Tilt-A-Whirl Factory

on May 1, 2005

Woodworker Herbert Sellner, according to family lore, would entertain his young son by sitting him in a chair atop the kitchen table and rocking the table back and forth.

In 1926, Sellner—hoping to recreate that random wobbling and bobbling motion—handcrafted a wooden-platform, gasoline engine-powered carnival ride in his backyard in Faribault, Minn. (pop. 20,818). By the 1930s, Sellner’s invention—dubbed the Tilt-A-Whirl—had become synonymous with amusement park rides nationwide.

Today, more than 1,000 Tilt-A-Whirls later, Herbert’s great-granddaughter, Erin Sellner Ward, runs the 45-employee Sellner Manufacturing Co. in the original 1927 factory in Faribault. Corrugated steel now covers the 55,000-square-foot building’s concrete block exterior, where workers build several types of amusement rides with colorful names such as Monkey Mayhem and Dizzy Dragons. Of course, it’s the Tilt-A-Whirl—now crafted using aluminum, steel and fiberglass instead of wood—that is the company’s trademark creation.

“It’s still the same Tilt-A-Whirl. It’s a classic,” says Sellner Ward from her upstairs office, a working space strewn with kids’ toys. “My daughter (8-year-old Mallory) is here a lot,” she says, gesturing to the toys. “We also get ideas for new rides from toys.”

Erin joined the family business at age 14, when she swept floors and wired Tilt-A-Whirl lights. “I first realized I had a real job here when I left for college,” she says. “They had to hire someone to replace me.”

Many family members have followed Herbert’s footsteps. Herbert’s wife, Freda, served as president, and their sons, Walter and Arthur (Erin’s grandfather), also worked for the family business. Arthur’s son, Bruce, became president in 1975. “Bruce was a real people person,” Sellner Ward says of her father. “He knew the names of every customer’s kids.”

When 44-year-old Bruce died in 1995, Erin, his only child, took over as president at age 21. “It was tough, being responsible for all these people,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of help from a lot of people.” Erin’s mother, Tovah, is chairman of the board.

On the factory floor, workers cut and weld pieces of metal for a new Tilt-A-Whirl. Dennis Nelson started working at the factory 26 years ago. He’s now the factory foreman. “It’s a small, family business with a family atmosphere,” he says. “It’s the kind of place where you get to know the president and CEO.”

In the final assembly area, workers attach the last two bees to Bumble Bee Bop, a children’s ride. When the ride is completed, it will be put through a six-hour test with bags of salt sitting in as passengers.

In an average year, Sellner Manufacturing builds 50 rides, including a dozen spin rides and a half-dozen Tilt-A-Whirls. The average Tilt-A-Whirl costs $275,000 and takes six weeks to complete.

“The Tilt-A-Whirl is probably the best and most popular all-around family carnival ride ever designed,” says Dale Merriam, former owner of Merriam’s Midway Shows, a third-generation carnival company that travels the summer circuit from Texas to North Dakota.

“My father purchased our Tilt-A-Whirl new in 1947, and it’s still in use today,” says Merriam, adding that the wooden cars and most of the parts have been replaced.

In its 57 years of service, Merriam Midways’ Tilt-A-Whirl has hosted an estimated 11 million riders.

“Millions of people enjoy our product,” says Sellner Ward, standing next to a completed ride destined for a Florida adventure park. “Imagine being at a fair and seeing people waiting in line to ride something you’ve helped build.”

For more information, call (888) 735-5637 or log on to www.whirlin.com.

Found in: Traditions