Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fair Time!

The time for county fairs has arrived. I can’t wait to go to the Chatham Fair with my kids and grand kids. I love the pepperoni sandwiches – ha!f a loaf of Italian bread hollowed out and filled to the brim – and I always want some cotton candy. I like to see the exhibits, the cows, sheep and chickens. And then there are the rides. Fun! Years ago I did some research on the Ferris Wheel for an article. If you love county fairs you might enjoy knowing a bit more about this uniquely American invention.

The very first Ferris wheel soared 266 feet into the air. George Washington Gale Ferris built it over a hundred and ten years ago. He was born on February 14, 1859, not long before the beginning of the Civil War. Once when he was a boy he saw a water wheel at a river near his home. He imagined riding around and around in one of its buckets and never forgot it.

George grew up, became an engineer and started his own bridge inspecting company in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Then he heard about the upcoming World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. It was scheduled to open in May of 1893. It was to be one of the biggest and most elaborate fairs ever. He scribbled out some rough drawings for an amusement ride that looked like a giant water wheel, buckets and all. For the next few days he worked like mad on his plan. And then he took it to the fair directors.

Boy, did they laugh at him! They said his wheel would get caught by the wind and roll into nearby Lake Michigan. A few of them called him ‘the man with wheels in his head’. They wanted something like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, not some giant spinning bicycle wheel.

But George, undaunted, went and found financial backers and finally convinced the fair directors that he could do it.

Here are some facts about his glorious achievment.

1.      It was made of wood and had sixty cage-like ‘cars.’
2.      The concrete used for the foundation was sunk thirty feet into the ground.
3.      At full capacity it held 2,000 people. Yeesh!
4.      You could see the entire fair ground when it stopped at the top.
5.      A ride lasted a full ten minutes.
6.      The fare for a ride was fifty cents – an enormous sum in 1893.
7.      It made about $750,000 for the fair.

It’s too bad that this huge beautiful wheel couldn’t have been kept for us to see now, well over a hundred years later. But it was very expensive to take down and put up in other places. It traveled to a few more exhibits including the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, but finally it had to be destroyed. On May 11, 1906 it was blown up with dynamite.

George died in 1896, ten years before his wheel was blown up. He was only thirty-eight years old and bankrupt.  But he left a great legacy, one still enjoyed today by millions of thrill seekers all over the world. So next time you ride the Ferris Wheel think of the wonder of that first machine. I hope you enjoy your ride and that you can see the whole fairground when you stop at the top.

Image: The York Wheel by Tom Curtis                              Free Digital Photos


  1. Talk about perseverance and a keen vision of what would attract crowds! Can anyone imagine a large fair without a Ferris wheel now? Nope.

    It's unfortunate that George Ferris died so young and bankrupt. I hope he smiles in Heaven each time a Ferris wheel spins.

    Interesting post. Thanks for the bit of American history!

    1. Janette, So glad you found it interesting. I did tons of research about the Ferris Wheel and hoped to sell it to Highlights, but that was a no go as someone beat me to it. I think of George every time I see his wheel.

      Thanks for visiting!