Compiled by Lion Tom Maino, Secretary Emeritus and unofficial club historian; and prepared by Lion Ed Freundl, past secretary.
The Michigan Center Lions Club was founded April 12, 1957, with 23 original or charter members. Raising money to donate to various Lions Club local, state and international projects has always been a challenge, no matter what the size of the club.
In the early days the men tried many ideas for fundraisers. Their first fundraiser was a car wash, raising $80 for the Michigan Center Little League. A softball game with the Michigan Center Fire Department raised $300, and both organizations put the money in a fund for a future community youth center. They also sold sun visors at the Round Lake boat races, and held candy, broom, and apple sales. They sponsored a minstrel show and a wrestling match in 1959. In the third year, the club had a fundraising basketball game at Michigan Center High School. Another minstrel show in early 1961 was not as successful due to inclement weather, but still raised $300.
In May 1963 the club held a circus as a fund-raiser, but it was not well-attended and proceeds were only $200. This was the club’s first attempt at a “carnival”-type fundraiser, and no one could have imagined what it was to evolve into over the years.
The question of when the Lions Club took over running the Michigan Center Carp Carnival is a matter of much speculation, but the best estimate is 1966. Exact information is sketchy, because many club records from July 1965 to June 1970 are lost or missing.
Some of the confusion may stem from the Carp Carnival originally being a project sponsored by the Clearwater Association beginning in 1957, the same year the Lions Club was founded. The purpose of the carnival was to raise money for weed-control efforts in Center and Round lakes. The Lions Club participated by selling goods from its concessions trailer.
It is commonly believed that, as Clearwater members slowly lost interest in the tremendous amount of work involved in putting on the Carp Carnival, Lions Club members saw an opportunity to take charge of the event and make it their premier fundraising activity. The gamble paid off and, by 1970, the Carnival made a net profit of $2,500 on gross sales of $12,700. Gone were the nickel-and-dime days of car washes, basketball and softball games, and selling refreshments at athletic events.
Then as now, the Carnival represents the club’s largest single fundraiser every year, and the profit it generates makes up the majority of its annual budget for charitable donations to community and Lions projects. Of course, the Lions Club still holds fundraisers during the year to support its numerous other charitable giving programs, but each summer’s Carp Carnival remains the granddaddy of them all.
The 1981 Carp Carnival was a success due in part to Bingo being introduced. After the fifth year of Bingo games (1986) the club split the proceeds with the Michigan Center Lioness Club, with both clubs sharing responsibility for the project.
In 1982 we celebrated as the 25th anniversary of both the club and the carnival. This was the first year for the Carp Carnival Parade down Michigan Center’s “Main Street,” Page Avenue and Fifth Street, an event that is highly anticipated and enjoyed by the entire community. Originally a Lions project, this also has evolved to become the responsibility of the Lioness Club.
In 1983 the date of the carnival was moved from May to early June, and the public responded by making it a huge success. The club took over care of the restrooms in the township park in 1985-86, mainly because they were absolutely necessary to the Carp Carnival. In return, the Leoni Township board of trustees gave the club permission to use the park for the carnival for three years, rather than having to come before the board every year. The club brought in eight loads of topsoil to build up and improve the open, grassy areas, and has made large and small improvements to the park ever since.
For the club’s 30th year, 1986-87, members designed a 30-year pin, giving a nod to the Carp Carnival by depicting a lion spearing a carp. The first raffle of an aluminum boat, motor and trailer, headed by Lion Jerry Mayo, took place that year. By 1988, under the careful financial stewardship of co-chairmen Larry Maino and Gayle Knickerbocker, carnival proceeds were consistently providing two-thirds to three-quarters of the funds needed for the club for the entire year.
In 1988-89, the club entered an agreement with the township to lease the park restrooms for $1 a year, thus giving the club full responsibility for the building. That was also the year that Gayle Knickerbocker and his crew installed the large electrical panel box in the park, helping to eliminate the electrical problems Carp Carnival vendors were experiencing.
Records from 1990 to the present are temporarily unavailable. However, it is clear that during this time the Carp Carnival grew from being a Michigan Center summer specialty to become a regional destination, drawing visitors from all over southern Michigan and throughout the Great Lakes states and beyond.
While many things have changed over the years, the Carp Carnival remains true to its roots. The things that keep people coming back year after year —the fishing contest, the carnival rides, the live entertainment, Bingo, and the Lions Chicken Barbecue — will continue.