History of Carousels

Americana, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on June 3, 2010
David Mudd Steeds on the 1860s Flying Horse Carousel in Westerly, R.I., sport real horsehair manes and tails.

Sitting tall on a painted pony, Ali Shields, 2, looks with wonder at the fanciful herd on the Grand Carousel at Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pa. (pop. 2,067). Carefree band music resounds from an antique organ as the nearly 100-year-old horses continue their merry rounds.

“Whee . . . ” Ali squeals, making her family laugh.

“There’s a lot of good memories here,” says her grandmother Robin Unangst, 47, of Lititz, Pa. (pop. 9,029), who for 20 years has been bringing her children and grandchildren to Knoebels to ride the merry-go-rounds.

The Grand Carousel began making memories in 1912 and is among 210 classic wooden carousels still whirling across the United States. Some operate year-round, such as the 1918 Herschell-Spillman carousel at Kiddie Park in San Antonio, Texas. Others are community treasures trotted out on special occasions.

In Perryville, Mo. (pop. 7,667), volunteers assemble a 1905 carousel for a church picnic each August. Carousel enthusiasts treasure the original carnival rides for their craftsmanship, beauty and history.

“People tell us, ‘Don’t ever change,’” says Dick Knoebel, 70, who owns Knoebels Amusement Resort with his brother, Buddy Knoebel, 65, and sister, Leanna Muscato, 57. When their grandfather opened the park in 1926, the first ride was a steam-powered carousel.

Keeping the park’s two carousels, now electric-powered, in tiptop condition is a full-time job.

“Every morning, I run the merry-go-rounds and watch every horse and make sure there aren’t any unusual bumps or squeaks,” says Dave Wynn, 59, who restores or repaints about a dozen of the ornate wooden horses each winter.

Wynn also keeps the carousels’ early-1900s organ music piping and the metal-ring machine tempting riders with a free ride if they grab a brass ring.

As Haley Houseal, 12, of New Cumberland (pop. 7,349), rides by the machine, she leans outward from her horse to grab a ring. It’s not brass, but Haley still feels lucky.

“It’s just fun to know that I could get one,” she says.

A gallop through history
Carousels are fanciful descendents of Old World jousting machines that medieval knights used to practice their sport. Modern carousels were pioneered by immigrant carvers who perfected their art in America. The first to open shop was Gustav Dentzel in 1867 in Philadelphia, soon followed by Charles Looff, Charles Carmel and Marcus Illions in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In carousel workshops, craftsmen built the horses with hollow bodies and solid legs and heads, which were joined with wooden dowels and glue. Master carvers added decorative accents and flourishes. Some horses sport gold-leaf manes, inlaid jewels, and patriotic flags and eagles. Others are relatively plain and small, designed for easy transport to country fairs.

Nearly 3,000 portable carousels were made from 1915 to 1959 by The Allan Herschell Co. in North Tonawanda, N.Y. (pop. 33,262). Today, the factory houses a museum, featuring two operating carousels and an extensive collection of carousel animals.

America’s oldest carousels are called “flying horses,” because the animals hang on chains or metal rods rather than riding on a platform. The hand-cranked 1850s Flying Horse Carousel at the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum in Leavenworth, Kan. (pop. 35,420), is the oldest operating merry-go-round in the nation.

“It’s fabulous and stylistically one of a kind,” says carousel historian Barbara Fahs Charles, 66, of Washington, D.C., about the ride with its primitive solid-log horses.

While riding on the treasured exhibit is not allowed, children can ride the 1860s Flying Horse Carousel at Watch Hill in Westerly, R.I. (pop. 17,682). The seaside town acquired the discarded ride in 1883.

“Either it wasn’t profitable or a storm came up, but it was more or less abandoned by a traveling carnival,” says Grant Simmons III, 45, who rides herd over the carousel’s 20 horses, which sport real horsehair manes and tails, and leather saddles.

“The outside horses are the most coveted,” Simmons says. “They swing out and you can go for the brass ring.”

Nearby, the nation’s oldest platform carousel—an 1876 model produced by Charles W. F. Dare—delights riders in Oak Bluffs, Mass. (pop. 3,713), on Martha’s Vineyard.

Dazzling works of art
As many as 1,500 wooden carousels twirled across the United States during their heyday from 1910 to 1920. After World War I, most carousel animals were fashioned from aluminum, and later fiberglass.

Classic carousels, decked with sparkling lights, reflecting mirrors and colorful painted scenes, are dazzling works of art.

“It’s like being in a kaleidoscope as you’re moving around on the carousel and seeing the lights and patterns,” Charles says. “It’s sort of a magical world.”

Her love for carousels began in 1968 while she lived in an apartment above the 1916 Looff carousel on the Santa Monica (Calif.) Pier, where passersby peppered her with questions about the whimsical attraction. Charles began researching carousels and became so fascinated that in 1971 she drove across the United States to document every remaining carousel. In 1973, she helped found the National Carousel Association to promote and preserve the revolving works of art.

Members devote countless hours to restoring and repairing carousels. Jerry Reinhardt, 76, group archivist and a woodcarver in Stilwell, Kan., worked alongside other volunteers for four years to refurbish a 1913 C.W. Parker carousel, then another 25 years to raise interest and money to build the C.W. Parker Museum in Leavenworth.

“The carousel’s first ride ran with three wreaths on the horses for the three volunteers who died before it was done,” Reinhardt says.

Association president and painter Bette Largent, 63, of Spokane, Wash., helped restore her city’s 1909 Looff carousel in Riverfront Park and wrote a how-to manual for other preservationists.

Taking a spin on one of America’s surviving classic carousels is an “authentic” experience, Charles says.

“This may be the only thing, other than listening to period music, that you can enjoy exactly the way your grandparents and your great-grandparents did,” she says.