How It All Began

Bill Burke checking Ferris Wheel

It all started with a boy's fascination for carnivals. During his childhood Billy Burke liked to spend his time at the carnivals and amusement parks down in southern California. His dad would have to come and pull him away from the carnival when it was time to come home. As he said once in an interview with a television reporter, he would "absorb" these carnivals, and as he grew older a fantasy started to develop in his mind. That fantasy would lead Billy to go on and develop several toothpick carnivals and even some separate roller coasters and ferris wheels along the way.

Billy Burke was born June 11th, 1909. He was a small kid growing up and always felt like he needed to prove himself to the other kids. As a result of that he ended up getting himself into trouble with the law as a teen-ager. He was sent to various reform schools but always ran away from them. He was finally sent to Folsom Prison on May 19, 1928.

It was in Folsom Prison that Billy's creativity started to flourish. He first started carving cars, model airplanes and model ships out of wood. He even built a roller coaster out of shotgun shells. Eventually he starting creating carnivals. Billy built three carnivals during his years in prison. So fascinating were these carnivals that prison wardens would bring visitors to see them. Two of them were sold to amusement parks eventually.

Billy’s prison years were certainly not uneventful, however. In 1929 Billy escaped from Folsom Prison. He later was captured and returned to prison. A Sacramento Bee reporter found his life and escape story so compelling that she wrote a book based on tape recordings she made of interviews with him.

After Billy was released from prison, he met and married Irene Bliss in 1957. They had three sons together: Bill, John (author of this website) and Ron. That marriage lasted 12 years. He later married a woman by the name of June around 1980. June helped him build another carnival which they displayed at state fairs around the country for five years.

After his divorce from June, Billy became the assistant manager of a mobile home park in North Highlands (Sacramento area). While there he built a toothpick merry-go-round and a replica of a gazebo that used to be on the Folsom Prison grounds.

In 1981 Billy was interviewed for the evening news at the Solano County (CA) fairgrounds by Lynne Gormley of the Channel 10 News. To see video of this interview, click here.

Back to top

© Copyright 2009-2023