Tonawanda News

Canal Fest

July 22, 2011

A Family Affair

— — Tracy Thomas gets up every day, feeds breakfast to her kids — Morgan, 13; Brooke, 10; and Camryn, 5 — and sends them off to school for the day. After school, the family tries to eat dinner together (at a normal time and with dad, Ron), the kids do their homework, sometimes play a little kickball or basketball and go to bed at a decent hour.

The Thomas family is just like any family, with a normal — albeit busy — routine.

Except the view out of the living room window changes every week or two and the children walk past cotton candy stands and bumper cars on their way to school or to visit family.

You see, the Thomases are just one branch of the family that makes up the Powers Great American Midway — the Rochester-based carnival company that has been front and center at Canal Fest since its inception.

The PGAM was started 30 years ago by Les Powers, Tracy’s father, but the family has been in the business for even longer — her great-great-grandfather got into it by running carnival concession stands without rides.

Today the whole extended family is involved with aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters traveling from city to city from early March to November each year. The group travels from as far south as North Carolina — where Tracy and her family live during the off season — and all up along the east coast in Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia and New York.

As a kid, Tracy traveled with her dad’s show during her summer vacations from school — the PGAM had a shorter season then so she was able to attend the same school year-round.

For the seven kids who travel with the carnival now, however, school follows them. Tracy and her cousin Karen Tuttle (mom of Colby, 12 and Lindsay, 10) started up a one-room schoolhouse right around the time Tracy’s oldest daughter Morgan was due to start Kindergarten.

“The main reason (Karen) and I (started the school) is because we wanted to keep our families together,” Tracy explained. “I didn’t want to go home and leave my husband and take my kids far away. So we said, ‘Let’s try this and see if it works and take it year by year.’ And so far it has worked.”

Karen and Tracy hired a full-time teacher to travel with the carnival, and the kids are given a traditional education complete with homework assignments. Tracy says that sometimes the kids get the urge to attend a more permanent school, but when they weigh the pros and cons, they realize they have a pretty unique opportunity to visit historic places throughout the area.

“They go through the same, ‘I don’t want to go to school, I don’t want to do homework,’ I tell them, ‘Well, you’re not going to like your homework at regular school either,’ ” Tracy laughed.

“(But) they realize that they wouldn’t get to go to (places like) the White House if they were in regular school. We are fortunate that they get to do and see different things.”

Tracy agrees, remembering a time when the group was traveling across the Hudson River and she pointed out to her daughter Lindsay, who was studying immigration at the time, that this was where immigrants came to the U.S.

It’s these first-hand experiences that give the kids of PGAM a rare look at parts of the country that others only get to read about in a book. They’ve visited both the east and west wings of the White House, Niagara Falls and the Herschell Carrousel Museum among other places throughout the region.

But the system isn’t without its hiccups. Teacher Joan Moritz came down with a case of pneumonia shortly after the start of Canal Fest and ended up in the hospital. With the one and only teacher out of commission, the kids found themselves with an impromptu summer vacation.

Tracy said they were all shipped out to visit various friends and family members in Rochester and Buffalo for a chance to have fun and relax. But when the kids are away from the family and their RV homes, they’re eager to get back.

“My 13-year-old just came back from camp and she wrote on her Facebook, ‘I’m going back to my “normal” life again,’ and I thought that was a sweet post,” Tracy said. “This is what they know. We live in our RV when we’re out here and when we go (to our off-season) home, they call it our big house.”

Karen explains that living and working on a carnival isn’t all fun and games, that there’s a bit of a stigma that comes along with their lifestyle.

“We’re very proud of what we do and we strive to do better,” Karen said. “We’re at times looked down upon but we make sure our kids never see that. We work hard at what we do and we like to be appreciated.”

The kids, for example, aren’t allowed to just pig out on carnival fare and ride the rides all day long. In fact, both Karen and Tracy admit that the kids really only enjoy the rides when they have friends visiting who want to play on them. Otherwise, they’d rather be out playing sports.

“We try to keep it as normal as possible,” Karen said. “They don’t eat carnival food everyday. We’ve always had bicycles for them and we have a swimming pool that we put up. People say we don’t have a normal life but what is normal anymore?”

And for Karen, education is a priority. Her father made it a prerequisite that she get a college degree before coming to work for PGAM — she graduated from Niagara University with a degree in travel and tourism administration. She expects the same from her kids.

The strangest part about having kids with this kind of lifestyle? Tracy says it’s the timing.

“Actually we all had to plan our pregnancies. All our children are born in either November, December or January,” she laughed. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t have our babies in August when our husbands would say, ‘Uh sorry, we’re busy today.’ ”

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