From the May 2016 issue of The Rotarian
For more than half a century, one of the first Ferris wheels ever made has been spinning in Jacksonville, Ill. Owned by the city but operated and maintained by the Rotary Club of Jacksonville, the 12-seat, 45-foot wheel has undergone several renovations in recent years, thanks to private donations and funds from The Rotary Foundation. Rotarians such as David Fisher keep the fun rolling every Sunday afternoon from Memorial Day well into October.
THE ROTARIAN: How did your club come to run a Ferris wheel?
FISHER: The wheel was made here in Jacksonville by the Eli Bridge Co., the oldest manufacturer of Ferris wheels in the United States. Ours is wheel No. 17, manufactured in 1907. It sits in the center of town, in a park surrounded by trees. It was previously operated as a carnival ride in Juarez, Mexico, for quite a few years.
In the late 1950s, our club purchased it and installed it at Nichols Park. Many times, I remember, my family would be out at the park for a picnic, and Mom or Dad or the aunts would grab a handful of kids, and we’d all go over and ride the Ferris wheel.
It was there until 1985, when it was moved to Community Park in the center of town. If you’re coming to Jacksonville, you’re probably coming in on Main or on Morton, and the wheel sits at the corner of Main and Morton. People use it as a landmark to give directions from. It’s just one of those things everybody knows. We’re quite proud of our wheel, actually. If you see a logo for Jacksonville or for a lot of the local businesses, you will see a Ferris wheel as part of it.
TR: What does operating a Ferris wheel entail?
FISHER: Operating it is strictly a volunteer thing, but it’s also a very popular thing. We don’t lack for volunteers. It’s community service, not any kind of fundraiser. We spend more on maintenance on it every year than we take in. We ask for a $2 donation, and we give a nice, long five-minute ride. It’s our club’s policy that if someone cannot pay, they ride anyway.
The operator training is not very complicated, because the machine itself is not very complicated. We are talking about a piece of equipment manufactured in 1907. It is literally one lever, pull on and pull off. A couple of times a year the manufacturer does basic lubrication, makes sure all the bolts are tight and the cables aren’t frayed.
TR: What are some of your favorite memories of the wheel?
FISHER: So many people come with their children or grandchildren, and a lot of times this is the first carnival ride they’ve ever ridden. Just last year, we had a couple come to us. He had proposed to her on the Ferris wheel, and they wanted to do wedding photos on the wheel, so naturally we accommodated them.
Just a couple of weeks after, we had a lady come up who was 91 years old, had lived in Jacksonville her entire life, and had never ridden the Ferris wheel. Her granddaughter had brought her out to ride it. And it was a ball.