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.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.