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Posted on: April 22, 2019

Faribault in the News: The history of the Tilt-A-Whirl

Tilt-a-Whirl Sign

The below story was originally published April 5, 2019 by MNopedia, an online encyclopedia about Minnesota developed by the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) and its partners. The story, authored by Mary Laine, has been re-published below with permission, and can be found in its original form here

On April 24, 1926, Herbert W. Sellner filed an application with the United States Patent Office for an “Amusement Device” designed for parks and resorts. His goal was to provide riders with “pleasurable and unexpected sensations” by swinging, snapping, and rotating them in an unpredictable pattern. He named his creation the Tilt-A-Whirl, and it became the most popular ride made by his Faribault-based Sellner Manufacturing Company.

Herbert Sellner was born in Faribault in 1887. His father was a skilled cabinetmaker, and Herbert inherited his father’s creativity and talents. In 1912, at the age of twenty-five, he established the Sellner Woodcraft Company in Faribault to manufacture mission furniture, lamps, and other wood articles. Sellner also created the Ideal Lamp Company. A 1917 catalog listed magazine racks, smoking and telephone stands, folding dining tables, and lamps with leaded stained glass shades. When World War I affected supply availability, Sellner began manufacturing wood toys for children.

By 1923, Sellner’s creativity evolved, and he invented both a water toboggan slide and a water wheel that became popular items at bathing beaches. The slide was thirty feet high, featured a 100-foot-long track, and occupied a space of eighteen by 100 feet. With twelve toboggans priced at fifty cents a ride, the owner could earn $6.00 every hour.

The slide had a ramp with raised treads (instead of steps) that were easier for riders to climb while carrying a toboggan. It was popular not only in the United States but also in Canada, Switzerland, Jamaica, and Sweden. In 1925, Sellner applied for a patent on the water wheel, which also had a diving platform. The wheel was eight feet high; swimmers either lay on the wheel to spin into the water or dove from the platform. The Swooper, created in 1928, looked like an elevated, oval Ferris wheel. Because it was too bulky for a carnival to transport and manage, only about fifteen were built.

In 1926, the first Tilt-a-Whirl—a ride with nine cars that held two passengers each—was built in Herbert’s neighbor’s garden in Faribault. This original Tilt-a-Whirl was purchased for $4500 by the Wildwood Amusement Park in White Bear Lake for its 1927 season. Gross profit that year was $30,000. The Tilt-a-Whirl first appeared at the Minnesota State Fair in 1926 and had 4,233 riders over the seven days that the fair was open. Each ride cost fifteen cents. In 1927, Sellner built a factory at 515 Fowler Street in Faribault to accommodate his growing business.

By 1928, the Tilt-A-Whirl design was already modified and required three men to operate it: a clutch operator, a ticket taker, and a ticket seller. Model 9-36 had nine cars (three red, three orange, and three blue) and held thirty-six riders. It could earn as much as $162 per hour. Model 7-28 had seven red cars that carried twenty-eight riders and could earn $126 per hour. Each car had a colorful canvas canopy, a seat cushion stuffed with curled hair, and a lap bar to keep riders in place. The cars had linoleum floors and were made of pine and oak and reinforced with iron brackets. A collapsible ticket office with a small cash window and money drawer, canvas covers for each car, and a TILT-A-WHIRL entrance sign with twenty-eight lights were included.

By 1938, 143 Tilt-A-Whirls operated in England, Sweden, New Zealand, and Mexico City. When World War II created a shortage of both workers and materials, Sellner factory employees made bomb carts.

In 1987, the Sellner company introduced Spin Rides, including the Spin-the-Apple, the Berry-Go-Round, Bear Affair, and Barrel-Of-Fun. Other rides that followed included Dizzy Dragons, the Pumpkin Patch, and Windjammer. New colors appeared on the Tilt-A-Whirl, including lime green and purple or white and fuchsia, and the Generation Five Tilt-A-Whirl, with fiberglass cars and an open design, was introduced in 2004 as an alternative to the traditional model.

Economic downturns in the early 2000s hurt Sellner Manufacturing and led to a slump in sales. After it missed payments on a loan from the Economic Development Authority of Faribault, the business was sold in 2011 to Larson International, Inc., of Plainview, Texas. In 2019, Larson International continues to manufacture the Tilt-A-Whirl and the other Sellner rides.

In 2015, a rusting Tilt-A-Whirl car located in a junk yard in Faribault was restored and placed on display in downtown Faribault to honor the history of the Tilt-A-Whirl in the city.

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