BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN For many families, attending the Delano 4th of July Celebration is an annual tradition. For one family, operating the carnival during the celebration has been a tradition for 29 years.
“Grandpa Jack (Thompson) signed the contract in the fall of 1986 before he died,” Melissa Erasmus said. “We started in 1987. I can’t remember being anywhere else on the 4th of July.”
Melissa; her brother, Mike Featherston, Jr.; and her sister, Jessica Bessette, are members of the fifth generation of the carnival family.
How it all began
The history of Gold Star Amusements, formerly known as Jack Thompson Shows, began in the early 1940s when brothers John, Carl, and Andrew Flink operated a steam-driven merry-go-round in various small towns in Minnesota.
Andrew Flink introduced his daughter, Rose, to the business. Around the mid-20th Century, Rose operated a little carnival called Red River Valley Shows out of Pelican Rapids, traveling throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Thompson began working with his mother at the age of 17 and, in 1952, purchased his mother’s Chair-O-Plane for $1,500 and built his own popcorn wagon.
From 1952 to 1963, Thompson traveled and operated major rides as an independent ride operator with various shows.
During that stretch, in 1957, Thompson married Hope Haugen, of Pillager, and the two welcomed their only child, Connie, into the world a year later.
Thompson established Jack Thompson Shows when he purchased all the rides and equipment from Jack Vomberg, of Milwaukee. The touring territory was expansive, stretching from New Orleans to the Canadian border.
Connie grew up in the carnival business and, fittingly, met her husband, Mike Featherston, while he was working in a corn dog and lemonade shake-up stand at a carnival in 1976. The two were married in 1979, and managed an amusement park called Fun Town on the south side of Chicago for about a year.
After Melissa was born in 1980, the two returned to Jack Thompson Shows on the road. Jessica was born in 1982, followed by Mike Jr. in 1986.
Jack Thompson Shows became Gold Star Amusements, featuring a shooting star logo and the motto “Our lights continue to shine, as a representation of Jack and Hope’s spirits living on through the family show.
Growing up on the road
“We rode rides all day and night as kids,” Melissa said.
Their favorite rides were the carousel, a dragon-themed bounce house, and when they got a little older the Zipper.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though.
“Once we got to 13, we worked every summer,” Melissa said. “We definitely picked up a strong work ethic.”
Mike Jr. began helping with the merry-go-round at age 7.
“I have early memories of helping mom in the office,” Melissa said. “It was always all-hands-on-deck.”
As Melissa got older, the corn dog stand became her domain, while Jessica worked in the popcorn and cotton candy stand.
They also got used to spending a lot of time with each other, rather than their friends.
“For us, in the summer, we didn’t see friends from school,” Melissa said. “For someone who’s 13 who doesn’t see someone for two months, it’s like they’re off the face of the earth and don’t exist anymore. For us, leaving every summer, it was almost like we had to make new friends every year.”
Another drawback was the stigma associated with carnival workers.
“I remember my dad crumpling up a $100 bill and throwing it at a guy in a video store because he said he wouldn’t rent us any videos without a $100 deposit first because we were carnies and (he thought) we were just going to take his videos and go,” Melissa said.
Sometimes, it was hard for Melissa and her family to be honest about what they did for a living.
“You’re always nervous when you meet somebody new and they ask, ‘What do you do? What do your parents do?’” Melissa said. “We didn’t want to say we worked on a carnival.”
She believes the stigma has lessened, and she and her family are working to continue that trend.
Mike Jr. never stopped working at the carnival, and jokes about attending Gold Star University.
Melissa and Jessica went off to college, with Jessica earning a degree in kinesiology and Melissa earning a master’s degree in music education.
“We came back for family,” Melissa said. “I think mom was happy we came back.”
“Delano is a welcoming city for us,” Melissa said. “In certain towns, we have to give warnings. ‘In this town, don’t do this, this, and this.’ There’s really nothing we have to be worried about in Delano.”
Their employees enjoy visiting the area lakes.
From a business standpoint, the carnival does well, which also provides funds to the six organizations that operate the Delano 4th of July Celebration.
“The 4th of July is our busiest food day in Minnesota for sure,” Melissa said. “It’s a huge thing for our family. It’s all hands on deck all the time, especially on the 4th.”
Fitting all the rides and attractions into Central Park can be tricky.
“Space is limited,”Melissa said. “We find the best locations for everything. We really have to pay attention to the layout of the trees.”
In the age of GPS, the family still relies on trusty graph paper and a measuring wheel.
“You have to have feet on the ground,” Melissa said. “A week prior, they try to get together and lay it out.”
When all the family members are working together, Melissa focuses on office duties; her husband, Adriaan, focuses on ride maintenance; Mike Jr. focuses on the games; and Jessica focuses on the food.
“The trouble is when we have multiple events going on, we end up having to oversee a lot of different things,” Melissa said. “When we’re all together, we’re a much stronger team.”
Employees are family
The family couldn’t do what they do without their nearly 100 employees.
“Employees are our family,” Melissa said.
One employee has been working with the family for nearly 30 years, followed by others with more than 20 years of experience, and a handful of employees with about 10 years of experience.
“We also have a lot of temporary workers and work with the H-2B visa program to hire from South Africa,” Melissa said.
She has a special connection with South Africa.
“My husband and I met here 13 years ago. He was a part of the very first group of 12 South African employees we hired back in 2003,” Melissa said.
The family also met the woman who now serves as their recruiter in South Africa.
“We helped her create a business over there to recruit for us,” Melissa said. “She works with about a dozen carnivals throughout the United States.”
She speaks highly of the South African employees, who fill a role that is otherwise difficult to fill.
“It’s hard for us to hire seasonal workers because you have to live and work on the road,” Melissa said. “This way, they’re young kids, usually 20 to 25. They get to see the states and save some money to help them go to college. It works really well for us.”
The sixth generation
Collectively, Melissa, Jessica, and Mike Jr. have eight kids who travel with them and their nannies.
“It was just us. It’s nice for them to have cousins,” Melissa said.
The kids are used to life on the road.
“While you’re out here, you don’t know any different, and it becomes your life,” Melissa said.
On the road, they’ve made it a habit to stop and enjoy playgrounds because they are different than carnivals, which they are around all the time.
“It used to be every time we went by a park the kids would get so excited,” Melissa said.
Her oldest daughter, Natalie, was originally home-schooled, but now attends school.
“Now that she’s been at school, she’s looking very much to going back,” Melissa said.
The school-aged children will attend Elko-New Market in the fall.
“We’re trying to keep them together so at least the teachers and administrators and everyone in the area understands the situation,” Melissa said. “We have to keep explaining that everywhere we go. It’s hard for people to grasp what we do and how sometimes we all need to go and don’t have someone to watch the kids for two or three weeks.”
The season starts in New Orleans in March and finishes there in November, with the bulk of summer events in Minnesota.