Compared to other amusement park rides, the kind that hurl you through space upside down, the Ferris wheel isn't much of a thrill. But in 1893, when George Washington Gale Ferris showed off his first contraption at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Ferris wheel was an amazement.
This was a decade before the first hint of air travel, after all, and here was this wheel that could carry 2,160 riders in a soaring, though ponderous, arc 250 feet over the fairgrounds.Fourteen years later the Ferris wheel was re-assembled at the St. Louis World's Fair, where it again thrilled fairgoers. Then the mammoth ride was sold for scrap metal.
And that probably would have been the end of the Ferris wheel if it hadn't been for a bridge engineer named William E. Sullivan, who had first espied the thing at the Chicago Fair in 1893. Sullivan went back home to Roadhouse, Ill., and started building a portable version on his farm. Sometimes a neighbor boy named John Roe came over to help, and when Sullivan finally took the portable ride on the road, and later started a factory to manufacture his wheels of fortune, John followed him.
Now, nearly a century later, John Roe's son Fred is keeping the glory of the Ferris wheel alive with an even more portable version of his own.
Roe, the retired general manager for an industrial chemical distribution firm, has built a model Ferris wheel and a model carousel, both of which are now on display at the McCurdy Doll Museum in Provo. The merry-go-round won a Best of Show ribbon at the 1988 Utah State Fair.
Ferris wheels and carousels have been a part of Roe's life since he was born. By then his dad was working at William Sullivan's Ferris wheel factory in Jackson, Ill.
"The factory was my playground," remembers Roe. "And sometimes when my father would go on trips (to set up the wheels at fairs and carnivals across the country) we'd go along, too, and ride all day."
He remembers when his family lived for a while in St. Louis, next door to an empty lot where the carnival and circus would set up when they came to town. "I was completely enraptured," says Roe. "My folks didn't know it but I used to stay up half the night watching out the window."
When it came time for him to think about a career, though, Roe decided against carnival life.
"I saw enough of the seamy side of that life that I didn't want to be a part of it. Besides, I was more captivated by chemistry."
You won't find any of "the seamy side" in Roe's miniature rides. The Ferris wheel display looks like "Beaver Cleaver Goes to Lagoon." The plastic people, which Roe bought at Marshall Field's department store in Chicago in the 1950s, are frozen in perpetual delight as they ride the big wheel or stand in line to buy popcorn.
Roe built the model, an exact replica of a "Big Eli" wheel, in 1952. He gave it to his father, then brought it to his home in Bountiful when his father died.
Roe made the carousel last year. Like the Ferris wheel it plays typical calliope and band organ music of the 1900 period - tunes like "Irish Washer Woman" and "The American Patrol." The carousel, which cost Roe $1,500 to build, includes authentic details such as a carved "rounding board" (the top rim of the carousel), 200 lights and animals that move up and down on a gear and crank system.
Carousels date back to the early 1800s, when French royalty decided to make a wooden version of the tournaments they enjoyed. Carousel, explains Roe, is a French word meaning "little war." Modern versions were brought to the United States from Germany in the late 1800s.
Old-time carousel rounding boards and wooden carousel horses are big collector items now, notes Roe, who can't afford any of them and doesn't really care. Fred Roe has created his own little amusement park - and when his grandchildren visit there are always trips to Lagoon.