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A Fair And Its Missing Train
Strates Shows and its carnival rode the rails to North Carolina for more than 70 years, prompting smiles, tributes, and warnings about stripper-assisting birds. So, what happened to its trains?
From reader Zach comes this:
Jeremy, here’s a story to maybe look at. My Dad says the Strates Shows has always brought the Carolina Classic Fair by train his entire life. However, they did not do that this year. I figured if anyone could find out, it’d be you!
The Carolina Classic Fair (formerly the Dixie Classic Fair) has been going on for a very long time, and yet I did not know that almost all of its rides once arrived by train. For one thing, the tracks are sort of far away, although you can hear train whistles easily from the fairgrounds. The other thing: It’s not really anything they brag about at the fair. I was there earlier this week, watching my kids house a cookies-and-cream funnel cake and a donut burger (the bun is a donut!). Then they hit the rides hard and did not vomit. Not even once!
But yes, it’s true. Strates Shows, which operates the midway and rides at the fair in Winston-Salem, no longer brings its gear to town by train. It’s not just the Carolina Classic Fair either. Strates last ran its train in 2019, and has been sending all of its stuff to fairs across the country by truck instead. They’re still around—Strates is celebrating 100 years in business this year—but the lack of a train kinda represents a bit of an identity crisis for a company that still bills itself as “America's only railroad carnival.”
Look, I know Zach only wanted to alert me to the fact that the fair train didn’t come to town this year. And yet, I kept on going. I did a bunch of reading and research, and then talked to the folks at Strates. I found out two things. One, this carnival company has deep, deep connections to North Carolina. And two, it’s hard being the last of your kind.
The Wrestler Who Launched His Own Carnival
The company’s namesake, James E. Strates, came to this country from Greece in the early 1900s, working in a shoe factory and a cotton mill. In 1919, he joined a traveling carnival as a wrestler named “Young Strangler Lewis.” He went to small towns across upstate New York, challenging the toughest guy around to a match. The entrance fee was 25 cents. A challenger would win $5 if he beat Strates. Strates never lost. Everybody in town would come to watch.
The show shut down in 1921, so Strates and two of his fellow performers started their own carnival. The debts quickly piled up and the partnership didn’t last. One got out after a harsh winter. Another left after a lion in the show bit off the head of a giraffe that had gotten too close to its cage.
Strates, now the sole owner, continued to expand his carnival. In 1935, Strates bought five flatbed train cars, and bought five more a year until he had 40. In 1936, a fire at the company’s winter quarters in Mullins, South Carolina wiped everything out. Strates used the insurance payout to rebuild, and the company eventually became the fourth-largest traveling carnival in the country.
This story I’ve told you so far? It would show up in local newspapers nearly everywhere the carnival went. Strates knew how to hype up a good story to get headlines. Including in North Carolina.
In October 1948, Strates made a bunch of stops in North Carolina. First up was Charlotte, back when Charlotte had a fair. Then they hauled everything over to Gastonia for a week before heading to the North Carolina State Fair. In Raleigh, Strates’s debut had to share the headlines with President Truman, who came to the state fair as he was campaigning for a second term.
Even so, it was the beginning of a very long relationship between Strates and the state fair. There was no bidding for the midway because the fair was exempt from rules that required multiple bids for most state contracts. So for years, James Strates himself came back to Raleigh every October, riding his 40-car train into town.
He worked until the very end, and Raleigh was one of his final stops. In October 1959, Strates was in Danville, Virginia, talking on the phone with his daughter Elizabeth when he had a stroke. She immediately hung up and called the offices of the fair for help. Strates was rushed to the hospital but died. His funeral was held in Raleigh because that was the next stop on the trip.
A lot of Strates’s employees couldn’t go to the burial in New York, so state fair director J.S. Dorton put together a tribute. First, he set off fireworks to get everyone’s attention. He then got on the loudspeaker, telling everyone to get off every ride. Everything stopped. A helicopter from Fort Bragg flew over the fairgrounds at the exact time of Strates burial, 12:20 p.m., and dropped flowers on the midway. “It was a very touching thing,” E. James Strates, his son and successor, told the Durham Herald-Sun in 1998. He and other family members had stayed behind in Raleigh to keep the show going.
That’s sort of sweet! But know this: Carnivals weren’t all cotton candy and Tilt-a-Whirls back in the day, especially in the Bible Belt. Consider these scenes from a 1965 News & Observer story, in which an old crusty Wake County sheriff’s deputy named Wiley Jones (who sort of looked like Huey Lewis crossed with Sheriff Buford T. Justice) goes around just checkin’ to make sure everyone’s following the rules. Here’s this:
“Never argue with a carney,” Jones told a reporter. “It’s just like arguing with a woman. If you argue with one long enough, you’ll get beat.”
(Deep sigh) Speaking of women:
Ginger Paradise, a large, heavily painted woman who runs a girlie show was told by Jones:
“No artificials. Keep the entire front covered. Keep the bumps and grinds up, not down.” Jones squats slightly to illustrate what he meant by down.
I would give anything to watch a filmstrip of this deputy demonstrating what it means to keep bumps and grinds up and not down. It goes on:
“No G-Strings?” asked Ginger Paradise, her expression suggesting a curtain being wrung down.
“No G-Strings,” said Jones. “And no birds. I gave Rita Cortez that same advice once. She didn’t follow it. I came back and caught her doing an act with a trained bird that pulled strings and undressed her. She was through here, and she knew it.”
American ingenuity knows no bounds.
The “girlie shows,” lions, tigers, giraffes, and freak shows eventually went away, but the Strates midway and its rides kept coming back to Raleigh. The relationship between the state fair and E. James Strates continued to be very cozy. In 1994, the News & Observer took a close look at that relationship, and found that Strates was getting an extra cut of the revenue on its biggest rides, which wasn’t standard for other fairs around the country. State agriculture commissioner Jim Graham also said he’d been entertained in Las Vegas by Strates, who paid for his hotel room. “That’s the cost of doing business,” said Graham who, by that time, had been in office for 30 years and considered Strates a friend. The paper’s editorial board stated that these weren’t “shady dealings,” but rather “carelessness and complacency” that cost the state revenue. They weren’t mad. Just disappointed.
The contract was renegotiated after that, and Strates kept on providing the midway at the fair until 2001, when Graham retired and Meg Scott Phipps took over as commissioner. One of Phipps’s first changes was to boot Strates out after 53 years. People were shocked. Strates sued. The outrage led to a federal investigation that showed out that the new midway operator had been making illegal campaign contributions to Phipps. (Strates, for what its worth, made plenty of campaign contributions to North Carolina leaders, but all were considered legal.) Phipps resigned, and would later go to prison for four years on a number of charges, including fraud, conspiracy, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice. She became friends with Martha Stewart behind bars.
Strates got the midway contract back for a single year, in 2003. After that, the state put the contract out for competitive bidding, and Strates hasn’t been back to Raleigh in the two decades since.
The Last Train to Winston-Salem
Strates first came to the Carolina Classic Fair in 1964, and it’s been there every year since (The exception: 2020, when the fair was cancelled during the pandemic). It’s the only remaining North Carolina stop for the last remaining railroad show. Except now, the railroad part isn’t happening.
To find out why, I talked to Marty Biniasz, who handles marketing for Strates from his home near Buffalo, where he was once the longtime marketing director for the incredibly large Erie County Fair. When the Strates train pulled into Hamburg, New York for that fair, it was a big ol’ happening. Thousands of people would line the tracks to watch them arrive. “From a marketing standpoint,” he says, “there was no better promotion than a 50-car train, a city-in-a-city, pulling into a community.”
If you’re wondering, Strates became the last traveling train show after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down for good in 2017.
There aren’t any train tracks that run directly into the fairgrounds that Strates serves, so the process would work like this: A train would pull up and park. Streets would close. Then, over 10-to-18 hours, a dedicated train crew would unload everything. The rides and everything else would go onto the backs of trucks that had also been hauled by the train. Those trucks would take everything the last mile or so into the fairgrounds, where they’d be set up as quickly as possible. That was basically the protocol for the Carolina Classic Fair, which is a mile away from the closest train spur in Winston-Salem.
So what happened to the train? The pandemic happened, for one. In 2020, COVID cancelled almost every county and state fair. When they reopened in 2021, they weren’t at full capacity in a lot of places. It didn’t make economic sense to pull a train at full capacity, but only bring 30 to 40 percent of the rides, concessions, and staff. “It doesn’t make sense to pull rides that you don’t need,” Biniasz says. “You don’t get a discount for pulling half of the train cars.” Hence, Strates contracted with truckers to get their people and equipment where they needed it to go.
Fairs are now at full capacity again, but the railroad industry is different. Rail freight prices have skyrocketed. A lot of the people in scheduling and insurance that Strates once worked with are now gone. The cost of fuel and labor has gone up. Supply chains have changed. Insurance costs more, especially after the East Palestine train derailment. The parts you need to fix, say, a European-made ride are either back-ordered or increasingly expensive. Plus, Strates is in a competitive carnival industry. “Anywhere we can cut and save money, we try,” Biniasz says. “Right now, trucking is cheaper.”
One distinction: Strates owns the train cars, but not the engines that pull them. Hence, they’re increasingly at the mercy of railroad companies that are making freight trains longer and longer to squeeze in more revenue, and view other forms of rail transportation as less profitable. Plus, there are also fewer side tracks and spurs that Strates needs to park on to unload. Railroads have been ripping them out for years in order to save money on taxes. “Finding a place to park an empty train in these markets is difficult,” he says. In York, Pennsylvania, there’s no longer anywhere for the train to stop, unload, and park during the fair.
All of this means that running a train is too expensive right now, and could be a risky proposition anyway. Precision Scheduled Railroading is making rail operations leaner and schedules more strict, and making it hard for specialized operators like Strates to make it to destinations on time. “We’re a low priority for the railroads,” Biniasz says. “We have very tight windows to go from spot to spot. If we miss a day on our schedule, we may not open up at a fair. We control our own destiny with trucking.”
Back in the day, Strates employees used to travel by rail, but that ended in 2004 when the company stopped running its coach cars. And many of people who knew how to efficiently load and unload trains have left the company, and it’s hard to find people to replace them. The effect: Now that there are no trains running, some of the larger rides like the Top Spin can no longer make the trip to the fair. They just can’t be hauled by truck.
If you go to the fair, you may not really know (or care) how the rides got there. It just matters that they’re there. Even so, Biniasz says the Strates train isn’t gone. Rather, it’s just been “paused.” The Strates family, which still controls the company, wants to bring it back. Sure, the economics have to make sense. But there’s also pride at stake. “It’s an amazing piece of Americana,” says Biniasz. “It’s the last of its kind. We don’t want that to die.”