How a rusty old water tower became a Northland icon

Photography by Jeremy Theron Kirby.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the Worlds of Fun water tower, and it became a city-wide landmark 50 years ago when it was painted to look like the amusement park’s hot air balloon logo. 

Built in 1955, the water tower serendipitously needed a fresh coat of paint right around when the amusement park opened in 1973. At the time, painting water towers anything other than a bland, neutral color was unheard of, says Scott Keilbey, who recently retired as director of sales for the Tnemec Company, a Northland-based company that makes protective coatings and linings for structures like water towers around the globe. Tnemec, cement spelled backward, was instrumental in turning the Northland water tower into an instant icon when the company’s colorful coatings were used to paint the tower.

“It was the very first unique logo ever done in the nation on a water tank,” says Keilbey, a second-generation Tnemec man who worked on selecting the tower’s last two coating systems. “The reason why I can say this is because Tnemec is responsible for 80 to 85 percent of coatings inside and out of municipal water towers [in the nation.] My father [Bill Keilbey] was Tnemec’s representative who worked on the original logo project.”

It was a novel treatment at the time, and Tnemec knew it would be a great way to showcase its new colorful coating products. And the powers that be at Worlds of Fun, built by the Hunt family, knew it would be a great way to advertise the park.

“We knew painting the water tower would be great for Worlds of Fun,” says Lee Derrough, who was general manager of Worlds of Fun before becoming chairman and CEO of Hunt Midwest Enterprises. “It’s right at our front door—an amazing advertising opportunity for us.”

Where the notion to turn the water tank into a balloon came from is a little murky, but one thing’s for sure: It wasn’t the city’s. Although the two million-gallon water tank that serves nearly 70,000 residents needed a fresh coat of paint, the colorful coatings were more expensive than the city thought necessary, so Worlds of Fun ponied up the difference. “It was worth every penny,” Derrough says.   

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