Making Merry-Go-Rounds

Made in America, Traditions
on August 26, 2010
Todd Yarrington The Carousel Works crew builds and restores up to five merry-go-rounds each year for amusement parks and zoos.

Tim Gorka, 54, chisels the finishing touches into a carving of an African mountain gorilla, cutting intricate lines into the animal's wooden body at The Carousel Works in Mansfield, Ohio (pop. 49,346).

"There's a lot of creative freedom with the figures," Gorka says of his job with the largest manufacturer of wooden carousels in the world. "It's a lot of fun."

At a nearby workstation, carver Donna Grantham shapes the back of a 4-foot caterpillar, digging into the soft basswood with a metal tool, periodically brushing away wood chips with her hand.

"Each one comes out a little different, because they're all carved by hand," says Grantham, 42, who has worked for the company for 12 years. "Each carver comes up with their own idea, unless the client knows exactly what they want."

Founded in 1986 by woodcarver Arthur Ritchie, 57, and construction worker Dan Jones, 61, Carousel Works today employs 28 carvers, painters, carpenters, machinists and electrical specialists who build or restore up to five merry-go-rounds each year for amusement parks, ballparks, zoos and even cruise ships.

While half of the revolving rides feature traditional horses, the other half showcase a menagerie of saddled animals, insects and reptiles, including anteaters and elephants, frogs and flamingos, ladybugs and leopards, puffins and polar bears.

The Carousel Works originally specialized in carousel restorations, and transitioned into building new ones as word of its craftsmanship and expertise spread. The company built its first carousel, featuring endangered species from Southeast Asia, in 1994 for the Children's Zoo in Fort Wayne, Ind., and since has built 41 others, including rides for the Bronx (N.Y.) Zoo and Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals.

"I love what we're doing," says Jones, the company's co-owner. "I love everything about it. How often do you get to do something that no one else does?"

Carousel figures begin as blocks of basswood, which are glued together and cut into basic shapes with a machine. These shapes are turned into works of art by Gorka, Grantham, Ritchie and their fellow carvers. The carved figures then are sanded, primed, painted and coated with protective varnish before being mounted on a metal pole and positioned on a platform, which is surrounded by colorful murals, mirrors and lights and powered by an electric motor.

A carousel can take up to a year to build and can cost as much as $1 million, depending on its size and complexity of design. Usually, company employees are working on several carousels and restorations simultaneously.

Ritchie and Jones both have children who grew up around the business and now work for the company. "As a child you don't realize how unique it is," says Kate Blakley, 33, Ritchie's daughter, who markets the company's customized carousels. "It's just what your parents do."

Now, Blakley's daughter, Alexa, 6, likes to hang around the workshop and watch the design process. "I like it," she says. "They have a whole bunch of different animals."

"She likes to paint," says Blakley of her daughter. "She says to me, 'Mom, I'm not going to be on the computer like you. I'm going to paint.'"

The final test of carousels comes from customers who ride them, and invariably, Carousel Works' beautiful handcrafted rides are a timeless amusement.

J.C. Buzz Brenton, a Des Moines, Iowa, businessman, was instrumental in bringing a Carousel Works creation to his city's Heritage Park. He finds joy in seeing streams of people riding the carousel, with children paying 50 cents and adults a dollar for the simple pleasure of taking a spin on an old-fashioned merry-go-round.

"It's affordable where many things aren't," Brenton says. "Children delight in carousels."