By: Ashley Weiss
There’s no place like Clear Lake for the Fourth of July.
Dozens of lighted and musical carnival rides, concessions and games wrap around City Park in the heart of downtown with the beautiful backdrop of the lake. “It’s a postcard, the setup, the setting. It’s not like any other event,” said Erin Evans-Phipps, who’s been involved with the carnival her entire life. “Clear Lake’s the greatest. There’s no better place to be on the Fourth.”
Erin’s family, who has owned and operated Evans United Shows for more than 70 years, travels to nearly 10 states across the country for more than 30 events from March to mid-November, including at least seven weeks in Iowa.
This year marks Evans United’s 50th anniversary of bringing carnival rides and fun to the multi-day celebration in Clear Lake that has anchored family get-togethers and class reunions for decades.
“Clear Lake’s always been special to us. We’ve made a lot of friends over the years,” said Tom Evans, who runs the family business with his wife, Nancy. “It’s a great town.” The Evans family will be recognized as the 2023 parade grand marshal during the celebration on July 4th. The theme of this year’s parade is “Decades of Fun.”
In the early 1970s, Tom’s parents, Bill and Ruth Evans, purchased several rides from the previous owner of rides seen in Clear Lake during the Fourth of July. Their first year in Clear Lake was 1974. The next year, Tom and Nancy, who married in 1972, took over the carnival’s operations after the untimely death of his parents. “It’s pretty impressive to look at what they’ve done over the course of all these years,” Erin said about her parents who were in their early 20s at the time. “I’m proud of them. It’s a big accomplishment what my mom and dad created.”
Evans United Shows, of Plattsburg, Missouri, was started in 1947.
Third-generation showmen Tom and his late brother, Jim, built and expanded the family carnival business exponentially in the following decades. In 2019, the Evans family mourned the death of Jim. In recent years, Erin, and her husband, Jason Phipps, have taken over many of the day-to-day operations. Erin only recalls missing two Fourth of July celebrations in Clear Lake since she was born. She and her younger sister, Emily, spent summers on the road with the carnival and Fourth of Julys in Clear Lake. Swimming in the lake, shopping at the Ben Franklin store, eating at the Backyard Deli, and one of her favorites, enjoying Shirley Temples and onion rings at the Ritz Club. “We grew up in Iowa,” Erin said. “It’s where we’ve spent every summer of our lives.”
Ann Owsley was their babysitter on the road in the summers. Her mother taught with Nancy. After pursuing a career outside the carnival and helping when she could, she returned full time as Evans United’s office manager. Her son, Evan, is also involved with the carnival. They’ve hardly missed any trips to Clear Lake for the Fourth of July.
Erin, who will be 46 this year, said her dad made sure she learned how to work. Her first job with the carnival was scooping popcorn and packaging cotton candy at about 7 years old, which then progressed to filling up drinks and then working a ticket window. The cotton candy trailer is where Erin met her “summertime friend” and “buddy,” Jason, who she’s been married to for more than 10 years. Jason is the carnival manager, the one Tom counts on and has put in charge of basically everything, she said. Evans owns the rides and contracts the games on the midway and the food concessions.
You won’t see the carnival in Clear Lake without the Ferris wheel, Tilt-A-Whirl Merry-Go-Round and bumper cars. The Fire Ball and Freak Out — Evans’ newest and perhaps its most expensive acquisition — have been popular rides among carnival-goers, as well. This year, the carnival’s Ferris wheel will arrive with a new LED light package including 16 patterns that Tom said will look great on a ride that attracts people of all ages year after year.
In March 2020, Evans United Shows was forced to pause its operations due to the global COVID-19 pandemic like many in the entertainment industry. Evans only did six shows that year, and there was no trip to Iowa.
“There were a lot of people in my generation who went out and tried a different venture and left the industry after reassessing things, but I’m all in for the hard work,” Erin said. “We were very fortunate. It was a heck of a year, but we did it and we’re thankful to be back out.”
Erin and Pat Cates, who has worked with Evans United in various capacities for more than 40 years, credit the carnival’s survival to Tom and Nancy’s management. “It was rough on everybody,” Tom said. “We were open a month and waited for the curve to flatten. We were stable enough to stay in business but a lot weren’t, a lot of carnivals have quit within the last two or three years.” Cates said the carnival’s contract with the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce for the Fourth of July is one of its longest-running.
Nancy invited Cates, a high school classmate, to spend one summer with Evans United after she lost both her parents unexpectedly. At that time, Erin was in junior high and Emily was in elementary school. “That year is still going on,” Cates said with a chuckle. Cates is no longer on the road with the carnival its entire season but instead picks and chooses the handful of events she works and Clear Lake remains at the top of her list. “It’s like coming home,” she said. “I have so many good friends there. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Cates isn’t the only friend the Evans have convinced to come to Clear Lake with the carnival for the “biggest and best Fourth of July in the United States” over the years. In fact, they’ve had many come and work and return year after year.
Alice Hanley, longtime Clear Lake Fourth of July Committee chair, said she’s honored to be among the Evans family’s wide circle of friends. “They are generous, caring, and unpretentious, never expecting any praise or recognition. They take great pride in making a positive difference in the community. Evans United Shows makes special memories for kids and grown-ups of all ages,” she said. “It’s been my privilege to help with the Fourth of July celebration and get to know the Evans family. What can I say? I love ‘em!”
The Evans family attributes much of its success and longevity in Clear Lake to the community — the Chamber, the businesses and the people — who have supported them over the years. “Clear lake is a true blessing to us,” Cates said. “We have both grown together. As the celebration has gotten bigger, Evans has gotten bigger and as Evans has gotten bigger, so has the celebration. You guys know how to do it and do it right.”
Click here for the full schedule of July 4th Celebration events!