Fair all-American, but not its workers

Published April 26, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - One hot afternoon this week, near the rear of Little Richard's World Famous Sausage Stand, 10 South Africans in their 20s were hanging out on an AstroTurf mat outside their trailer-pulled bunkhouse with two laptops, a few potted plants and a 300-gallon Rubbermaid tub that was serving as a swimming pool.

They are here at the Hernando County Fair because of their jobs with the Deggeller Attractions carnival company. They are on temporary visas to work the rides and games, make and save some money and to travel around to see this country before going home.

They're not "carnies," they said.

"We're Afri-carnies," Lara Botha said with a smile.

That old adage of the fair as the epitome of Americana? Look around. More and more of the people who make it happen aren't American at all.

No one has solid statistics on this, not the Florida Federation of Fairs, not the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, not the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. Here's a sure sign, though, of the global economy at an event as intensely local as the county fair: The Department of Labor puts the number of visas given to fair workers from places like South Africa, Central America and Eastern Europe at just under 2,000. But that figure is almost certainly too low, says Wayne Pierce, the OABA's general counsel, and it's "definitely going up."

Deggeller operations manager Andy Deggeller says the foreign workers have been a godsend.

"It's really improved our quality of help," he said. "You get people who are responsible."

"I'm pretty well convinced that foreign labor is the future ... for anybody in this country who needs unskilled labor," Pierce said.

"Local Americans who would be qualified don't want the work. The most charitable way to say this is that we are such an affluent country that people can find better wages in many different places."

Some less-charitable ways:

"Americans don't want to work, straight up," Cindy Rowell said at the fairgrounds. She's a longtime carnival worker from Oklahoma City. She's working this week at a Netterfield's stand that sells fresh-squeezed lemonade and cheese on a stick.

"No work ethic at all," said Jim Lebrato, who runs Jim's Ice Cream.

Lebrato has been using Eastern Europeans for years now.

He says comparing American workers with the foreign workers is like comparing "apples and onions."

"These kids come over here to work," he said. "You give them an hour break, they're back in an hour, not an hour and 20 minutes.

"And since I started using foreign help," he added, "my food cost has dropped like a stone.

"You do the math."

Fairs and carnivals started using foreign workers in the mid to late '90s, said Jim Tucker, the IAFE president and chief executive. It's not just the carnival industry. Seasonal resort areas like Ocean City, Md., and Cape Cod in Massachusetts use them, too.

Deggeller started doing it about five years ago.

"The labor in the U.S. was getting less and less," president Don Deggeller said. "People didn't like the traveling and the living accommodations."

But the foreign workers?

"They work out very well," he said.

"It works on both sides," Pierce said. "It works for us because we get educated middle-class people who are motivated and want to do the job and can speak English."

Botha is using the money she's earning while staffing Skee Ball to help pay for her psychology studies at home. Sharlene van der Merwe works at Water Gun Fun and is saving up so she can take a course to become a diving instructor. Marcia Retief staffs the kids' jumping game called the Quad Pod and is hoping to pay for the rest of her law school.

And they get to have some fun along the way.

"Every town is a new adventure," Michelle Hamman said.

These South Africans so far have worked fairs in St. Lucie County, Miami and Green Cove Springs up by Jacksonville. Now here. Next up is Fort Bragg, N.C., and then summer in Virginia.

Some of them visited St. Augustine a couple of weeks ago.

And just the other night here in Hernando they went to the Sail Inn biker bar across U.S. 41 from the fairgrounds and marveled at the $6.50 Bud Light pitchers and the eye-catching clientele.

"It was just like in the movies," Botha said. "I took a lot of photos."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.

If you go

County Fair Youth and Livestock Show

When: Daily through Sunday.

Where: Hernando County Fairgrounds, 6436 Broad St., on the south side of Brooksville.

Parking: $2 per carload. Enter on Oliver Street from U.S. 41 and park on the north side of the grounds. Once those spots are filled, parking will be across U.S. 41, and sheriff's deputies will provide escorts across the highway.

Admission: $5 for adults; $3

for kids 4-12; free for kids 3 and under.

Information: 796-4552 or www.hernandocountyfair.org


5-10 p.m. Midway open ($15 unlimited ride armbands

5-8 p.m. Baby animal barn

6 p.m. Steer Showmanship

7 p.m. Hot dog-eating contest, Outside Stage

Comedy bird safari, two shows

At the fair

Heavy sounds

If they go big, you heard it here first: Culbreath, a metal thrash band made up of four long-haired teenage boys from Brooksville, on Tuesday evening at the fair played the first stage gig of their first year of existence. It was a performance - an experience - the likes of which the insides of the Alfred A. McKethan Civic Auditorium almost certainly had never ever seen.

This venue is used to country. Maybe some karaoke in cowboy hats.

But Culbreath?

"New metal," lead singer Tyler Martin said.

"Metal of today," drummer Jeremy Suarez said.

Martin, 15, is a freshman at Central High School. Suarez, 17, is a junior at Hernando High. Fellow band members Matt Browning, 16, and John Bennett, 18, are also Hernando juniors.

Their sound: lots of guitars, lots of drums, lots of VOLLLLUUUUUME!!!!! They are very, very LOOOOUUUUDD!!!!!

As for the crowd, which was considerable, Martin urged them to mosh. Many of them complied. At one point a boy in a lime green shirt was giving a piggyback to a boy with a Mohawk.