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Behind the Lens: How the Tilt-a-Whirl Became a Fixture of State Fairs

Photos and musings from our photographer.

tilt a whirl history
(David Kidd)
Summer is fair and carnival season across the U.S. After a meal of corn dogs, funnel cake and cotton candy, Americans pay to be spun, flung and flipped upside down.

For nearly a century, the Tilt-a-Whirl has been spinning and flinging riders at state fairs and traveling carnivals. It all started in Faribault, Minn., about an hour south of Minneapolis.

Ninty-three years ago, Herbert Sellner conceived and constructed 14 of the contraptions in his basement and backyard. The spinning ride debuted the next year at the 1927 Minnesota state fair, the same year Sellner Manufacturing opened a factory in Faribault and began a production run that would eventually churn out more than 1,000 Tilt-a-Whirls.

Nearly 700 of the rides are still in use. The oldest known working example is a 1927 model. In 2011, Sellner Manufacturing was sold to a company in Texas, where Tilt-a-Whirls are still being made.

In 2014, two Faribault business owners came into possession of a rusty Tilt-a-Whirl car that had been sitting in a local junkyard for years. They reached out to the History Channel, hoping to have their relic restored on the reality show "American Restoration." The car was sent to Las Vegas, where the rejuvenation was filmed. (You can watch "Boy Meets Whirl," episode 10 of Season 6, on Amazon Prime.)  

Today, the good-as-new Tilt-a-Whirl car resides in a dedicated space in downtown Faribault, as a nod to the town's place in carnival history. A second restored car has been added a few blocks away, and a third one is awaiting a makeover.

The historic cars may not tilt or whirl anymore, but they are still the most popular attractions in town.

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism
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