In 1892, Benjamin Harrison was President, but was voted out of office in that year’s November election. The Wright Brothers were replacing wooden spokes on bicycle wheels. Earning $5 a day meant you were rolling in clover. And Wilson C. “Bull” Dearwester was opening his first ring-toss carnival game which offered novelty canes as prizes.
One-hundred-twenty-three years later, Bull’s grandson Carl can be found standing in a prime spot on the midway of the Champaign County Fair doing exactly as grandpa did, giving fairgoers a chance to take home a brightly-colored toy cane, three chances for a dollar.
“Grandpa’s rings were a penny for one, seven rings for a nickel, and fifteen for a dime,” Dearwester said between stacking rings for prospective cane owners on the railing surrounding the booth. “We’ve had to up it a little over the years.”
By we, Carl meant someone named Dearwester, as over the last 13 decades the business has remained in his family’s hands. Anybody with that last name from the Logan County area (where the Dearwesters call home) has picked up a ring or two over the years. Or 20,000. At three-for-a-buck, the rings literally fly off the shelf.
When asked if he had time for a few questions, Dearwester said no, then proved it by talking non-stop for the next 25 minutes. He moved seamlessly between a scribbling reporter, clumps of teenagers, and families with toddlers, with everybody getting a howdy-do. Business was brisk at just after noon, but no lines were able to form as Dearwester packed them all up to the railing for their shot at immortality and a toy cane. This was not his first rodeo.
“I’ve been picking up rings since I was five,” Dearwester said while shelling out change and a handful of rings to a kid in a Monster baseball cap. “When I had to take Ohio history in school, my teacher was amazed that I knew all the county seats in Ohio. Of course I knew them all. That’s where we were all summer!”
Dearwester mentioned (about a dozen times) that his was a game of skill, not of luck, and is proud that it is not rigged, or “gaffed” as they say in the business. His point was well taken as about a dozen canes were claimed during our 30-minute chat, this being well before the fairgrounds began to swell with crowds as the afternoon progressed. One of the winners was a little boy who could barely see over the railing, which didn’t stop him from draining one from downtown. People who have won the lottery were less thrilled than this tyke, and that made Dearwester almost as happy as the kid.
“He’ll remember that,” Dearwester said. “He’ll be back next year trying to get one.”
Uncle Harry Dearwester took over the business when Bull passed in 1947, and Carl has been counting change and painting canes since 1990.
Literally painting canes. Tipp Novelty Company supplied the Dearwesters with the prizes for decades, but it went belly-up in 1992. Dearwester bought the very equipment that Tipp used and has been making his own canes at home ever since. Watching as the canes were flying out of his booth, he was asked how many he usually made over the winter (his down months) and he said a thousand gross, which works out to 144,000 canes. The nobs of each cane must be sent out for clear-coating to avoid poisoning those who might mistake a nob for a hearty breakfast, but the rest of the work is done by Dearwester. Considering that he spends the entire summer hitting the fair circuit and that four-year-olds are sinking it from long-distance, maybe a thousand gross isn’t that many canes after all.
Dearwester has no name recognition whatsoever, but his reputation does. When he calls to book a spot at a fair, he’s often met with silence when he first gives his name. Then he repeats it, “Carl Dearwester, you know, Dearwester Canes,” which is always met by the same reaction: “You’re the Cane Guy!”
“That’s me,” Dearwester laughed. “The Cane Guy.”