Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rice Creek Rancho, Part 2

(This is the second in a 2 part story of our dad’s Rice Creek Rancho business. He had purchased about 60 wild burros from Mexico, and kept them in a 40 acre, rented field across the street from our suburban home in Fridley, MN.)
8-year-old John S. with baby Burro
Even though my brother Mark and I were still little kids, right from the get-go dad got us up on the burro’s and away we went. He had purchased some really cool leather saddles with brass and chrome studded medallions accented into the inlaid leather work. All the saddles he brought home had ‘horns’ on them, were very shinny and initially that was how we stayed on the burros; after we learned to ride, we just held on with our knees, many times without any saddle at all.

However, the big problem was that all these creatures were wild, right out of the Mexican desert, and had never been ridden. Although not nearly as big as a horse, or even a mule, these burros were whirling dervishes in every way. Kids came from miles around, jumped over the fence, snuck up on the burros and took them for bare-back rides.  Much of the time the bucking burros would run directly toward the low hanging branches of the numerous Box Elder trees which studded the field. Many a rider was knocked clean off their willey burro as it galloped under a tree branch. All told, I can only remember one kid getting really hurt, but he only broke an arm. Considering the big picture, not too bad…

Off all the burro’s back then, ‘Jock-o’ was the absolute wildest burro in the corral. He was jet black with a pure white star on his shoulder, and a longer black mane than the rest of the burros. We couldn’t even get on Jock-o. Somehow, without looking backward, he could tell when we were in range, and quicker than quick, Jock-o would whip a hind leg out and kick you in the ribs – hard. Nope, none of the kids bothered with Jock-o, for a few years anyway, but that’s another story…

In the meantime, little by little, dad’s herd of burros started dwindling, although we had the burros for many years. So, dad thought to himself, ‘with sales lagging a little more than the initial business plan had taken into account, how else can I make money with these burros? How about a concession at the MN State Fair! Now there’s a great idea!’

So started our many adventures working the burros at the State Fair. Our concession was on top of the knoll at the west end of where the Sky Ride is now located. For a half dozen years we would go to the Fair and dig 2 concentric circles of fence posts, and string rope between the two circle outlines – making a circular, rope ringed track. It was a pretty big track, probably about 200’ in diameter. Dad had an old, rickety, white washed work bench with a drawer that he kept the ‘money box’ in. He painted a sign of sorts that said, Mexican Burro rides, 25 cents  - we were in business. To attract attention to his fabulous State Fair Exposition, in his HUGE, LOUD VOICE, dad would yell out: “2-bits for a ride on a Mexican Burro. Who’s up next?” Honestly, you could hear my dad from over a block away, even with all the commotion of the fair. (For those that don’t know, 2-bits equals twenty-five cents.)

We had a very busy concession. Like all of these businesses, dad did all the thinking, as well as the working part that we kids couldn’t handle. But he was a great mentor, and showed us how to do as much work as possible, as soon as possible. There were many things to think up.

Us kids’ main job at the fair was to keep the stubborn burros moving around the ‘ring’ when we had riders, which was from dawn to dusk. The burros would get tired, and we had some extra’s to trade off during the day. But even so, many, many times each day one or more of burros would just stop. Well, this was a perfect job, not only for Mark and me, but also for little brother Jimmie and best friends Cris and Brian Archibald (who lived across the street in Fridley). This really was a good job for kids that were from 6 or 7, all the way up to 10 or 12. I mean really, can you picture a grown man walking around behind these little burros just to keep them going? I can’t, but then, I was kind of protective of my job back then too…

Anyway, we each had our own favorite stick to slap the behinds of the burros when they wouldn’t cooperate, and 95% of the time, we could get them going again. However, if we simply couldn’t get one or more of the burros started, ‘the big gun’ would be called in: Dad. Our dad had huge, strong, callused hands and when he slapped the butt of a burro you could hear it for a hundred yards. Right when he would make the connection, huge hand to butt, he would yell out, “On delay” (it’s Spanish; we didn’t know what this meant either?). The little burros ears would go back and they would leap into action, not to stop for quite some time.

After one or two of these encounters, the stalled burro in question would crane his head, and roll his eyes all the way back to see if dad was indeed coming after him. When the stubborn creature was sure it was the target of ‘the big gun’, the burro would tuck his tail between his legs and start running around the ring – with a little kid on board – bouncing (and sometimes, crying) all the way around the ring until dad could catch up to the now stampeding herd of jackasses. Are we having fun now, or what!? The show was just beginning.

Most of the time our days were spent taking turns walking burros around the ring, and when it wasn’t our turn, we would go down the Midway where we had made friends with the kids of the professional ‘carnies’, the guys that ran all the Midway rides. We kids became compatriots because we all ‘worked’ at the Fair and our gang would get free rides in the Midway, and the Midway gang would get free rides on the burros. It was a good deal, and cooler than heck.

If you can imagine being a little kid whose job it is to walk behind burros in a circle for 12 hours a day, you can get a taste of working at the fair at the Mexican Burro concession. We liked it, and were able to go down to the Midway and everything, but it was still a lot of boring work. So, we had to make up some games. One of them went like this:

Of course, being creatures that ate, the burros of course had to poop too. Because we all did such a good job keeping the burros moving, they could poop on the fly. Many people, maybe most, haven’t really had the opportunity to study the hind end of a burro for days on end. Well, I’m here to tell you that there is a certain sequence of events that occurs as the burro is working up to this particular project.

Our ‘honey-bucket’ was a wheelbarrow that we kept in the middle of the ‘ring’; we kept the show shovel in the honey-bucket for picking up after the burros. The contest was that the kid that was ‘up’, had to recognize the symptoms of the next bowel movement for one of the 6 or 7 burros working, run to the honey-bucket, get the snow shovel, run back to the burro in question, and catch the poop in mid-air, before it hit the ground. We developed a point system for winning points for perfect catches, and losing points when the one that was ‘up’, got the snow shovel and there was no action; this was a serious loss of points. The winner wouldn’t have to put the burros away that night. I really hate to brag, but I usually won this contest.

When I think back on this whole affair, I’m pretty sure that the parents had just as much fun as the kids did when they visited our dad’s Mexican Burro concession. There was always plenty of action and interesting things happening.

As for our wages, ‘we weren’t cheap, but we could be had’. Each day we earned $3 each, and all the chili-con-carne and Dinty Moore Beef Stew we could eat. Of course we got free rides in the Midway, and we had an old, miniature travel trailer on the site that we could sleep in. That way, dad wouldn’t have to pay to get us into the Fair every day. A pretty shrewd move on his part, and we all liked to camp out anyway; we didn’t have to take baths when we slept over, were play around at the Fair, and got to spend all kinds of extra time with the burros. We loved the State Fair!

By the time the fair ended, we were all pretty tired, but rich. We all had the money we earned at the fair and for the set-up/tear down, and on really good days, dad would give us more money as a bonus. He would take out all the money he earned and we would help him dump it on the big bed in mom and dad’s bedroom. You’ve never seen so many quarters in your life (at least we hadn’t). Then we helped put all the money into the little paper tubes so dad could bring the money to the bank, in bags. A lot of bags.

To all of us kids, our dad was the richest dad we knew, and as I came to realize when I became a father, he was richer in more ways than one.

John S. Mickman
MN State Fair Concessionaire

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