BND Magazine

August 24, 2014

Family act: Luehrs' Ideal Rides has been giving people thrills for 58 years

Driving around the midway in his golf cart, Andy Schoendienst had a decision to make.

It was 7 p.m. on the second night of the St. Clair County Fair in Belleville. Colorful lights flashed on food stands and carnival rides, but pouring rain had chased away all their customers.

Andy dashed inside the trailer that serves as his rolling office, picked up the phone and called the fairgrounds manager.

"I'm about ready to wrap this up," said Andy, 60, of Fairview Heights, president of Luehrs' Ideal Rides amusement company. "There's not a soul out there."

Business wasn't Andy's only concern. He knew bad weather could cause safety problems, and employees were getting drenched.

Andy and his wife, Lorelei Schoendienst, began shutting down the operation via walkie-talkies. Niece Kristin Atkins trudged out on a trouble-shooting mission, wearing a rain jacket and tall rubber boots.

"It's OK," said Lorelei, 60, shrugging her shoulders. "That's the carnival business."

Lorelei should know. Her family founded Luehrs' Ideal Rides in 1956. She's been a "carny" her whole life.

Today, Lorelei serves as company treasurer. Sister Jean Clair is secretary, and brother-in-law Joe Clair is vice president.

They all took the evening's washout in stride.

"These things happen, but it's never pretty," said Jean, 67, of Jupiter, Fla. "It's not supposed to rain on our parade."

The sting would have been worse if not for record ticket sales this summer, boosted by mild temperatures in the Midwest.

The family spends six months a year traveling to fairs and festivals in Illinois, Missouri and Indiana. They live in mobile homes, along with about 60 employees.

And they love it.

"You don't work a day in your life out here," Andy said. "It's something different every day. It's not a job. It's a lifestyle."

Whatever it is, Andy married into it. The Belleville native and nephew of Cardinals Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst went to college for aircraft engineering.

Andy met Lorelei while working for a metro-east man who sold carnival equipment to her father, Hub Luehrs. She lived in Florida.

"She had a little bit of culture shock (moving to the Midwest)," Andy said.

Roots of the amusement company go back to 1936, when 18-year-old Hub hitchhiked to Wisconsin to join his Uncle Jack's carnival and operated the tilt-a-whirl.

Hub later married Winnifred Schimnowski, another carny. They bought Ideal Rides in 1956.

The couple started with five attractions: an octopus, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, pony cart and roller-coaster.

"Hub and Winnie knew with the kids in school that they could not grow fast," Kristin wrote in a company history. "So they decided to grow best."

That philosophy has continued over the years. Luehrs' is known as one of the cleanest and safest amusement companies in the country.

It's been operating in some places more than 50 years, including the Decatur County Fair in Indiana and the Toledo Spring Festival and Will County Fair in Illinois.

"We've grown up at these fairs, and we've made so many good friends," Jean said.

During the off-season, the family attends carnival conventions, maintains equipment and does other behind-the-scenes work.

In recent years, the younger generation has been taking on more responsibility. That includes Andy and Lorelei's son, Andy Schoendienst Jr., and Jean and Joe's daughter, Kristin, and her husband, Christopher Atkins.

Employees also are like family.

"They all travel with us," Andy said. "We provide them with housing. We provide them with uniforms. If they have a toothache, we have to make sure it's taken care of."

A rain-out causes a significant financial loss because the company still has to pay for salaries, utilities, equipment, gas and other expenses.

The Schoendiensts didn't get too down about it in Belleville. They loved spending more time in their real home a few miles away.

Working so close together, family members have their squabbles. But they try to keep them at a minimum.

"You have to pick your battles," Lorelei said. "You have to get along. You have to be easygoing. Why argue about it? That takes time. If we have a problem, we focus on fixing it."

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