The State Fair's Ye Old Mill turns 100 years old

Ye Old Mill
This undated photo shows fairgoers walking past the Ye Old Mill attraction at the Minnesota State Fair.
Minnesota State Fair

About a month from now, Leslie Ball and Ochen Kaylan will step into a plywood boat and drift into the dark and into a Minnesota State Fair tradition.

They've been the last passengers on Ye Old Mill ride for the last 15 years, since they bought the fair's final fare in 2000.

Leslie Ball and Ochen Kaylan
Leslie Ball and Ochen Kaylan have been the last ones to ride Ye Old Mill for the season for the last fifteen years.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"It was our first time riding the Ye Old Mill as a couple," Ball remembers. "We were their last customers of the night." And it became a tradition. "Every year, when they close down for the year, they unscrew the light bulb in the ticket booth before they start breaking everything down. And so every year, we get to get our tickets, they unscrew the light bulb and around we go."

Kaylan confesses it actually played a small role in his courtship — the year before they were a couple, when they were still "just friends," he says.

"I did some maneuvering to figure out how I could sit in a boat with Leslie, when there was a big group of us," Kaylan said. "You know, just as buddies, sitting in the dark, and listening to the waves lap against the boat. I think that definitely played a part in us being a little more than friends."

For them, and countless others, Ye Old Mill has become a touchstone, not just of the Minnesota State Fair, but of summer and of being alone together — even with a quarter million other fairgoers. Some 44,300 people rode the Mill last year.

For Jerry Hammer, the Fair's general manager, the past is perfectly preserved at the Ye Old Mill.

"I talked to a guy years ago, coming in the front gate, who said every time he comes in he feels like he's 12 again," said Hammer. "And you get that with the Old Mill. Anybody that's been to the Fair at all over the years knows of it and has been on it."

John Keenan has worked on the ride for 59 years.
John Keenan has been working on his family-owned Ye Old Mill ride at the fair for 59 years, and he still helps fix the boats every State Fair season, as he did here on July 28, 2015.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

As the family that owns the ride prepared for the centennial season, they talked about Ye Old Mill's history, which dates back to 1913.

John Keenan has been working on the mill ride for 59 years. He said a century ago, his grandfather, also John Keenan, owned and ran Vaudeville theaters around the country.

"And he kind of saw the writing on the wall. And his oldest son went to Philadelphia Toboggan and they helped him design this," Keenan said.

Philadelphia Toboggan built other iconic attractions: the Noah's Ark funhouse at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh and the Mad Tea Party ride at Disneyland.

Keenan's grandfather eventually ran seven Mill rides around the country. The Minnesota State Fair's Mill opened in 1915 and is the only one that survives.

The ride is a 971-foot concrete trough, with 15 inches of water at the start, and 35 inches at the end. It holds about 60,000 gallons. There are 11 boats. The building that houses the machinery and staff is a tobacco barn.

Jim Keenan now runs the ride.
Jim Keenan, John's son, and the youngest generation running the Ye Old Mill ride. A psychologist the rest of the year, before and during the fair he tends the boats and machinery that make it work. Here, he holds a board that has been used for years to make sure the width of the walls around the trough are the same year to year.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"Pretty much, that's how it's designed," said Jim Keenan, John's son, and the youngest generation running the ride. "And the mechanism that brings the boats out of the water and puts them back into the water is really based on a farm implement: Manure spreader."

When he's not running the Mill, Jim Keenan is a psychologist in Golden Valley. He built and maintains the current fleet of boats. He starts filling up the channel with water about a week before the fair starts and tends the original 1911 40-horsepower electric motor that runs the paddlewheel. The family still gathers every summer to run the ride together.

So how does a steam-era novelty keep going in the age of Facebook and Snapchat? It's tradition, Jim Keenan says.

"I think it's just a simple ride. It allows you three, three-and-a-half minutes of peace, solitude, quiet," said Jim Keenan. "A lot of fairgoers say it's just a good escape from the hustle and bustle out on the streets"

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