I found myself at Tweetsie Railroad recently, watching my four-year-old granddaughter and her parents ride the Tilt-a-Whirl. It was the perfect cap to a day in the park, as a welcome respite from dreadful headlines about Afghanistan and Haiti and COVID.
We had a lot of company that afternoon. A lot of folks waited patiently to ride the mouse train through the cheese mine, the Ferris wheel and all the rest.
Tweetsie is corny and over-priced—what amusement park isn’t?—but the place is made to order for grandparents and their families. I looked around and saw my counterparts with their younger generations in tow. People have been coming here since 1957, some grandparents no doubt started out as kids themselves.
The Boone area fun park plays in my son’s childhood memories. His daughter Violet was riding the same rides he did 30 ago, picking a seat in the same motorboats, the same airplanes, the same race cars. And on the same train that transformed to a “Ghost Train” one October evening when I took him up to Tweetsie after school. He was in sixth grade and we forgot how chilly it can be when the sun sets in the mountains. That was 25 years ago, but we still remember how we nearly froze to death.
Repeat visits are a trip down memory lane. We miss the mechanical gunslinger who used to call to visitors behind swinging saloon doors. The game featured a smart-aleck dummy who dared players to “Draw!” He must have burned up in the fire that swept through the gift shop and museum some years back.
I can’t visit Tweetsie without thinking of my own childhood. Some of my earliest memories are of Chap’s Amusement Park in Decatur, IL—a post-war park tailor-made for Baby Boomers. Like Tweetsie, it had with the usual rides-- a miniature railroad, motor boats, airplanes, a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round.
And there was this hideous contraption of swings that flung around in a circle. They long chains swung out almost horizontally when the ride cranked up. I remember looking up at passengers—older kids and teenagers—who weren’t afraid to be scared out of their wits. I never rode The Swings, and I’m OK with that.
I did ride Tweetsie’s merry-go-round. I joined the kids and kids- at-heart who rode painted ponies to the tune of “Golden Slippers.” Following us were the church-pew benches that Moms chose in the 1950s, when women wore dresses couldn’t decently mount the carousel horses. As a kid I thought such seats were for old people. I still do, so I picked the horse next to Violet and away we went.
Irony of ironies, Tweetsie Railroad has an actual cemetery visible from the Ferris wheel. I’ve seen it before, but I’m always amazed at the thought of being buried inside an amusement park. I wonder if family members get a free pass to visit the graves. I suppose they do.
Ferris wheels have always been an exercise in self-torture—daring to stretch my fear of heights with a thin metal bar to hold onto. My hands sweat, even today.
At some time in my life, I rode a double Ferris wheel. I recall the sensation of taking giant leaps across the night sky on a contraption lit with shards of neon. I think it was when I was in college--old enough to know better, but young enough to be daring.
I haven’t seen a double wheel in decades. Do they still exist?
I Googled this question, and the answer is no. While the double Ferris wheel was attractive, it didn't draw big enough crowds to justify the added expense of transportation and assembly compared to other rides. And so double Ferris wheels disappeared when we weren’t looking.
My grandmother saw the world’s first Ferris wheel, and it’s quite possible that she rode on it. It was created by a man by the name of George Ferris Jr. for the 1893 Chicago world’s fair, as a surefire way to wow the public. The wheel measured 264 feet tall, which would dwarf Tweetsie’s many times over. Enclosed compartments held as many as 40 people each.
Those fortunate enough to ride the great wheel experienced a thrill that they could only have imagined until then. After all, the Wright Brothers’ first flight wouldn’t happen for 10 more years.
When the Chicago fair closed, the wheel was dismantled and moved to nearby Lincoln Park. Several years later, when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition was being planned, the Ferris wheel was disassembled and shipped to St. Louis.
My grandmother, so the story goes, was living with her sister in St. Louis when the fair was being built. Later, she attended the exhibition and bought a ruby glass souvenir that I have and keep in my china cabinet. It’s inscribed with her name, “Metta,” and the year, 1904.
Alas, the Ferris wheel’s third incarnation was not the charm. By 1906, the wheel was dismantled and demolished. Legend says it’s buried under what is now the St. Louis Zoo. Other sources say it was demolished and sold for scrap.
Ferris wheels still inspire us because they demand us to live in the moment. They send us soaring with the birds and hovering over treetops. And when the moment comes. We whoosh around the hub and for those brief minutes, we’re all children.
Which is why we visit classic amusement parks like Tweetsie. It’s why we ride carousels and Tilt-a-Whirls and Ferris wheels. They let us escape in the moment while the rest of the world is spinning out of control.
---Tammy Wilson is a writer who lives near Newton. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org