An ear for nostalgia

Southside’s Carmen Carroll carries on a family tradition of making elephant ears at fairs across the nation

Carmen Carroll sells her elephant ears out of the trailer that her father purchased and designed more than 40 years ago. *Photos by Nicole Davis

A homemade dough, fried in peanut oil with plenty of cinnamon sugar on top – it’s a recipe the Carroll family has used for decades, selling the old-fashioned elephant ears at fairs in multiple states.

A resident of the Garfield Park/Fountain Square area, Carmen Carroll now carries on the business that her father, Art Carroll, started before she could remember.

Art, who was an auctioneer and at one time owned the Tugboat Cafe restaurant in Fountain Square, initially became a vendor at local fairs by selling football hotdogs from a van. When he switched to elephant ears, he started with a ‘stick joint’ made of wood with a canvas on top. Then he progressed to serving the dessert out of a trailer.

Carmen was 16 when she began working alongside her father. They would travel all the way to Florida and back.

“Then, the elephant ears were 50 cents,” she said. “I remember every time it moved, from $1, $1.50, $2 and now they’re $5. My dad sold ‘em with a money back guarantee – after one bite, if you don’t like it then you get your money back. He’d say, ‘but you only get one bite.’”

The price may have changed, but not much else, and Carmen plans to keep it that way. When her father passed away 11 years ago, she purchased the trailer from her family. Her brother has another trailer in which he also serves the elephant ears.

The artwork on her trailer is the same as it was 40 years ago, maintaining that nostalgia, but Carmen has had it repainted and/or wrapped so that the colors don’t look worn out. There is a display case that Art had filled with award-winning ribbons and photographs of his six children.

“I try to keep the product the same as my dad had it, and the trailer, because I figure he did good, and I don’t want to change anything,” she said. “I feel like if I couldn’t do it just like my dad, then it’s time for me to get out.”

Locally, Carmen sets up the trailer at the Marion County Fair each year, selling elephant ears and lemonade. At the Indiana State Fair, happening now through Aug. 20, she said she feels like there are too many elephant ear vendors, so she sets up a tent where she sells wooden roses, rubber ducks, haloes, baskets and handmade bracelets. She is always set up in front of Hook’s Drug Store, near the exit, so that children can take get their rubber duck on the way out of the gate.

“They say it’s the most colorful stand at the fair,” she said.

Carmen, with her son, still travels to many of the same fairs that she and her father did, only she has added some.

“The big fair for us was (and is) the Marion County fair,” she said. “Everybody knows my dad here and they kind of support me now, too. This year, this woman at the Marion County Fair, she was telling me a story that when she was a little girl, there was this man that worked in the trailer here and he would pull a quarter from behind her ear. That was my dad. Stuff like that happens all the time. Even in Florida, people say that they love my dad.”

Wooden roses that Carmen sells at the Indiana State Fair.

Carmen spends about six months of the year traveling to different fairs. Over the winter, she’ll either take another job or spend her time making the items that she sells at the state fair. She also enjoys cross stitching, which she’ll enter into fair contests.

“I pray a lot,” Carmen said. “I ask for help from up there, to keep us safe from traveling. We do a lot of praying for no rain.”

This year has gone well so far, Carmen said. They were so busy at the Marion County Fair in June that there was a constant line. She was able to join the show, be with the carnival rides and games, at the Hendricks County 4-H Fair in July.

“You can be independent or join the show,” she said. “I like being with the show. That’s when I feel closest to my dad.”

Working a fair is a lot of hard work and not for everyone. Carmen stays in it for the love of the business and the friends she’s made along the way.

“It’s a good business,” she said, “meeting new people and getting to see stuff that you’ve never seen before. I hope that someone in my family keeps it going.”