Family reinvents Ferris wheel
Wisdom Rides might not be a household name, but anyone who has ridden the Ferris wheel at a county fair probably knows the company’s work. The family-owned, Colorado business has built more traveling carnival rides than any other company in the nation. Thousands of Sizzlers, Gravitrons, Ferris wheels and roller coasters have shipped across the world from Wisdom Rides’ factory in the small town of Merino, near Sterling on the northeast plains.
Victor Wisdom and Carol Wisdom-Silvey of Wisdom Rides are the fourth generation of their family in the carnival business. Before they made their living building rides, the siblings were pint-sized carnies working their family’s traveling carnival. Victor grew up setting up and tearing down rides at fairs, and Carol started running a nickel pitch game when she was 8. Carol still laughs when she thinks of the way her great-grandfather R.T. Dowis set his family on its course more than a century ago when he purchased a secondhand merry-go-round.
“I would have loved to have been at the kitchen table when he came back and said, ‘Honey, look what I bought today!’ ” Carol said, trying to imagine her great-grandmother’s reaction when R.T. announced his plan to travel the carnival circuit with his new carousel.
From his home base in Sterling, R.T. toured Colorado, Nebraska and other Plains states by rail, setting up his merry-go-round in town after town and sleeping in it at night. He guided the family carnival during some tough times, starting with the Great Depression, but the carnival business did well even when the rest of the economy did not.
Victor has a story from those days that he likes to tell. Neighbors were visiting his great-grandfather and asked him, “Why do you do this?” They called carnies “lowlifes.” In response, R.T. produced a bulging bag and dumped a mountain of nickels onto the kitchen table. “It was more money than they had seen in their lives,” Victor said.
To counteract stereotypes about carnies, the family ran the carnival as a “Sunday school show,” with no crooked games or unsavory characters hanging around. “They followed the three S’s,” Carol said. “Employees had to be shaved, sober and showered.”
The family might have kept operating rides instead of building them if it weren’t for Victor and Carol’s father, Jerry Wisdom, a 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound engineering wizard who gave up a chance to play professional football to take over the carnival. His innovations transformed the carnival industry.
Jerry married into the family business when he wed Elaine Osborn, granddaughter of founder R.T. Dowis. During the winter of 1957, while his wife’s father still owned the show, the insatiably curious Jerry decided to take apart the carnival’s Ferris wheel. By the time he put it back together, it was better than ever. Instead of disassembling it into sections, Jerry figured out how to make it open and fold up again like a fan.
Jerry’s new Ferris wheel was a revolutionary improvement. Before his invention, it had taken five hours for five men to assemble the wheel at each stop. Now, two men could do it in an hour and a half.
As the Ferris wheel is a critical carnival element – the signal that beckons people in – this was a big-time innovation, Victor explained, noting that his father’s wheel remains the industry standard today.
Jerry bought the carnival in 1963 and set about perfecting the art of trailer-mounting carnival rides, which became especially important as help became harder to find. He no longer needed as many workers to tear down, load and reassemble the rides.
While Jerry gained renown as an inventor and businessman, Carol said that she remembers her father most for his generosity. “Our dad’s biggest legacy, and I can’t do this without crying, is that he hired everybody,” she said. “If you wanted to work, he would find something for you … no matter if you were slow or unable to work in quote-unquote normal society. And they got paid just like everybody else.”
Working alongside all kinds of people, the siblings grew up in a literal carnival atmosphere – although for them, that meant a lot of hard work.
Carol nodded toward her brother and said, “He was 10 years old and running a crew.”
“Seven,” Victor interjected.
“I learned to add and subtract on a ticket-seller’s knee,” she added.
But by 1969, Jerry decided it was time to get off the road and sold the carnival to focus on manufacturing full-time. It was hard at first, as he went from being a very wealthy carnival owner to a very poor manufacturer, Carol recalled.
Things turned around in the early 1970s when he bought the rights to a ride called the Scrambler, improved the design and rebranded it as the Sizzler. One ride led to another, and today the Wisdom catalog is about 40 rides deep.
The family company went from trailer-mounting to manufacturing rides, Victor said. “We’ve built more roller coasters than anybody else,” he said – not to mention countless other spinning, brightly hued, electric-hydraulic amusements.
Making carnival rides is a fun, occasionally surreal job. Few of Wisdom Rides’ adventures were more bizarre than the time in the 1980s when the company was suspected of being international arms dealers.
The Wisdoms were exporting a shipment of their Astroliner rides to Japan when the federal government started investigating. It seems the Astroliners looked suspiciously like ballistic missiles, and a Russian ship was ferrying them across the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, the company was able to convince investigators they were not selling nukes to the Soviets.
With a workforce of 50 in Merino, population 283, Wisdom Rides is a dominant employer in town – and has been for quite some time. “My family has had a payroll in this county since 1908, and we’re very proud of that,” Carol said.
Many employees have been with the company for decades. Sculptor Bradford Rhea, best known for his incredible tree sculptures in Sterling (CL July/August 2012, “Sterling’s Immortal Trees and the Sculptor Who Gave Them Life”) has worked for Wisdom Rides for 30 years. “We’ve made some crazy things here,” Bradford said. “One of the first things I made was a giant baked potato for a concession stand.”
In his downtown Merino studio workshop across the highway from the factory, Bradford has spent many hours working on his own passion projects, sculpting bronze and marble when he’s not making molds of cobra-shaped roller coaster cars or sketching the latest sub-design for the Gravitron.
The economy has hit the carnival industry pretty hard in the last decade. The country’s total number of traveling shows dropped from about 800 to 400. Wisdom Rides has adapted by making movable tanks for oil and gas drillers, wind turbines and flight simulators for the military.
But as much as the industry changes, it remains close-knit. “Everybody knows everybody’s grandfather,” Carol noted. Her father, Jerry, remains a carnival legend.
“He loved nothing more than sitting in front of a ride he built and watching the kids,” she said. Jerry died in 2003, but his innovative energy and fun-loving spirit still guide the company today.
As Victor put it, “We like to do the impossible if we can.”