At the turn of the century, John H. Keenan of Philadelphia, owner of vaudeville theaters, began to develop a concept for a new amusement park attraction to be located at state fairs in the midwest and southern United States.
The new ride was a completely enclosed tunnel that whisked a boatload of patrons through the dark. The water which moved the boats was moved by a mill wheel, hence the name, Ye Old Mill.
The first Old Mills were built in 1911-1912 in Little Rock, Arkansas and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. An Old Mill was built in Des Moines, Iowa in 1912 and in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1913. At about the same time, Old Mills were constructed in Shreveport, Louisiana and Hutchinson, Kansas.
The Riverside Park Association was formed in 1908 to begin the development of the amusement park located at the south end of Main Street on the Arkansas River. The excitement of a large, coiling roller coaster mixed with entertainment in the form of vaudeville shows and musicals and the thrill of circling the grounds on a miniature steam train which wound past a waterfowl lagoon soon led to the park becoming known as “Kansas’ Answer to Coney Island.”
The Old Mill was an attraction at this amusement park until the increasing popularity and availability of the automobile brought the lure of trips to entertainment meccas much farther away and Riverside Park began to fade as an attraction.
In 1915, an enticing new, but familiar, attraction was offered to state fairgoers when Ye Old Mill opened on September 17 in time for the opening day of the fair. The ride offered 1,000 feet of channels upon which boats carried lovers through “gloomy caves in gleesome gladness” with “occasionally beautiful scenery lit by electric light,” an experience that is still available.
Originally, the tunnel was built of wood with a canvas cover. In 1923 the wooden walls were replaced with rusticated cast concrete and the roof was covered with wood frame. The attraction was equipped with new, modern steel boats in 1935. The 1937 State Fair Bulletin reported that nearly 25,000 visitors made the trip through the waterways.
The original wood frame building that housed the entrance and mechanism was in extremely deteriorated condition by 1963. In 1964 the building was replaced with a similar building of the same dimensions.
Ye Old Mill has been in continuous operation at the Kansas State Fair since 1915 and has continued to draw ever larger crowds. The Old Mills at Oklahoma City, Little Rock, and Shreveport have been dismantled. The Old Mills at Minneapolis and Des Moines remain in operation.
In 2006 the Kansas State partnered with the Hutchinson Correctional Facility and fair-lover Warden Bruce to enhance Ye Old Mill. A new rough-wood siding exterior and fencing were included in these improvements. Labor for these improvements was provided by inmate labor from the correctional facility.