We used to travel up to New York, but as we all get older, you want to slow down,” he said, adding that he travels with the Eagles Concessions about 6 months out of the year now.

The 2011 Hickory American Legion Fair opened Wednesday at 5 p.m., and will open Thursday at 5 p.m. for School Night, where students and veterans get in free.