When Jim Keenan’s great grandfather built Ye Old Mill with the help of the Philadelphia Toboggan Co. 100 years ago, he probably didn’t know he was building a legacy. But five generations later, the ride is as popular with Minnesota State Fair visitors as it was back in 1915.
The ride is one of, if not the, oldest rides designed by the company still in operation in the United States.
“It is definitely the oldest Tunnel of Love operated by the same family,” Keenan said proudly, standing on the grassy area behind the ride earlier this summer.
Few things have changed since that first ride in 1915. Some of the vignettes have been updated over the years and a new scene or two have been added to enhance the ride experience. But Keenan, fourthgeneration operator of the ride, quickly points out that even when the scenes are tweaked or improved, he keeps the old gnomes and tiny statues that folks have grown to love.
“There are some elves that have been in there since the ’50s,” he said. “If we change anything, we always keep those little guys in there. People love the tradition of it.”
Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the original 40-horse electric 1911 engine still spins the paddlewheel that gently propels the handmade boats on the 971-foot ride.
“The engine was built to run 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for years,” Keenan explained. “We were told we have another 80 years on that thing, at least.”
There are 11 boats that each hold four adults for the approximately 4-minute ride. In most parts of the tunnel, riders float in complete darkness.
“You can’t see your hand in front of your face,” Keenan said. Hence the Tunnel of Love moniker, evidently.
Keenan and his three brothers grew up working the ride during the fair, selling tickets, assisting riders in and out of the wobbly boats, and learning to maintain the mechanics. His brothers have since moved away, but they all come back to work the ride for the duration of the fair. Starting in April, Keenan takes two days a week off from his mental health practice and, along with his father, John, and his young son, begins the tedious work of bringing the ride back to life after a long winter’s slumber.
Will the next generation pick up the torch? Keenan hopes so. He wants the ride to live on for his children to enjoy, even if they choose not to work it the way he and his brothers had.
“I would hope that this continues, but we are always nervous about it. We all have year-to-year contracts here at the fair,” he explained. “You always wonder, does the fair see it and love it like we do?”
For the 100-year celebration, the fair is allowing Ye Old Mill to sell t-shirts commemorating the event. A few news organizations will be onsite to highlight the anniversary, and there may be a simple opening day ceremony. Other than that, the family does not plan any elaborate festivities.
“We’ve asked the governor to ceremoniously declare Sept. 6 ‘Ye Old Mill Day,’ but other than that, we’ll just sail on in to it,” Keenan said.