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After a century, family sells Minnesota State Fair fixture to State Fair

Still among the most popular attractions at the Fair is Ye Old Mill. Construction of the ride began in 1913 and it opened to fairgoers in 1915. Chris Polydoroff / Pioneer Press

FALCON HEIGHT, Minn. — You probably won't notice the biggest change coming to the Minnesota State Fair this summer, and that's the way the Keenans want it.

After 102 years of operating Ye Old Mill — the country's oldest operating tunnel of love — the family is handing over the reins.

They've sold the storied fairgrounds staple to the State Fair itself, meaning a Keenan won't be manning the wooden canal boat ride for the first time in more than a century when the Great Minnesota Get-Together opens in August, according to Jim Keenan.

Jim Keenan's great-grandfather, James Keenan, opened Ye Old Mill at the State Fair in 1915. His father, John Keenan, took it over in 1967 and has been running it ever since with the help of Jim and his brothers.

Designed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co., it remains the oldest operating attraction at the State Fair in Falcon Heights.

While the decision to sell was difficult for the family, ongoing maintenance of the aging ride was becoming increasingly hard to manage, Jim Keenan said Monday, Jan. 15, particularly as he is the only one of his brothers who still lives in Minnesota.

His family decided that the institution would be best preserved if the State Fair's staff took over, Keenan said, adding that he's confident Ye Old Mill won't be undergoing any major changes under new ownership.

"There is not another fair in the world that can say they have a 102-year-old tunnel of love and if (the Minnesota State Fair) wants to keep saying that, (they) can't make major changes to it," Keenan said. "I feel really confident that ... the experience will be the same even though it won't be the Keenan family behind it anymore."

The fair's general manager, Jerry Hammer, guaranteed it.

"We have to preserve it. It's been there 102 years," Hammer said Monday. "You talk about the new and the flashy, and we need to do that and have the latest and the greatest, but you also want to have the same experience your great-grandpa did. There is something to be said for that, too.

"The Keenans have left quite a legacy and we are going to carry it on," Hammer added.

While the new owners of Ye Old Mill hope to continue business as usual, other changes scheduled for the 2018 State Fair will be more noticeable.

Managers are planning $11 million in upgrades after marking the State Fair's biggest year on record in 2017, Hammer said.

Attendance nearly hit 2 million visitors, adding a little extra cushion to help officials tackle upcoming projects.

Plans include a new restroom facility on the fairgrounds' north end; a new facility for the Pet Center that will include an outdoor courtyard for demonstrations; electrical and transportation upgrades; and landscaping, new sidewalks and other updates to the north end, Hammer said.

Fair staff are focusing on that section of the fairgrounds as they prepare to build a new major exhibition facility there in the coming years, he added.

Such a space would likely house traveling exhibits and include an entertainment area focused on the performing arts.

Jim Keenan will be there to take in the spiffed-up scene this summer when he attends the State Fair for the first time in 35 years as a visitor.

He said he's anxious to walk past the attraction that has defined his family for four generations.

"I will hold my head quite high knowing that I got to be a part of that," he said.

The 2018 Minnesota State Fair runs Aug. 23 through Labor Day, Sept. 3. Admission will remain the same as last year, the State Fair's board also decided at its annual meeting on Sunday.