Jon Carroll first started entertaining parade-goers in 1977 when he debuted with Creston Elks Clowns pedaling a 6-foot high Schwinn unicycle in parades all across southwest Iowa.
He was 18 years old and his striped clown suit and unicycle mastery astonished young children who would swarm the streets to catch a glimpse of Carroll and the Clown’s signature double-cab truck.
“He was a hit from the very beginning,” said Bill Fastenow, an original Clowns member. “Jon would ride that thing and kids would follow him clear down the street. We’ve had a lot of Clowns over the years, but Jon might be the only one with any real talent.”
The late 1970s and 1980s were the peak of Creston Elks Clowns with about 20 active members. The contingent traveled to eight or 10 events each year and the parade routes averaged about 1 mile each.
“We had more fun than you could shake a stick at,” said Chuck Lang of Creston, another original Elks Clowns member. “The kids went crazy for Jon, especially when we went out of town because they’d never seen him before.”
The $5 incentive
But, the burning question is how did Carroll learn to ride this one-wheel vehicle?
“Dad came home with a unicycle one day that he bought from Montgomery Ward and told us the first one to ride this gets $5,” Carroll recalls. “He had 10 children. He had to keep us busy somehow.”
So, the Carroll children started practicing. They started in the upstairs hallway of their house on South Pine Street in Creston.
“The hallway was about 20 foot long,” Carroll said, “and narrow enough you could extend your hands and use the wall to help you when you crashed.”
They then “graduated” outside riding the unicycle in the street using parked vehicles for balance and to brace their falls. Jon — at 12 years old — was the first child to successfully ride the unicycle.
“I don’t ever remember getting $5, though,” Carroll said, laughing.
His brother Mike and sisters Tina and Lisa also learned to ride “a block or two” on the unicycle, which had a 24-inch wheel and sat about 3-foot high off the ground. But, it was Jon who continued to master the unicycle over the years, even riding it to school occasionally through the ninth grade.
“I rode it to school a couple times in the winter. That was interesting. Unicycles don’t do so well on ice,” Carroll joked.
On Christmas in 1977, Carroll received a brand new 6-foot Schwinn giraffe unicycle he still rides in parades today. It was a gift from his girlfriend Roxanne Chubick.
“It cost me about $150,” said Roxanne, who will be married to Jon for 34 years in August. “I remember my parents were not very happy with me spending that kind of money on a boyfriend. I was only a 10th grader then. But, he’s put a lot of miles on that thing over the years. I think we got our money out of it.”
Jon has had several other unicycles over the years including a 10-foot custom unicycle constructed by Lang. Carroll used the 10-foot unicycle for a couple years in the mid-1980s.
“He could change streetlights with that thing,” Fastenow said.
Luckily, Carroll said he never had any major falls or crashes on the 10-footer or any other unicycle over the years — only small crashes that knocked the wind out of him after landing stomach-first.
“I do watch for raised concrete and irregularities in the roadway,” Carroll said. “The brick streets in the Creston routes can give me problems sometimes.”
Carroll said the scariest moment, though, was in 2009 when a group of children surrounded him near Creston Automotive on Adams Street.
“I dangled a piece of candy above one kids head,” Carroll said. “He was jumping for it and when I turned around kids had surrounded the unicycle and I had nowhere to go. I bumped one kid in the head with the unicycle on the way down. Since then, I’ve stayed away from crowds where I can get trapped.”
In April, Carroll purchased a new unicycle. Its seat is 4-foot off the ground and supports a 28-inch wheel. Carroll said he will attempt to ride the fourth day of RAGBRAI this year on this new unicycle.
That route is about 40 miles long from Forest City to Mason City.
Carroll, 54, will also ride in this year’s Fourth of July parade in Creston slated 10 a.m. July 4. Carroll estimates he’s pedaled a unicycle in more than 200 parades in the past 37 years.
He is currently a member of the Creston Elks Clowns. Interested in joining? Contact Carroll at 641-340-1526 or Josh Simmons at 641-344-7073.