GREENFIELD — One of Ben Burton’s earliest memories is from inside his grandparents’ candy and popcorn stand.
The red and white striped trailer was parked at a carnival in Kendallville on a sunny summer afternoon, and Ben — all of 4 years old at the time — was hot and tired. He climbed under the counter and drifted off to sleep as the grownups kept working, taking orders for cotton candy, caramel apples and other treats.
That same candy stand now sits in the shadow of the merry-go-round at the center of the Hancock County 4-H Fair. It has traveled hundreds of miles, taking the Burton family of Shirley across the country as they grew their carnival business to include rides, food stands and game booths.
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For more than 20 years, Burton Brothers Amusements, a Hancock County-based company, has traveled to carnivals and festivals in central Indiana and across the Midwest. In 2012, the Burtons brought their livelihood home. Since then, Burton Brothers Amusements has filled the midway at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds, making the local festivities unforgettable for friends and neighbors.
It’s the event brothers Ben and Bryce Burton, who own and operate the business, say they take the most joy in hosting. Being picked to play such a large part in their hometown fair goes a long way in making them feel like trusted members of the community, they said.
Seeing the smiles on the faces of families making their way around the fairgrounds, the youngsters begging mom and dad to take just one more ride, make the hot days and sweaty brows worth it, Ben Burton said.
The seeds of Burton Brothers Amusements were planted with the Jessop Candy business, which was started as early as the 1850s by Ben and Bryce Burton’s great-great grandparents, Bryce Burton said. Selling popcorn and salt water taffy, the stand was passed down through the generations until Danny Jessop, the Burton brother’s grandfather, purchased a collection of carnival rides in the 1960s to expand the family business.
In 1995, Roger and Janice Jessop Burton christened the company Burton Brothers Amusements. It’s since grown to six food stands, 15 game stations and more than 35 rides. Ben and Bryce Burton purchased the business recently when their parents retired.
Now their children make the sixth generation of Burtons to work the carnival. This week, they can be found along the midway, selling tickets, interacting with customers and working alongside the company’s dozens of employees.
Ben Burton’s grown daughter, Aubrie Osborn, who next year will bring the family’s seventh-generation to the fair after the birth of her first child, helps her mom, Jennifer Burton, staff the company’s onsite office, greeting visitors and answering questions with a smile.
His sons, 12-year-old Cyrus and 15-year-old Alexander, often man the gaming booths, laughing with kids their age and offering encouraging words to the youngest patrons.
Cyrus joked he was probably out at the fair within days of being born.
Other Burton Brothers employees admit they were friends who became family.
Kristi Woo, Bryce Burton’s fiancé, joked she was roped into the business when she met Bryce a few years ago.
But she’s never regretted getting involved. She can be found with her hair tied back and a smile across her face as she prepares corn dogs in the Hot Diggity Dog food stand at the edge of the midway.
The Burton family and employees spend April to August traveling to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky and as far south as Florida. Along the way, they learn a lot about people and places, Ben Burton said: food is the biggest money-maker in Indiana; games booths are more popular with Ohioans than anywhere else; and they expect the longest lines at rides in Florida, he said.
But the week they spend in Greenfield at the Hancock County 4-H Fair is different, Bryce Burton said.
The faces they recognize are of former classmates, now grown with families of their own, he said.
The fair-goers are neighbors, Ben Burton said; the families from the preschool where his wife, Jennifer, teaches, or his sons’ friends from Eastern Hancock Schools.
They take pride in bringing joy to these folks, in making sure the fun they have is safe and memorable, Ben Burton said.
“It’s like a homecoming,” he said.
Ben and Bryce Burton admit they hadn’t planned to go into business together, but they are certainly happy with how things worked out. The carnival business was something they developed a passion for simultaneously. Things just fell into place.
“Like a lot of family-owned businesses, you either grow toward it or away from it,” Ben Burton said.
“It’s just in our blood,” Bryce Burton added.
They hope one day to pass the company along, the same way their parents did. And while he is too young to make any decisions now, the family’s youngest member already has his eyes on the midway’s biggest prize.
“I can see myself being the owner one day,” Cyrus said with a smile.