Through the Generations: Family-owned carnival keeps traditions alive

By Dalton Phillips, Justin Martinez

For Carolyn Hanschen, the carnival life is in her blood.

Thomas Carnival has been around for nearly a century. Started in 1928, the Austin-based traveling amusement park has stayed within the Hanschen family, passed down through three generations, with a fourth being groomed to one day take the reins.

The business is built around family, and the atmosphere reflects it. Each year, thousands of customers gather across the country to eat, ride and try their luck on the many games. For the employees, it’s what they live for.

“What makes it fun is the people,” Hanschen said. “Both the people that we work with and the people we are working for – our customers. We’re in the entertainment business, so providing fun opportunities for families to come out and enjoy the experience.”

One of those customers is Larry Howell, who says the Thomas Carnival reminds him of growing up in the 1960s. The welcoming feel and simple setup evokes feelings of old-fashion family fun.

While Howell no longer partakes in some of the faster-paced rides, he still enjoys the ferris wheel and merry-go-round. He said he leaves the wilder rides to his two grandchildren – the most recent generation to be brought to Thomas Carnival by Howell.

Before that it was his own children, then nieces and nephews.

“I’ve been coming here since they built this place,” Howell said. “Every kid from age three on up needs to have this as part of their life experience. You can bring little kids, grown-ups can talk, it is just a better atmosphere for families. It’s how I’ve been brought up.”

That traditional carnival feel is reflected on the faces of its workers.

Summer Dawn is one of the more recent additions to the staff. The Florida native and game operator says a large part of her motivation stems from the sense of community within the staff. Though she has only been with the carnival for four months, she says the crew quickly became like a second family.

“If you want to work for a carnival, make sure it’s with a good crew,” Dawn said. “Make sure you get a boss that’s going to take care of you. The leader of Thomas Carnival will do that.”

The lifestyle of a carnival worker doesn’t come without its challenges, though, as the nine-month tour travels to 12 states, totaling 9,200 miles.

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The path of the Thomas Carnival covers a daunting 9,200 miles across 12 states.
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The carnival business is still alive and well, totaling over 100 active traveling amusement parks in the country.

The nomadic lifestyle is especially strenuous for some, as certain workers must leave behind families and children when traveling across the country.

“I have four kids,” Denton Thortonberry said. “It is difficult being away from them, considering my 16-year-old is pregnant. But I stay in contact with them, I see them when I can and it works out. And it makes it a lot more fun and enjoyable when I do get to see them.”

Although some workers have been around all of their lives, others have found themselves on the job by accident, driven off course by a series of personal setbacks.

This is the case for Fernando Rosales, a former lab analyst who has been with the crew for just over two months. Rosales took the job out of necessity, intent on saving enough money to eventually go back to school once the tour ends in November.

“Life has twists and turns, and things happened in my life that got me sidetracked,” Rosales said. “Next thing you know, you really aren’t sure where you are. I want to go back to that life.”

Regardless of how each member got there, the Thomas Carnival embodies a family atmosphere. It’s a bond that’s helped the business thrive for nearly a century, and the group doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.

“I have made a lot of friends out here,” Thortonberry said. “As far as the company itself, I would not go to work for any other carnival out here. There is nothing better. If I can stay until I retire I will.”



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