Across the prairies they are galloping as fast as old Sandy can go. The tall grass and trees are a blur, the wind is stinging the young cowboy’s face. There is no time to be timid; the outlaws are in close pursuit and he has got to get away. He knows he’s got a loyal friend with him. Sandy is sure footed and wily. All of a sudden Sandy lurches to a stop…and Mom is there saying its time to go.
It seems so long ago now, the world of grocery store rides. Young cowboys and cowgirls begging for a quarter for just one more ride! The moms and dads of today may remember those mechanical rides from their youth, but today’s world of smart phones, game systems, and information at your fingertips leave little room for the imagination of yesteryear. Still, those days hold a certain attraction and the kids coming through the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame (NDCHF) are drawn to Sandy. Judging by the number of quarters pulled out of the coin box Sandy is still providing hours of entertainment.
It all started in 1930 during the Depression, when inventor James Otto Hahs wanted to make his five children a special Christmas present. He decided to build a mechanical horse that would look and ride like a real one. He covered his horse in mohair and even went to a local slaughterhouse to get a real cow’s tail to attach for his horse’s tail. Next, he added an actual saddle and leather reins.
Hahs’s horse was much more than a fancied-up rocking horse. Instead of going back and forth using the child’s motion, it mimicked the true feel of a horse’s gait. With a slight pull on the reins the horse went at a walk, and with a harder pull would go at a gallop. His children were enthralled and named their horse Spark Plug.
Seeing the hours of entertainment his children were having, Hahs realized the market value of Spark Plug and began to manufacture horses that were adapted for coin operation. At first he hired woodcarvers to make the bodies of his horses like the carrousel horses of the time, but they were too heavy and too expensive. So, he decided to find a way to make the bodies from aluminum and then paint them like the wood horses. Skeptics told him it was not possible to cast aluminum pieces big enough and thin enough to work, but Hahs was a clever inventor and found a way.
The Hahs Machine Works in Missouri began manufacturing horses to sell and in 1932 the Hahs Gaited Mechanical Horse won numerous awards for design and invention. Hahs took his coin operated horse to the National Association of Amusement Parks convention in 1932 and won the award as the year’s best new piece of equipment. He had hugely popular concessions at the 1933 and 1939 World Fairs. Later, Hahs collaborated with Exhibit Supply Company to distribute his horse in larger markets.
Hahs’s horse was the beginning for future mechanical rides. Spark Plug led the way for dinosaurs, camels, rocket ships, race cars and many more. The commercialization we see in children’s toys began to be a part of these rides with the licensing of Trigger, Roy Roger’s horse. Hugely popular in the 1950’s, Billboard magazine called kiddie rides, “1953’s fast growing business- a rare combination of wholesome fun and clever merchandising”. The evolution of the American suburb with its shopping centers and large stores were the perfect place. These rides greeted parents and children as they approached the busy establishments they often frequented. No special trip to an arcade was needed.
These days you would be hard pressed to find one of these rides. They might be at specialized venues, but the days of a quick ride outside the market are mostly gone. Kiddie or coin operated rides are now popular collectibles with a wide array available.
Otto Hahs continued to tinker, invent and build for the rest of his life. The company he started has been in operation for 102 years. Hahs Machine Works, operating under the name Hahs Irrigation Equipment is still a thriving business in Otto’s Missouri hometown. The family continues to own and operate the company with grandsons David and Craig Hahs in charge. It’s been almost a hundred years since Sandy’s predecessor was a Christmas present idea. Otto Hahs legacy is alive and well today with his mechanical horse and its successors a memorable and charming slice of Americana. Next time you are at the NDCHF stop by and tip your hat to Sandy and make sure you have a pocket full of quarters to give some lucky youngster a ride.
References & Resources
- The Rise and Fall of the American Kiddie Ride by Jake Swearingen, The Atlantic Magazine, December 27, 2014
- Childhood Memories: Kiddie rides of the past make for fine collectibles today, by Barbara Toombs, Barrett-Jackson Media, October 2, 2017
- David Hahs, Hahs Machine Works, Sikeston, Missouri