Ye Old Mill

If these walls could talk.

Ye Old Mill
Photo By Cameron Wittig

Every August, in anticipation of the Great Minnesota Get-Together, we dutifully make lists of the new fried foods we want to try and promise to save Grandma a seat to watch Frank and Amelia. But we never talk about what really thrills us: what goes down inside the State Fair’s 99-year-old heart of darkness, Ye Old Mill. For thousands of Minnesotans, it’s here, aboard the tiny wooden boats in this ancient “tunnel of love” filled with pirated Disney dwarves and plywood rainbows, that we experience our first jolt of illicitness, be it a kiss, a touch, or a toke.

When I mention this phenomenon to John Keenan, the patriarch of the Burnsville family that has owned and run Ye Old Mill since Keenan’s grandfather built it using items from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1915, he offers an amused Midwestern “heh, heh.”

Keenan knows that sometimes the most memorable kind of fun isn’t all that good or clean. “My grandfather owned vaudeville theaters in Philadelphia around the turn of the century,” he says. But, anticipating the changing taste in entertainment, he sold the theaters to develop amusement park rides. “He just hoped like hell this contraption would work,” he says.

The family originally owned seven tunnels of love all around the country, but by the time Keenan inherited Ye Old Mill in 1957, there were only two left. It’s still the family business: Keenan pays a couple of his grandsons to fix the boats and tune the 100-year-old General Electric engine that turns the mill, and all of his sons fly in from around the country each August to help their dad run it during the State Fair­. And even in the 21st century, it’s a successful piece of capital: Last summer, 47,000 people paid $3.25 a pop to float through.