Errol Kantor coyly asked his wife, Gretchen, if she was interested in running a concession at the Minnesota State Fair.
"I was thinking hot dogs or french fries," said Gretchen Kantor, thinking back to that fateful conversation in 1982.
Instead, her husband, an attorney and pilot, came home with the deed for the Space Tower. One of the Minnesota State Fair's most majestic rides, it soars over the fairgrounds, providing miles of views in every direction.
The Kantor family has owned and operated the Space Tower for four decades. This marks their 40th anniversary. The Kantor family tree has become swept up in the ride, with four generations pitching in over the years. At least one marriage has been produced.
"We give 60,000 rides every fair. It's just a different view of the fair," Gretchen Kantor said. "You are looking down on everything. You see all the colors of the fair during the day and the lights of the midway at night."
"They are great caretakers of a State Fair icon," State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer said. He noted that nearly all the rides at the fair are privately owned and operated.
The Space Tower debuted in 1964, near the height of the space race. Everyone was looking toward the heavens as they brainstormed ways to create that experience for earthlings. The Space Needle, a visual analogue, first opened for the Seattle World's Fair in 1962.
It was the space tower at the Oklahoma State Fair that inspired Minnesota folks to build a similar one here, Hammer said.
The cab of the Space Tower is shaped like a giant doughnut, with a circular padded bench for about 55 riders. The ride gently sweeps up to a height of 300 feet and slowly spins, giving panoramic views of the fairgrounds and the Twin Cities.
The Kantors are the third owners of the attraction. They pay a portion of their revenue to the State Fair. The Kantors said they'd prefer not to discuss the specifics of that arrangement but said the fair has helped them pay for their sons' college tuition.
A family's love story
In the early years, Gretchen, who had previously worked as an engineer, brought her young sons Ben and Joe with her as she worked at the ride. It was a thrilling and unusual way for the boys to spend part of their summer vacations.
One fall, their oldest son, Joe, told his first-grade class that he'd spent his summer working at the State Fair Space Tower, which his parents owned. Gretchen chuckled as she recalled that teacher notifying her that Joe had a fibbing problem. The Kantors gently informed the teacher that Joe's story was true.
Romance blossomed when their son Ben met his future wife, Michelle, there. Michelle was the daughter of the Space Tower's chief maintenance man, Larry Borud. The couple married in 2006.
There are countless love stories connected to the Space Tower, the family says. Many Twin Cities couples stop by the ride each year to reminisce about their first dates.
"We've even had people engaged on the ride," Michelle Kantor said.
The family remains very hands-on, taking time off from full-time careers to work the fair. Joe is an attorney. Ben is a pilot and Michelle is a teacher.
Gretchen Kantor, 79 and Errol Kantor, 84, both still work at the fair. Their staff of two dozen ranges from high schoolers to retirees.
The Kantors' five grandchildren help with little chores and keep the mood light and joyful. Grandma Gretchen gives the littlest ones, now age 2, spray bottles of water to help shine up what they call the "up-down."
Gretchen Kantor's artist father, Harry Heim, once noticed the ride looked a bit bare; he painted the zodiac-themed murals at the ride. Gretchen's cousins sew the colorful flags that rim the attraction, and in-law Borud still handles the maintenance.
Preserving the history
Over the years, Gretchen Kantor said, they've made a few changes to the ride while largely preserving the original experience. Years ago they replaced some of the lift mechanisms on the ride to reduce maintenance. Before that change, Gretchen Kantor stood on top of the moving cab twice a day to lubricate a portion of the ride.
The Kantors changed the paint from red, white and blue to mostly blue with some green and white accents. The blue weathers better, but it still requires regular maintenance.
"We paint something every year," Gretchen Kantor said.
They removed a small portion of seating to make the ride wheelchair- and handicap-accessible.
Prices have inched up from $1.25 for adults and 50 cents for kids in the 1980s to $5 for all riders today.
But the experience is largely the same. Riders load to the music and revelry of the nearby bandshell. The background noise fades as the ride glides upward and starts to spin. Riders drink in the views, often pointing to familiar landmarks and squinting to see their own homes under the canopy of trees.
"It's peaceful," Gretchen Kantor said. "In all the activity of the fair, it's a quiet place to sit, relax and still be enchanted by all the sights."