Eighty-eight years ago today, Faribault, Minn., woodworker and inventor Herbert Sellner landed a U.S. patent for what he called, in his legal paperwork, “amusement apparatus.”
His invention soon spread to fairgrounds and amusement parks everywhere under its more well-known name: the Tilt-A-Whirl, a dizzying ride in which four to seven free-spinning cars hurl randomly around a fixed pivot while the platform beneath rises and dips.
“Ask people about Tilt-A-Whirls and they get all whimsical and tell you they either got sick or got kissed for the first time on the ride,” said Tami Schluter, a bed-and-breakfast owner in Faribault. “Everybody knows the Tilt-A-Whirl, but very few know it started right here in Faribault.”
That probably includes musician Bruce Springsteen, who immortalized the ride in a 1973 song with this lyric:
“And you know that Tilt-A-Whirl down on the south beach drag
I got on it last night and my shirt got caught … ”
Sellner caught his inspiration in his kitchen. He would put his young son, Art, on a chair on the table and move the table around. If he could make his son giggle with glee, Herb wondered, why not spread the joy?
The Tilt-A-Whirl wasn’t his first rodeo. Three years earlier, in 1923, he constructed a massive wooden slide, which riders would plummet down on a sled, splashing and torpedoing across the water below. Sellner’s Water-Toboggan Slide is considered the Adam of all the water-slide offspring now scattered from hotel and municipal pools to the Wisconsin Dells.
Sellner figured that his next ride’s unpredictability would trump ones on which riders knew what was coming next, such as the 1893 Ferris wheel.
“A further object is to provide amusement apparatus wherein the riders will be moved in general through an orbit and will unexpectedly swing, snap from side to side or rotate without in any way being able to figure what movement may next take place in the car,” Sellner said in his patent papers.
He built his first 14 Tilt-A-Whirls in his basement and yard. By 1927, he had opened the Sellner Manufacturing Co. factory in Faribault and his slice of chaos debuted at the Minnesota State Fair.
After more than 80 years and 1,000 Tilt-A-Whirls, the Sellners sold the business in 2011 to an outfit in Plainview, Texas.
But Faribault’s connection with the Tilt-A-Whirl is far from over. The Schluters’ Historic Hutchinson House B&B is just a few blocks from the old Sellner plant, where a new occupant refurbishes water slides.
A few years ago, the city of Faribault commissioned a survey, wondering why its quaint downtown within an hour of the Twin Cities couldn’t become another Stillwater.
“They determined we needed an iconic image and someone mentioned the Tilt-A-Whirl,” Schluter said.
She soon joined her husband, Doug, at the Minnesota State Fair, where they saw some refurbished Tilt-A-Whirl cars. Schluter next teamed up with Peggy Keilen, co-owner of Faribo Air Conditioning & Heating.
They found three old Tilt-A-Whirl cars at Harley’s Auto Salvage, where Gary Pettipiece had taken over his late father’s junk yard in Faribault.
“Dad dreamed of restoring a car and putting it in his back yard,” said Pettipiece, who agreed to donate the cars on the condition they would become Faribault tourist attractions never to be sold for profit.
The project received a boost this year when the History Channel’s “American Restoration” responded to Schluter’s cold-call e-mail within 12 hours. They agreed to fix up a car in Las Vegas for an episode that aired in August called “Boy Meets Whirl.”
The national publicity prompted a backlash in Faribault, where former Sellner workers and others complained about the outsourcing. Schluter, insisting she couldn’t turn down such good, free publicity, promises the next two cars will be restored in Faribault.
She now has raised $2,000 out of about $16,000 needed to restore the next two cars. The fixed-up car is in winter storage but will be on display come springtime on the corner of 2nd Street and Central Avenue in downtown Faribault outside a three-generation shoe store.
Donations to help preserve these topsy-turvy relics of historic queasiness can be sent to: Faribault Foundation/Tilt-A-Whirl, c/o Reliance Bank, 2300 30th St. NW., Faribault, MN 55021.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.