- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
For 51 years, the long days and warm nights of summer in northern St. Mary’s included the annual highlight of rides, games and food at the Mechanicsville firefighters’ carnival. But the stalls behind the firehouse now will sit closed and quiet.
The cost of hiring an amusement vendor to supply and run the rides, necessitated about two decades ago by an uptick in liability concerns, slashed the volunteer fire department’s revenue to only one-fourth of what it used to be. In more recent years, the fire department’s younger volunteer members are juggling their family life and jobs with increased training requirements, giving them little time to set up and operate the carnival’s concessions.
“We think it’s outlived it’s life here,” J. Paul Colonna, president of the fire department, said last week at a picnic table in the fire department’s parking lot.
“Years ago, we owned all of our [amusement ride] equipment,” Colonna said, and although they were properly inspected and operated, and no serious accidents occurred, insurance costs eventually escalated. “In the 1990s, everybody got sue-happy,” he said. “That was the biggest reason we got rid of our own rides.”
Hiring someone else to provide the rides resolved that problem, but reduced the profit.
“Instead of us getting a hundred percent [of the proceeds], we got 27 percent,” Colonna said.
Generations of people living in northern St. Mary’s helped out at the carnival for decades by manning the game and food booths, but that also has declined.
“The volunteers are dwindling. It isn’t like it used to be,” Fire Chief John Raley said. “We’re not pulling anybody from the community anymore. Most people work two or three jobs. They may not get home until 10 o’clock at night.”
Volunteers from other civic organizations also assisted and participated in the carnival.
“That’s the people we’re going to miss,” Colonna said, “and the citizens that we interacted with.”
The arrival of major amusement parks in the region during the last half-century impacted the turnout for the carnival, he said, but it still drew support from people who could not afford to travel to and pay the prices of those bigger venues.
Nevertheless, he added, “it dwindled and dwindled every year.”
Operating the carnival on their own was both expensive and laborious for the firefighters, who in another time injected some fun into the process.
“It took about three months to set up, have the carnival and take [it] down,” Raley said. “We used to have a party doing it.”
“We had a lot of fun, a lot of guys who enjoyed doing it,” Colonna said.
Bill Mattingly, president of the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department, said that his department still owns all its rides, which are checked out each year by state inspectors.
“We get it done before the carnival. We set the rides up, and they inspect them,” Mattingly said. “We still have members who have the time to set [the carnival] up and run it. Right now, it’s not an issue.”
The Hollywood carnival takes place over a pair of four-day periods toward the end of July, followed each year in August by a carnival put on by the Ridge Volunteer Fire Department.
Other carnivals put on by emergency volunteers have shut down, first in Valley Lee, then in Leonardtown.
In Mechanicsville, the number of firefighters has remained steady, about 75 on the roster, and about 20 of them are actively involved in its duties on a regular basis, according to its two senior officers. The number of firefighters responding on a call, however, has decreased from about 18 a dozen years ago, to about nine.
And time spent with the fire department now is more limited to the demands of its mission, specifically the additional mandated training and classes.
“They have a lot more responsibility with the department itself, than the extracurricular activities,” Colonna said.
Revenues from the county’s fire tax, which is added to the property tax bill, have been “a tremendous help” to the upkeep of the firehouse and its equipment, he said, while proceeds from the carnival mostly were used to pay for on-site recreation, including yard games and food.
In their own way, those provisions also are essential, and the firefighters are considering other ways to raise those funds.
“Some of them are looking at having things like a car show to keep that money in that pot,” Raley said.
“If you don’t keep the morale up in the membership,” Colonna said, “you won’t have that membership.”