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Life & Arts

Hereford’s Backyard Ferris Wheel

Neighbors have a ball riding around in the Panhandle

A few years ago, Tim Gearn designed and built a large puppet playroom for the children at his Panhandle church. It was such a success that soon he began looking for another project. “I just got to thinking, ‘You know, why can’t adults have something that’s fun? You know, I got a big yard!’”

He soon found an outlet for his energy and creativity—one that would turn his backyard, about 5 miles from Hereford, into a local landmark. A traveling carnival came to town for a Lions Club fundraiser, and inspiration struck.

After researching different kinds of carnival rides, Tim decided to buy a used Ferris wheel. He eventually found one from a defunct amusement park in San Antonio.

When I was a kid, they had models that they moved all over the country. This particular type of wheel fell out of favor because it takes a lot of labor to put up. The new ones now are almost self-erecting, but they’re very expensive. The older stationary types were more affordable.

After collecting the dismantled Ferris wheel, Tim spent months rebuilding all the seats and refinishing the wheel before it was ready to set up. He even bought a sewing machine and learned how to make the covers for the seats.

It took five people 10 hours to erect the magnificently refurbished Ferris wheel, but once it was up, it was installed to stay and quickly became a recognized feature in the minimalist Hereford skyline. “Everybody knows about the Ferris wheel,” says Tim’s wife, Keith Ann.

You can see it from the football stadium. We light it up when we win, and oh gosh, people love to come out here. We had a group of women come out here who had been in this little club for 25-30 years. And some of them were in their 70s, and a few were younger, but you could just tell when they walked in that they were all great friends. Well, we put them on the Ferris wheel, and they became little girls again. And before long, they were at the top going, ‘Wooo!’ raising their arms and giggling and laughing. They were probably the rowdiest bunch we’ve had out here, and that includes the time we had 80 teens over for a party.

It was obvious from the first that folks were going to have a ball riding that Ferris wheel, but despite all the thought they put into it, even the Gearns couldn’t have predicted how a simple ride could have such a profound effect on people. “When you get on the Ferris wheel, something happens,” ventures Keith Ann.

I’ve had some of the hardest businessmen out here, you know, because we work with oil fields, cattle, mining, and so when they come out for dinner or for business, we always get them out here for a ride. And I’ll ride with them or Tim will take them round, and pretty soon these old guys soften up and they start saying things like, ‘Well, I remember back when I was with my dad, and he took me on my first Ferris wheel ride.’ You can’t quite get a hold of what it is, but something changes and they’re better when they leave.

Keith Ann and Tim didn’t anticipate the transformative power a simple ride on a Ferris wheel would have for people, but it’s become the best part of having the carnival rides in their back yard. Tim adds,

At first when people get on it, they’ll be a little apprehensive, and then it kind of lullabies you; it’s kind of like rocking in a cradle. It’s very soothing and relaxing, especially at night when you can see all the lights. It adds a lot to life to enjoy a machine that’s not built to do anything except to be fun.

Tim later designed, built and installed a carousel companion to the Ferris wheel in the old caliche pit on their property.

When you’re on the Ferris wheel, you get a panoramic view of the whole Panhandle landscape: the huge feedlots, the endless fields of milo sorghum, the high school stadium, and the town of Hereford, home of Deaf Smith Electric Cooperative. When you’re on the Ferris wheel, the bright red tent of the carousel beneath you is nestled in the grassy embrace of the rehabilitated pit, and on the hill behind, an old wooden windmill companionably rotates in its own squeaky rhythm. Time seems to slow down, and you begin to hope your turn will last forever. Tim describes the joy of sharing fun for the sake of fun:

It’s not about trying to make money; it’s not about trying to impress anyone. It’s just, ‘Hey! Come over to my house and play with my toys!’ It’s just fun. There are a lot of pressures in life and there aren’t a lot of things that are just for fun. I wanted something that was right here at home, where we could interact with the community, and something that little kids would like.

But Keith Ann puts it best:

It’s not the big moments, but the series of little moments that matter when you’re turning your place into what really matters: peace, hospitality, goodness and welcome.

What goes around, comes around.

This article is excerpted from Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home by Jill Nokes, an author, conservationist and landscape designer. The book was published in November by the University of Texas Press.