When riders disappear during their three-minute ride through Ye Old Mill, Charlie Griffin knows he’s doing OK. His favorite story from his years as the operator of the popular Kansas State Fair thrill ride involves one such missing person.
It was several years ago, and a boat floated into the darkness of the ride with three girls on board.
When it came back, there were only two.
Upon inspection, operators realized that one of the girls had become so freaked out by the animatronic monsters hopping out at her from the darkness that she crawled under her seat for safety.
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“How she got under there, I don’t know,” Griffin said, still laughing at the memory.
Ye Old Mill, perhaps the fair’s most enduring attraction, has been a draw for 98 of the fair’s 100 years. It was moved from a Hutchinson park to the fairgrounds in 1915, two years after the event began.
Generations of fairgoers have stories about the Old Mill, which takes riders on a quarter-mile boat ride in pitch blackness that’s interrupted only by the sudden appearance of animatronic goblins, dragons and ghouls.
Once inside the ride, fairgoers sail past eight cheesily horrifying scenes, each separated by moments of eerie, silent darkness.
In one scene, a patient shudders under the knife of a mad doctor. In another, an evil clown bares his sharp, evil clown teeth. Ride operators jump out from nowhere with startling greetings of “Hi there!”
Generations of fairgoers ride together – and scream together.
The architect of the scary scenes is Griffin, who’s been operating the Old Mill since a truly scary moment in 1999, when fair operators discussed bulldozing the aging ride. At the time, it needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs to bring it up to code, and operators thought that the prime fairgrounds real estate it occupies could be better used for modern food booths.
But nostalgia won out, and the fair let potential operators bid on a chance to take it over. Griffin, who owns several concession stands throughout the fair, won the right. The fair maintains the building, and Griffin runs the ride and manages the horror inside.
Over the years, he’s become a bit of an impulse shopper when it comes to freaky monsters to put inside. This summer, he spent $10,000 with a company in Ohio on an animatronic dragon. He’ll show anyone who will watch a video on his cellphone that shows the monster in motion.
But the company didn’t get it finished in time, much to Griffin’s disappointment. He thinks it’s en route now, and if it arrives while the fair is still going on, he and his crew have plans to stay up all night putting it in place inside the ride.
If not, prepare for 2014, he warned.
“I like to change it up every few years,” he said. “If you don’t change it up, it’s just the same old thing.”
By the end of each fair, around 36,000 people will have ridden Ye Old Mill at $3 a pop. Some are so devoted, Griffin said, they ride it five times during each fair.
Only two other Old Mill-style rides are still in operation: one in Minnesota and one in Iowa, Griffin said.
They’re nice, he said, but in his humble opinion, they’re not nearly as fun.
“If you ride this one and then go ride theirs, you will be disappointed.”
The Old Mill is a family tradition for Terry Layman, who took his wife, son, daughter and three of his grandkids on it on Saturday.
He grew up in Hutchinson and rode the Old Mill every year from his childhood through his teen years. He and his wife long ago moved to Oregon, but every year, they plan a visit home to coincide with the fair.
Cody, his 7-year-old grandson, is preserving the Old Mill tradition for his family, Layman said.
“The first thing he says to me every year when I get here is, ‘I want to go ride the Old Mill,’ ” Layman said.