Ferris Wheel family comes full circle

Clark County Fair's marketing director is descendant of ride's creator

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter



If you go

What: Clark County Fair.

Hours today:

10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Where: 17402 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.

Admission: Adults, $10; seniors 62 and older, $8; kids 7-12, $7; kids 6 and younger, free; military personnel in uniform, free; other military, past and present, $7 with I.D. Parking, $6. C-Tran shuttle, $2 per person round-trip from area Park & Ride lots; children 6 and younger ride free. $1 discount on admission with a bus fare stub.

Carnival: Opens at noon.

Highlights: 99.5 The Wolf Grandstands: Barrel Racing, 2 p.m., Roughstock Rodeo, 7 p.m. Other: Columbian Community Stage: There She Goes Band, 8 p.m.

Pets: Not permitted, except for personal service animals or those on exhibition or in competition.

Information: www.clarkcofair.com or 360-397-6180.

A sheepish grin crossed Matt Ferris' face as he looked at a picture of his great-great-great-grandfather for the first time.

Ferris, marketing director for the Clark County Fair, is a direct descendant of that Ferris: George Washington Gale Ferris, the inventor of the Ferris wheel, two of which tower over his modern carnival ride area.

But until Monday, the 46-year-old had never seen a picture of his ancestor.

"Well, we both have dark, gelled hair," Matt said while looking at his relative's slicked-back coif and thick mustache. "It's embarrassing. I probably know more about Ferris Bueller than I do about my own ancestor."

Affinity for the character from the 1980s film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" aside, the Ferris family has always known that their ancestor was directly responsible for the popular attraction. But beyond that, well, who really knows all that much about their great-great-great grandfather?

Turns out each generation gets a chance to learn a bit more about him.

"When I was probably 18, the family had a similar experience in California," said Matt's dad, William "Skip" Ferris, 66. "Some people asked about the name and we ended up on the front page of the Sacramento Bee, and none of us knew much about him. We all had to bone up."

William visited the Clark County Fair with his wife and grandchildren Monday while Matt was working. He knew a little bit more about the family's famous ancestor, passed down through family lore.

"He was quite a bit of a loner," William said. "Not very high on social skills, but very much an engineer."

According to more official history sources (the Hyde Park Historical Society among them), George Washington Gale Ferris, born Feb. 14, 1859, built the first Ferris wheel for the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, a World's Fair created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America.

Chicago wanted to outdo the 1889 Paris World's Expo, which was highly applauded for the immensity of the Eiffel Tower, and the organizers in Chicago sent out the call for some sort of spectacular engineering feat to call their own.

George Washington Gale Ferris was an engineer and senior partner at a firm that built steel bridges, and he suggested the Ferris Wheel as a possible attraction to fill that need.

He may have gotten the idea for the ride, with its signature round wheel design and hanging cars, from the more block-ish, hand-cranked pleasure wheels that had been popular since the 1600s.

Still, he didn't exactly profit from the tweaking of that design.

"His later life wasn't all that grand," William said. "He died young and ended up penniless, having given his patents away."

The first Ferris Wheel was steam-driven on an 89,320 pound axle. It was 264 feet tall, shorter than the 1,063-foot-tall Eiffel Tower, but still by far the tallest attraction at the 1893 fair.

The wheel had 36 attached cars, each 24 feet long, 13 feet wide and 10 feet tall, and weighing 26,000 pounds apiece. Each car could fit up to 60 passengers, and a rotation took about nine minutes.

The wheel debuted at the fair on June 21, 1893, and was a huge success, drawing thousands of riders each day it was in operation.

Modern-day Ferris Wheels, such as the Classic Ferris Wheel and The Big Wheel attractions at the Clark County Fair, move a lot faster and have much smaller cars that fit somewhere between two and six passengers. But they remain some of the most popular rides, Matt added.

Sitting atop the "Classic Ferris Wheel," Matt said he felt honored to have an ancestor associated with so much fun.

"What a great view of the fair," Matt said, looking out over the sunlit grounds. "I should do this every day, just to take inventory."

He was a little sad to learn of the final demise of the original Ferris Wheel.

After the 1893 fair, the wheel was taken down and transported to other events in the United States for several years. It was finally demolished with dynamite in 1906.

"Oh, wow," Matt said. "They blew it up? That's intense."

But his father had a more stoic take on that.

"Well, if they hadn't done that, it would have been eaten up for materials in World War I or World War II," William said with a shrug. "Back in the day it was built, it was more of an engineering thing. It was very hard to dismantle and reassemble."

William's favorite carnival ride has always been the Ferris Wheel, he said.

"We always ask for free rides because of the name, but nobody's buying it," William said with a laugh. "Now it's pretty much the only ride I go on. I don't like some of the crazier rides. In the service, they threw me out of an airplane. I think that was enough danger for me."

The 66-year-old served in the Navy from 1967 to 1971.

"I think I like Ferris Wheels at night the most because of all the lights," he added.

Figuring out the line back to their ancestor is also a little dicey, the two said.

William said he thinks the lineage goes from George Washington Gale Ferris to "Robert Ferris, I think that was his name but I'm not positive," to Harry Ferris to Victor Ferris to himself and then to Matt and William's other children.

While William isn't a huge fan of rides beyond the one his ancestor invented, most of his family members crazy about them, Matt said.

"Grandpa Victor loved rides," Matt said to his nodding father while sitting atop The Big Wheel ride.

The fair's marketing director is also a fan of the stomach-churning variety of rides and is most looking forward to one called the Freak Out at this year's fair, he said.

"I like the super-scary ones," Matt said. "I always loved the Zipper, the Ring of Fire, anything scary."

And the youngest generation of Ferrises — Matt's nieces and nephews?

"Oh, they all love it," Matt said. "They have no fear. They'll ride anything."