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Despite the broken tradition of a carnival for this July 4th week, people packed the Felts Park stands for the Galax Volunteer Fire Department's other attractions — such as the lawn mower race, demolition derby, parade, fireworks and motorcycle stunts — said Galax Fire Chief David Hankley.
Firefighters appreciated the support, given the pressure they were under last week. The department contracted with Tolve Amusements — or so it thought — to bring a carnival to town last week.
When the carnival didn't arrive, Hankley tried to get a last-minute replacement. Though that didn't happen, the attendance for Galax's other July 4th traditions seemed larger than the previous years.
Each year, about 8,000 people attend the carnival and the special events throughout the week.
“We had a real good crowd, good weather and good fun,” Hankley said, noting that at least 3,000 people attended each event on Friday and Saturday, along with 100 lawn mower racers and 25 demolition derby participants. “It was successful and we appreciate the support.”
The carnival was set to begin last Tuesday and run through Saturday.
When Jules & Beck carnival of Georgia told the fire department in January that it would not be returning to the area this year because of high fuel costs, the fire department was contacted by several carnival companies. Tolve Amusements of New Jersey seemed to be the only one that could provide what the fire department was looking for — 18 to 20 major rides.
When the company didn't show up June 28, Hankley tried to track down Tolve Amusements. By last Thursday, he finally contacted an agent of Tolve Amusements, who claimed they didn't know anything about a contract with the Galax Fire Department.
That's because Beau Barker — a broker who seeks out carnival sites and links carnival companies to organizations such as the Galax Fire Department — misrepresented himself as general manager of Tolve Amusements, said Hankley.
After the fire chief spoke with Barker this past week, he found out that he had planned to bring three or four small carnivals to the area.
“But he didn't bring anything,” said Hankley. “He was trying to put something together and act as Tolve, and this is not uncommon.”
The broker, who had dealt with Tolve Amusements before, even presented the fire department with letters of references and detailed information about the company.
Hankley contacted these references — mostly schools and civic clubs — who had good things to say about Tolve. That's when Hankley negotiated a contract, including commission rates, with what he thought was Tolve Amusements.
And even though Barker caused financial difficulties for the fire department this year — and cheated the area out of an enjoyable event — because Barker had no affiliation with Tolve Amusements, there is no legal action the fire department can take, said Hankley, who sought advice from the Galax Police Department.
Barker didn't get any money from the fire department.
“We learned a lot from this,” said Hankley. “We've put the carnival on for over 60 years and have had success with them. Next year, we will verify the company completely and make sure it doesn't happen again.”
People showed their appreciation to the fire department for this year's events and offered their condolences after the carnival didn't show up.
“People realized that they took the carnival for granted and didn't realize how much time and energy went into it” until this year, he said. “We had good responses and [city] council members called and provided their best wishes — and we had some irate calls from moms and dads who had to explain to their kids why there was no carnival.”
The community was especially generous. Some people told firefighters that they didn't usually attend the lawn mower race or demolition derby, but came this year just to help out the volunteer organization.
They made kind gestures like not accepting change for tickets and concessions, helping the department fill its coffers.
The fire chief said the carnival fundraiser and its motor sports events account for 60 percent of the volunteer fire department's funds for operation and equipment. He was expecting to see a 30 to 40 percent loss just from the absence of the carnival.
As of Monday morning, Hankley didn't know the amount of lost funds, nor the number in attendance. That should all be tallied in a few days.
Hankley has contacted several companies in hopes of holding a carnival later this year, but nothing is definite yet.
“With everything going on in Felts Park — two church events; the Old Fiddlers' Convention, which takes up two weekends; and the Lord's Acre Sale — it limits us to the possibilities,” said Hankley.
And not only will the fire department have to work around the park's schedule, but “carnival companies schedule their calendar well before the season starts,” he said. “And some will want to be here more than a weekend to be financially feasible.”
The Galax Volunteer Fire Department thanked Matlock's Auto Recycling, which sponsored the demolition derby with a $1,000 donation and provided cars for the invitational.