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Carnival man

Looking back at the life and legacy of influential Halifax businessman Bill Lynch

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The old North End storefront is packed with dusty memorabilia. Eighty-five-year-old Bill Mont, a long-time entrepreneur, amassed the collection over a lifetime. He’s foraging through the piles. “I know it’s here somewhere,” he smiles as he rummages through the boxes. He lifts out a large framed poster. The backdrop of the poster depicts a star-studded event with rays of lights beaming down. A Ferris wheel and merry-go-round pop out, a familiar clown’s face beams.

The poster is from the Bill Lynch Carnival, a staple of Maritime culture. Mont has even more, as he reveals the original ticket booth, the painted eagle still proudly intact on the front. Perhaps most interesting of all is the “Wheel of Chance”, a popular carnival game which stands proudly beside the ticket booth. Countless people spun the aging wheel over the years, trying (and usually failing) to win a big prize at the Bill Lynch Carnival.

“I felt a kinship to Bill Lynch,” Mont says, “having all his stuff from his desks; his papers and photos of him over several years. Amazing collectibles.” Mont acquired his rare finds from antique dealers, as well as at an auction that was held after the death of Bill Lynch’s sister Gladys Conrad, the last remaining full-time resident of McNabs Island.

Although he was a big part of many Nova Scotians’ childhoods, Lynch remains a mystery. He was a businessman who coveted his privacy. He didn’t linger around the fair grounds during the day. He mostly appeared at night, smoking a cigar as he strolled around while everyone was closing up at three or four in the morning. “He was like Gatsby,” explains author Christopher Walsh. “He would invite people to the carnival and then he would disappear.”

Walsh’s 2010 book Under the Electric Sky: The Legacy of the Bill Lynch Shows chronicles the carny life. “Finding people who would talk about Lynch was a difficult endeavour,” Walsh recalls. “It was as if those few still living had signed a secrecy clause in perpetuity with Lynch that they dare not violate for fear of ending up in carny hell. I suppose that speaks to the type of man Lynch was. He instilled deep commitment and loyalty some 40 years after his death.”

As a young boy, Lynch moved with his family to McNabs Island in the spring of 1905 when his father accepted the position of lighthouse keeper. Matthew Lynch was a seafaring man; he relished the job. His wife and four children soon settled into life on the island, with Halifax just a boat ride across the Harbour.

Lynch’s childhood home transformed each summer with the annual opening of Findlay’s Picnic Grounds on the north shore of McNabs Island. Thousands came to the fair. Hundreds of rowboats docked at Findlay’s Cove and people of all ages came up the hill for an afternoon of games, food, and their turn on the steam-powered merry-go-round.

McNabs was home to a euphoric dance of imagination each summer. Lynch couldn’t get enough. As a teenager, he took a job racking the balls and assisting with the old merry-go-round. All the while, he yearned to be a bigger part of this magical escape.

The Halifax Explosion in 1917 ended the magic. Crowds dissipated in the following years, as the ruined city rebuilt. Lynch went back to the menial everyday monotony of working life at a machine shop, with the fantasy life of the island’s pleasures dormant in his mind.

Dreaming of the amusement business, Lynch returned to McNabs Island in the spring of 1920, buying the famous merry-go-round for $800. He managed it until 1924, but people didn’t come to the island like they used to. Lynch decided to go to the people. He partnered with Ray Rogers and the two of them took their gig on the road during the summer months, stopping in small towns throughout Nova Scotia. The partnership petered out within 18 months, but Lynch had begun to establish himself as a successful showman. By 1926 he had acquired a few more concessions. In 1928 he bought his second ride: a Ferris wheel.

Small towns were never the plan for Lynch’s growing carnival. In 1929, he won the bid for the Halifax exhibition. He had three rides and three shows, yet the exhibition stipulations required seven of each. It was a big (and costly) jump. Lynch cashed in his savings. The carnival was a success and organizers asked Lynch to return in 1930.

He wanted to dispel the negative perception of carnies. He hired hundreds of Maritimers to run the games and partnered with service groups. Lynch made donations to charitable groups in every town his roadshow visited. He told the carnies that all disabled children should ride for free.

By the 1940s, the Bill Lynch Carnival was Canada’s biggest. Children anxiously anticipated the exciting new rides and shows the carnival would offer. Lynch called the carnival “the search for relief from monotony from everyday living.” Even the media was starting to take note of Bill Lynch’s growing stature and success. Fred Phillips, writing for the Maritime Advocate in 1946 described Lynch as “the only major showman to carve out a notable success while confining himself to the Maritimes. An individualist?”

By 1956 the Bill Lynch Carnival was massive, towing 27 railway cars of rides, games and performers all around the Maritimes. Over the years Lynch hired acts such as the turtle woman, the tattooed man, the world’s fattest couple, and conjoined twins Ronnie and Donnie.

Donations to children’s charities were always a big part of his work. Although he tried not to call attention to it, Lynch would even go as far as visiting hospitals in the Maritimes and paying the bills of some of the impoverished patients. In his will, Bill Lynch stated that much of the $3 million he had accumulated over his lifetime be donated to children’s charities. Shortly before his death in October 1972, he told the Chronicle Herald “If I am to be remembered I want to be thought of for my gestures. You just can’t take it with you, so I figure you have to leave something behind in the name of good will.”

  • Chuckie

    I grew up in Mt.Uniacke where the Bill Lynch equipment was stored when not in use and that was fascinating , sometimes they would do things for Halloween ! It was fun to go to the Forum in Halifax and see exotic animals Brought from Florida by a Mr Frank Weed , Turns out my Mom knew him when she grew up in Florida ! Wow what a small world ! Thank you Mr Bill Lynch for great memories !

  • Carolin Palmer

    This is a wonderful article and has helped to answer some questions for me. I am a writer and I have a novel coming out in the next year. It is abou my life growing up in the Maritimes. A large part of my life was the Bill Lynch Show. One on the chapters is about going to the fair and the roll my own father played in the Bill Lynch Life. He traveled and worked for them for many years. He new Bill himself and would ofter meet him on late evenings as the fair moved from town to town. Could you please help me with a fact I may have wrong in my story. I was wondering if you could tell me who and how Soggy Reid became a part of the traveling show. I had an interesting childhood and my father was my hero. I can remember him working with the chimps in the animal show, did it carry a separate name or was it an extension of the Bill Lynch show. Bill
    Lynch was certainly a generous man and was always a good friend of my fathers. He also provided our whole family with complimentary passes for the rides. Thanks in advance for any info you can help me with. Carolin Palmer

  • Fred Hebb

    I worked for Mr. Bill Lynch starting in 1956 when I was 16 years old. We traveled to Newfoundland and I worked directly for Jack Lynch, Bill’s brother. After traveling across Newfound land and back by train we would do exhibitions in Nova Scotia, like North Sydney, Truro, Windsor, Yarmouth and also some went with the big show, Bill’s, until the end of the season. Because I was still going to school Bill would pay my airfare to catch up with the show after school finished in June. Jack Lynch and Bill always made sure I was back in time to return to school and paid for my books. I first met Soggy in 1958 when we were playing Stephenville Crossing in NF. He showed up on the midway with an old Dodge potato truck loaded with a small grab joint and a couple of joints. It was an experience I shall never forget. Both Jack and Bill were the best I ever worked for although it was hard in those days not like the midways of today. I spent quite a bit of time in Jacks office where he would tell me stories of the midway and of Bill. Bill Lynch Shows was once the largest sole owned show in North America although there were some larger they had more than one owner. I still to this day enjoy strolling down the midway.

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