John Hanschen ’73 manages the family carnival business he married into—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Helen Cordes | photo by brandon petree
Strolling onto the grounds of The Mighty Thomas Carnival on a balmy central Texas spring afternoon is like entering a Norman Rockwell painting. Beaming youngsters clutch cotton candy and beg parents for more rides on the vintage carousel while teens scream in chorus with each soaring swing of the Pharoah’s Fury. The timeless mélange of carnival scents—sweet caramel corn swirled with tangy hot dogs—is tinged with a Texas touch: barbecue slowly smoking for the Liberty Hill Livestock Association Cook-Off next door to the carnival. Hungry families line up for plates piled high in exchange for a donation to the Future Farmers of America and 4-H, while horseshoes clink in friendly tournament jousts.
John Hanschen ’73 oversees this sunny tableau, as he has hundreds like it since 1976, when he started working for Thomas Carnival. For him, it’s a point of pride that this traveling carnival, founded in 1928 by the Thomas family of Lennox, South Dakota, has stayed a family business.
“My wife’s great-uncle started it,” says Hanschen, “and our kids grew up helping out, just like my wife did when she was young.” And the kids are still helping: daughter Katherine and her husband, Brandon (now joined by baby Mamie), manage the confection stand; son Mike drives one of the big rigs that move the rides; and son Andrew takes on jobs like repainting the carousel between stints of teaching English in Asia. Hanschen’s wife, Carolyn, pitches in when she’s not working for the Austin, Texas, school district as director of campus accountability, and Carolyn’s sister, Margaret, has managed the hot food concession for 25 years.
Hanschen chuckles as he recalls the road that brought him to the offbeat occupation of carnival chief. “Growing up, it wasn’t like I loved carnivals, although I must have gone to a few like every other kid,” says Hanschen. He grew up on Minneapolis’s north side, the oldest child of a postal worker dad and nurse mom, and was elated by his Macalester acceptance call. Though he loved English, he ended up as an economics major. He remembers “fantastic professors—Karl Egge was brand new then, and you had to be on your toes!” Playing on the Mac basketball and baseball teams was a passion for the tall and lanky Hanschen, “but I got pretty good grades.”
An internship with the St. Paul Companies led to a job in insurance underwriting, and that job in turn brought him to his future wife, a fellow underwriter in the Little Rock office. “We decided we’d give the carnival a try for one summer,” he recalls with a laugh. The two never looked back, and in 1986 they became co-owners with Carolyn’s sister Margaret and her husband, Tom Atkins.
Over the years, the math skills he honed in math professor John Schue’s classes (“he made math make sense”) proved priceless, as Hanschen juggled numbers for a complicated business that changes venues weekly during the 10-month carnival circuit. “We start in Texas in February and head up through the Midwest to Minnesota and over to Montana and head back down through Louisiana in November,” Hanschen explains. Fuel is a potent factor to figure in, given that up to 100 trucks haul rides over long distances and daily operations are powered by two huge diesel generators. He’s had to balance the rising cost of fuel, the high price of buying a new ride (up to a half million dollars), costly insurance, and maintenance with a keen need to keep prices reasonable for carnival goers.
Hanschen had to quickly master the logistics of setting up and breaking down 30 rides—“wish I would have taken more physics!”— as well as hiring and managing a workforce able to cope with the challenges of the mobile life. Carny workers, Hanschen says, have an undeservedly bad reputation. “I’ve worked with some fine people in this business,” he says. “They’ve got to be good at people skills to keep all our guests happy and make sure things run smoothly.” And he’s had to get used to a family life that had him on the road while Carolyn and the kids stayed behind in Austin for school and work. Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I like that we’re providing a really nice time for people who probably won’t be able to go to a Disneyland,” he says, surveying the bustling carnival grounds from atop the Ferris wheel. “We started out keeping people entertained during the Depression, and we aim to keep doing that.”
John Hanschen enjoys an occasional chicken fried steak get-together with an Austin area Mac alumni group organized by Bookie Read-Orr ’73. He reports knowing two other Mac alumni in the carnival business: Alicia Merriam ’60, retired co-owner of Merriam’s Midway Shows, based in Tempe, Arizona, and Kevin Koski ’80, a food concessionaire based in Sturgis, Michigan.