For a few fleeting moments, Cameron and Jennifer Potucek are stuck in a bygone era.

After all, much has changed in 100 years of the Kansas State Fair. The carnival rides are different. The wares being peddled are different. Even the food is crazier.

But, one thing over the years has stayed largely the same. Each year, and sometimes more than once a fair – the Nickerson couple step into a boat and drift down the darkened tunnels of Ye Old Mill.

“It still has that old carnival-type ride feel to it,” Cameron Potucek said. “That’s what we really like about it.”

For the Potuceks, along with countless others, the old mill water ride is tradition.

“No State Fair trip is complete without a trip through Ye Old Mill, or just the ‘Old Mill’ as we call it,” said Katy Cater, who now lives in South Carolina and said she will miss the annual trip she loves to take with her mother, Deidra Hendricks, of Newton.

But this year is even more special as the ride embarks on its centennial year.

For the most part, the past is preserved in the old mill, albeit operator Charlie Griffin tries to make it a little scarier each year.

“It is a fun time every year,” said Griffin as he worked about the fair Thursday. “We enjoy it so much.”

Mill history

The water mill with its canals and boats was newly built in 1915 by John Keenan.

In the fall of 1914, the board of state fair managers adopted a motion to lease land by John Keenan and J.S. Mahan to construct a carousel and figure-eight amusement ride, according to the fair’s board meeting minutes from the time provided by Thomas Percy, a Hutchinson Community College instructor who wrote the book “A History of the Kansas State Fair.”

Keenen owned several vaudeville theaters, but had branched out into amusement rides, Percy wrote. He constructed similar rides at state fairs in Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Shreveport, Minneapolis and Des Moines before approaching the Kansas State Fair.

The board officially approved the use of the name “Ye Old Mill” in March of 1915, according to the board minutes.

Designed by Keenen’s son, John Jr., this particular old mill opened for the first time in 1915 and offered a boat ride through 1,000 feet of enclosed water channels. A large mill wheel moved the water and the boats down the darkened channel, although, when it first opened, it was more of a tunnel of love than the scary ride it is today.

It cost $15,000 to build the mill at the time, according to a 1915 article in The News. Another story from 1929 said it cost $6,000 to build the ride.

The 1915 article said Keenan also planned to build a permanent carousel and roller coaster.

“It will be a novelty that will be great as any amusement stunt,” The News penned in the story.

From 1915 until 1923, the tunnels were built of railroad ties and tar and covered with canvas. A mill wheel moved the boatloads of patrons through the tunnel past lighted scenes of painted farms, forests and winter scenery, according to Percy.

The fair purchased the mill ride in the 1920s when three men running the operations at several state fairs all died within a few months of each other, according to the article in The News.

A.L Sponsler, fair secretary, purchased it from the estate for $500 and then sold it for the same amount to the fair.

More than 32,000 people rode the ride in 1928 at a cost of 10 cents a person, according to the story.

The story also said the mill ride was safe if the pleasure seeker keeps his hands in the boat.

“The journey,” Sponsler said, “is a really a ride through paradise for the young pair, feeling the first thrills of romance.”

It’s unclear when the ride turned from romantic to scary. It may have been in the 1930s. According to Percy’s book, during World War II in the 1940s, one section of the ride displayed Uncle Sam roasting Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito in a huge frying pan, with realistic flames underneath.

In 1999, the fair considered tearing down Ye Old Mill ride, which was nearly 85 years old. That idea was met by resistance from fairgoers, according to The News.

A donation box hung on the outside of the building, fans hoping to keep the nostalgic ride, and the fair eventually decided to listen to the pleas and repair the worn-down water mill attraction.

“What a travesty that would have been,” said Newton’s Hendricks. “... we wrote letters pleading for them not to do it. It is a unique Kansas State Fair thing that needs to continue on to the next generation.”

Still in the family

Serene scenes, along with elves, are still depicted at the ride at the Minnesota State Fair, which is still operated by the Keenan family.

John H. Keenan, 73, as been running the ride in Minnesota for 59 years. It was his grandfather, John E. Sr., and his uncle John Jr., who started and designed the boat rides at state fairs across the Midwest.

John Jr. approached Philadelphia Toboggan, a company well known for its carousels, to help with the design, John H. Keenan said.

His father took it over from John E. Keenan.

Then, in the 1960s, tradition, along with the need for a job, tugged John H. Keenan from his home in Oklahoma to Minnesota.

“He offered it to me,” John H. said of his father, adding he had been traveling north to run the ride since he was a teenager.

“At that moment in time, I had a wife, two kids and no job,” John H. said.

The Minnesota State Fair’s old mill turned 100 this year, too, John Keenan said. His four sons and his eight grandchildren returned to Minnesota for the celebration and to help run the ride.

“It’s family tradition,” John Keenan said. “I’m the third generation and my sons are fourth and my grandchildren the fifth.”

Son Joe Keenan, who operates a public relationship firm in Los Angeles, said Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton even showed up during this year’s fair to proclaim one day as “Ye Old Mill Day.”

Joe Keenan said while Kansas and Iowa’s old mill rides still exist, Minnesota is the most original. It is even operated by the original 1912 40-horsepower motor that runs the paddle wheel.

It’s also in the same building and still is a “tunnel of love” ride, Joe Keenan said. Almost every year there is someone who gets engaged on the ride.

One couple got married on the fairgrounds “then they took their honeymoon ride on the tunnel of love,” Joe Keenan said.

Still a scare ride

The Kansas State Fair’s old mill still has the original paddle wheel, said interim fair manager Lori Hart. Also, the mechanism for moving the boats through the tunnel is original.

No worries about the mill getting all lover-like, however. If the props mean anything at the entrance of the boat ride, Ye Old Mill is still a family friendly scary ride.

When Griffin took the ride over in 1998, he was determined to make it even more haunted. He hauled in electronic, movable Hollywood-style props that he erected where pictorial farmland scenes were once displayed when the ride was first built.

This year, riders will be greeted by dragons, ghouls and other moving props, said Dan Banning, who works with Griffin and tested out the ride Thursday night.

The dock area is newly painted with pictures of graveyards and signage stating the mill is 100 years old.

And there is still the scare crew that wanders throughout the ride – shining flashlights and shake strings to mimicking spider webs at patrons – along with a few haunting yells in hopes of causing riders to bristle in fear.

“We pretty much have it memorized, but we have fun watching for “the string guys” and the guys who suddenly jump out,” Ye Old Mill fan Hendricks said. “And we laugh and scream.”

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{p class=”body”}Old Mill ride leads to marriage{p class=”body”}Sixty years ago in August of 1955, I came to Halstead to enter Sisters of St. Joseph Halstead School of Nursing. I was in Halstead two weeks when a group of us “new probies” went uptown to the local drug store for a Coke. Being a new class of nurses in town the guys were out and about. Bob Keller, a local boy, who was in the Air Force and stationed at Salina Schilling AFB, was home for the weekend.{p class=”body”}When I was introduced and we said our Hi and Goodbye, after all, student nurses had a curfew. There was a call waiting for me when I got back to the dorm. We had a date the next day (Sunday) for the state fair. If I remember right, the last event for the day was “The Old Mill.” After some coaxing I agreed to go on the boat ride. Of course he remembers it different than me.{p class=”body”}To make a long story short, I went 18 months of training as he finished four years with Uncle Sam. We were married in my hometown of Copeland on April 26, 1957. After 57 years of farming we have retired in Halstead.{p class=”body”}Sixty years ago was the first ride in “The old mill” and we’ve had many since then. The first ride will always be special.{p class=”body”}- By Charlotte Keller of Halstead

One scary ride to the one last ride on Ye Old Mill

Our mother, Mildred Puls, so wanted to ride the Ye Ole Mill one last time, so my wife Susan and I decided in 2005 we should help her fulfill one of her many last wishes. So at the very young age of 92 one weekday evening, we borrowed a handicap parking permit as she was not old enough for one!

First stop/ride – we rented a motorized scooter. Susan decided that to save the world, I should walk in front of mom as she learned to drive that weapon of harm. We finally made it to first stop – the Old Mill – in spite of my many “love taps” with that scooter on the back of my legs.

Mom loved every minute of the ride with no fear just her laughter! Next ride she wanted to ride the double Ferris wheel but the answer was NO, she had to settle for the single!

To celebrate – an old fashioned barrel root beer on the way home – her still running over the back of my ankles.

- Randy and Susan Puls

Fair guide still loves Old Mill

When I was stationed in Salina at Schilling Air Force Base, myself and my two buddies would come down to Hutchinson for the Kansas State Fair in 1960 and 1961.

We would play the games on the midway, take in the rides and Club Lido – as GIs would do (girlie show). One year I won a gigantic Teddy bear playing a game of chance that had metal marbles, pegs and numbers.

I was walking around the fairgrounds carrying my major award, people would ask me “how much are the bears going for this year?”

I said 20 bucks and they all laughed. I took Teddy back to the barracks and proudly displayed him in my room.

We used to walk by the Tunnel Of Love (The Old Mill) but did not go on the ride because we did not have dates. But in the spring of 1962 I met and started dating this girl from Salina. So, when we came down to the state fair in September of 1962, I could not wait to take her on the Old Mill. When we sat down on the Love Boat and started going, I put my arm around her and held our hands real tight going through the scary tunnel with spider webs brushing us in the face.

As it turned out she became my wife (love at first site). We got married in Salina at Sacred Heart Cathedral Dec. 1, 1962. That was a great memory I’ll never forget. My wife passed away at the young age of 51. I remarried in 1998 to the present love of my life. She is a blessed and wonderful and a caring lady.

We go on the Tunnel Of Love (The Old Mill) when we get a chance since we both work the state fair as tour guides on the two state fair trolleys. This will be my 10th year and my wife’s seventh. We will be doing this as long as our health lets us, too.

We love the Kansas State Fair. We like visiting and helping people with anything while working. It is not just a job, it is fun. We look forward to it every year. There is a big letdown when the fair is over.

And, oh, yes, we plan on riding the Love Boat again this year.

- Frank and Dee Drazkowski

A spooky shout out

Back around 1978, my husband at the time and I went for a ride through “Ye Old Mill” and while riding through the dark – all of a sudden – someone calls my name and “hi,” which scared me to death.

I never found out who it was. They were working at the ride at the time.

- Joyce Harris

”Sneak in a smooch”

Back in the early 1950s, my wife of 63 years now and I used to go through the old mill. It was scary and dark. It was a good place to sneak in a “smooch.”

- Sam and Nancy Huston

Go, go, go!

I was reading your article in the Hutch paper about the “Ye Old Mill” and it brought back a funny memory from when I rode it a few years ago.

I was at the fair because my band class had performed, and afterwards we stayed a while and got to enjoy the fair. I went to the “Ye Old Mill” ride with a few of my friends. When it was our turn to ride I thought I had heard the man in charge yelling “go, go, go!” I thought this had meant it was time to get on the ride so I proceeded to jump in. After jumping in I noticed that none of my friends had jumped in with me.

I was so afraid of the thought of riding alone because I got scared easily, and I almost jumped out of the boat so that I didn’t have to ride alone. I didn’t jump out because I decided that was probably a dangerous act. So I rode the ride alone with my head in my arms the entire time telling all the scarers to “please not scare me, I’m all alone.”

Finally, the ride finished and I was welcomed back to light and all of my friends laughing at me. It turned out that apparently the man in charge was yelling “no, no, no!” – meaning don’t jump in, and I had just misheard him.

We laughed about it the rest of the day. Even now, years later, we still talk about what happened at the fair on the “Ye Old Mill.”

- Hope Wedel

Family tradition

The Kansas State Fair is a highlight of every year. My family always, at a minimum, goes one day – all day. I’d been 19 years in a row by the time I was 18 (I was born the week after the fair). It’s not unusual for us to go more than once.

But no state fair trip is complete without a trip through Ye Old Mill, or just the “Old Mill” as we call it. I don’t remember my first trip through the Old Mill. I would have been tiny. I am sure I was cuddled up next to my mom, screaming when she did. The best part about the Old Mill and what gives it so much thrill isn’t a certain display inside, or the giant skeleton outside (though he is cool – I especially enjoyed the years he talked), but the people inside. To have someone talk to you out of pitch black, or shine a light in their face or trail string across your arm is truly spooky.

It doesn’t matter that you know someone’s there. The anticipation makes it more exciting. I love riding through the Old Mill with my mom and having her say, “There’s going to be someone right up here” and then us both still being super scared when someone pops up. After being in the Old Mill, other haunted houses are disappointing. They are too fake.

I live in South Carolina now, so I won’t be able to ride the Old Mill at the Kansas State Fair this year, but I will definitely be missing it.

- Katy Cater

Mother and daughter

I grew up in Alden, and we always enjoyed going to the fair. I remember riding in “Ye Old Mill” as a child, but money was tight so I don’t know how often.

But my “old mill” tradition started in 1988. I was pregnant with my first daughter and due that day, the last Friday of the fair. My husband is not as much as a fair-lover as I, so I had been going the last few years with my grandmother, Elsie Johnson.

I was feeling fine, so we went together. I know the first time I took her on the “Ye Old Mill” she hadn’t been in many years and thought it was pretty fun. I’m sure I took her that day because I always want to experience as much of the fair as possible! Everyone thought that I was going to have that baby at the fair, but she was born the next Sunday, Sept 18.

Well, when the next year rolled around, we were at the fair! Katy’s first state fair. I can’t remember if we rode the “Ye Old Mill” that first year, but I got her started pretty early and it became a tradition for us. We rode it every year and would hold hands because we were scared. Back before they added the monster, it wasn’t quite as scary, but of course being in the dark, it was somewhat scary. But we got so we knew exactly where all the men with the “web strings” were and would whisper “A guy is coming up.” They’d often say “Here I am!” or something like that to scare us, and we’d always scream or laugh. It became a really fun tradition! We always had to do that ride at the fair. My children didn’t get to ride a lot of other rides, but the train and “Old Mill” were musts!

Then when Katy was 9, her younger sister, Haly was born in August. Yes, she went to the fair in September. She was never a fan of the “Old Mill” but she had to go if we wanted to because we couldn’t leave her! She especially does not like the “monster guy.” When she got to be a teenager, she decided to not go on the ride sometimes, but we still have a lot of fun at the fair every year.

Katy went with me to the fair every year until she went to college in South Carolina. We home school, so we always spent the Monday of the fair there every year. We always went on “the old mill.”

Katy was so sad that she couldn’t go to the fair. So I sent her “Kansas State Fair” in a box with animal cracker animals and some cotton candy, some chicken and noodles, Pronto Pup gum, etc. For experiences she had to have help from her roommates. I put a string in an envelope and put in the instructions for her to close her eyes and then the roommate was to dangle the string above her head and say “boo” like they do in the “old mill” so that would be like riding the ride!

I also remember when they thought about tearing the “Ye Old Mill” out. What a travesty that would have been! Remember the “Bisonte”! We wrote letters pleading for them not to do it. It is a unique Kansas State Fair thing that needs to continue on to the next generation.

We pretty much have it memorized but we have fun watching for “the string guys” and the guys who suddenly jump out, and we laugh and scream. If nothing else, it’s a nice cool respite from the heat. I hope someday I can take Katy with her children there. And maybe Haly will even grudgingly go with us! Happy 100th Birthday Ye Old Mill!

Deidra Johnson Hendricks, Newton

(Deidra is the mother of Katy Cater.)