WEST FARGO — The Red River Valley Fair is a summer tradition for many, but for one Texas man, working fairs around the world is life.

Robert Benham — known to most as Smokey — has been traveling with the fair since he was 15. Now 80, he still remembers his first role 65 years ago, setting up milk bottles in concessions. Back then, he was paid $15 a week.

"That was good money back in those days," Smokey said.

In the 1950s he worked the Tilt-A-Whirl.

"That was the first ride I ever worked on," he said. "There was a lot of excitement watching the hoochie coochie girls, the big giant snakes and guys riding motorcycles around walls."

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

The entertainment circuit has taken the Georgia native around the globe. He spends most of the year on the road, away from his wife and two kids.

"They don't care, as long (as) you send them money. They can buy stuff you don't know about," Smokey joked.

As Smokey looked at the fun happening below from a second-story window overlooking the fair, he explained how the fair has changed over the decades.

"Years ago it was about the shows and we had no rides. Now it's turned around and it's about the rides and no shows," Smokey said.

But one thing has not changed.

"The merry-go-round is the backbone of the carnival," he said. "All shows carry the merry-go-round."

All the horses on the merry-go-round at the fair this year were hand-painted by Smokey. As he watched the kids go around and around, he was reminded of what kept him going all these years, getting up at 5 a.m. every morning.

"Seeing the kids smile — that is my favorite thing," he said.