Kinsley museum celebrates carnival life

KINSLEY — Silly dreams, Buford Brodbeck calls them — dreams of a life he hasn't lived in more than 60 years.

Yet visions of the carnival still wake him up in the middle of the night.

"I was so upset, I had got to dreaming that I couldn't remember how to set up a Ferris wheel," he said. "And I don't know how many hundreds of times I've set one up."

Brodbeck chuckles at his statement as he remembers a time when a nickel would get you a bag of popcorn or a ride on a merry-go-round. He talks about hauling water by the 5-gallon bucket to where his mother operated a cookhouse, running the midway lemonade stand, as well as helping with games like bingo and penny pitch.

At 85, Brodbeck is one of the last carnies in Kinsley, which is like Midway USA.

Step right up across the threshold of the National Center for Carnival Heritage, where black-and-white photos of Brodbeck's carnival past grace the walls, as well as a faded ticket booth, carousel horses and old-time games. A colorful banner advertises "A Scientific Lecture on Serpents," the "Great Horned Rattler" and a comedy juggler. There are even photos of Sally Rand, whose "fan dances" supposedly got her banned from the Kansas State Fair.

It's the only museum in the nation dedicated to preserving a nostalgic look at the early-American carnival, said John Ploger, a local businessman who serves on the foundation board.

"That's one of the main reasons for starting this," Ploger said. "We have such a rich history and nothing was being preserved of this history."

Kinsley boasted as many as six carnival companies from 1901 to the mid-1980s — including at least three that operated at one time.

The history started in 1901, when Edwards County farmer Charles Brodbeck ventured to Hutchinson. There, he became intrigued by a small carousel, finding it fascinating that people would ride a horse or horse and buggy a considerable distance and then pay a nickel for a ride on a merry-go-round, Ploger said.

Charles Brodbeck figured there was better money to be made in the amusement business than farming. He sold a small parcel of land and purchased a carousel, setting it up on his farm.

The carousel, however, didn't make much money until his son, Fred, decided to take it on the road, with his first stop at a festival in Larned. Fred borrowed $15 from a local banker to set up, but made so much money he was able to pay off the loan in three days.

By the end of the tour, Fred came home with "his pockets full of money," Ploger said. With a prosperous future ahead in the amusement industry, and with the need for family entertainment across small Midwestern towns, the Brodbecks became a carnival family.

Kinsley's carnival operations flourished during the first half of the 20th century, Ploger said. However, into the 1960s and '70s, liability insurance, overhead costs and finding reliable help made operation of the small family carnivals difficult. Large companies began serving the big events.

The last Brodbeck-related business, Strate-Midwest Shows, closed in the 1980s.

Buford Brodbeck said the business was what some might call "a Sunday school carnival," meaning Brodbeck companies were good, respected family entertainment.