Patrick Hadley epitomizes the fair. The 53-year-old has worked at carnivals since he was 11, frying dough with his neighbor at fairs and festivals around Boston.

“Except for one of my sisters, every single one of my family members did the carnival for one period of time in their life,” said Patrick, who has six brothers and four sisters. “I was the only one that stuck with it.”

After working with his neighbor for a few years, Patrick got his own license and began frying dough at fairs on his own, taking their concession to bigger events. Eventually, Patrick parted from his neighbor and began working as an independent concessionaire, working at fairs all around New England.

“You’ve got to care about what you’re doing or you shouldn’t be doing it,” Patrick said. “You’ve got to find something you care about and be passionate about and not just go through the motions. Don’t be mediocre. Go above and beyond. Have a little passion for what you do, care about what you do. Don’t just go through the motions.”

Carnival crisis

After working at the same fairs for so long, Patrick began to recognize some fair faces. He remembers one family in Maine in particular.

“They always showed up on a Sunday, and they came to every one of the Maine fairs,” Patrick said. “And I pretty much watched their family grow up. This went on for years. They used to come to the fair and see me, say, ‘How you doin’?’ and then go do their thing at the fair and then come back and say hello again. It was just kind of neat.

“One year, it was the last fair in Maine—it’s called Fryeburg Fair—and they came. It was a father and son and daughter and mother. And they came to see me; they said hello and stuff, and I said, ‘You know, I have to go somewhere,’ and they said, ‘Well, we’ll catch up with you later.’ So I went somewhere, and I was on the way back and there was this woman lying down on the ground. It appeared to me she had fallen. Come to find out, she had passed out. I’m trying to help her, trying to get her situated, and I look up and the daughter’s looking down, crying. So I look down at the woman on the ground, and it’s her mother.

“Her mother died right there, on the ground. I watch families grow up, and I watch families die.”

The death of the mother hit Patrick hard, but he hoped that the family would continue to go to fairs. Fryeburg Fair ran from Sunday to Sunday, and he hoped that the family would return.

“I said [to myself], ‘I hope to heck that they come back to the fair because that’s what they need to continue doing. They need to move on in life.’ And don’t you think, here they come, the three of them, walking down the Midway,” he said. “And I saw them and I just started crying. We went behind a funhouse and I gave them a hug and I told them, ‘That’s exactly what you needed to do. Your mother and your wife would have wanted you to just come back to the fairs.’ And they did. It was so good to see them.”

All in the family

Since then, Patrick has had a family of his own. He met his wife when they both worked at the Florida State Fair in Tampa. They brought up his three sons—Chris, 18, Nicholas, 16, and Michael, 13—in the carnival life.

“They’re raised in this business, and I think it’s just a tremendous place to raise your kids because they see what life is,” Patrick said. “This is life. You see the good, the bad. They’re not sheltered in any way. They know what life is.  They know how people can be, either good or bad. Their heads aren’t in a fog; they get it.”

Nicholas Hadley has been working with his father at carnivals since he was 10. He said he enjoys being in a new place every few weeks, meeting new people.

“I have gained a lot of good life experience out here,” Nicholas said, “experiencing everyday life.”

Nicholas said he remembers hanging out with the owners of different rides and games and making friends in all of the places his father worked at when he was younger. The Hadley family traveled together in a large, 40-foot RV, where they lived during the summers. Patrick took the younger kids with him while his wife took the older kids to homeschool.

“It was so cool to go down the highway with your semitrailers and little toddlers in the passenger seat,” Patrick said. “They loved it. It’s like a big family up there. … It’s just so special. It’s a business where you can be with you family.

“To me, that’s so important. If you can have a job where your family can be with you, oh my gosh, that’s the cherry on the cake. … It was hard, yeah, but it was more enjoyable than it was hard.”

Fairs forever

Though Patrick had success as an independent concessionaire, he now works as the concessions manager for North American Midway Entertainment’s Farrow unit. He has worked with the company for six years and is known for doing more than is in his job description.

“[He’s] excellent—puts in all the time, volunteers for things. He’s just, he’s amazing. Lots of energy,” said Danny Menge, general manager for the Farrow unit. “He’s always trying to make things better.”

Patrick’s work begins at the end of March and continues until the first week of November. In the winter, Patrick returns home to Lady Lake, Florida, and works one-day events in nearby areas.

“It’s really just enough to keep me from being bored or going crazy because I have to do something all the time,” Patrick said. “I like to be busy, so it’s just enough. I’ve got it figured out. I’m very blessed.”

Patrick loves the business and sees himself continuing to work at fairs for as long as possible.

“I think I’m going to be like the woman who just died in the Midway,” Patrick said. “That’d be okay with me. I foresee myself doing this as long as my heart beats.”

Sophie Gordon is a writer for BSU Journalism at the Fair, a group of 30 students telling Indiana’s stories from a trailer somewhere between the cheese sculpture and the state’s biggest sow. This Ball State University immersive-learning project works for elephant ears.