Take a Spin on the Most Beautiful, Hand-Crafted Carousels in the Nation
These historic merry-go-rounds are survivors of a bygone era, when thrills came in a much tamer form
For many, carousels conjure up the fondest of childhood memories. The delicate craftsmanship, the bobbing animals and the whistling music all trigger a sensory flashback to a time before jobs, bills and obligations. For president of the National Carousel Association (NCA) Bette Largent, carousels remind her of her mother: “She grew up in Kansas and a Parker carousel would come in on the train and her uncles would take her down … and they would have nickels for her to ride,” says Largent. “[But] it was forbidden fruit for me … my father didn’t approve of them,” she says. “The only carousel we were exposed to was at the state fair. So, [my mother] would get [my father] busy talking in the horse barn and then sneak us off to ride the carousel.”
On July 25, carousel aficionados will unite across the country for National Carousel Day. The annual celebration marks the day William Schneider of Davenport, Iowa, was issued the first American patent for a carousel, in 1871. The holiday was the brainchild of carousel historian Roland Hopkins, as well as Largent. “They have national hot dog day and national ice cream day … but there was no national carousel day … we thought that wasn’t entirely fair,” Largent says with a laugh. First celebrated in 2012, National Carousel Day has been growing ever since, and celebrations are planned this year from Spokane, Washington to Trenton, New Jersey.
The main objective of the day, organizers say, is to direct attention to the hundreds of historic carousels still bringing joy to riders. Largent estimates that of the 5,000 or 6,000 original wooden machines built during the golden age of carousels (said to be from 1870 to 1930), only about 160 remain. The NCA keeps tabs on all of them, working with individual operators, artists, mechanics and park owners to ensure that the carousels remain operational for generations to come.
With many of the machines handcrafted, hand-painted and more than a century old, repairs and restorations are frequently needed. Largent knows this first-hand after helping to restore carousels across the country, including the 1909 Looff Carousel in her husband’s hometown of Spokane, Washington. “[My daughter] loves the carousel … it was her grandpa’s carousel. Now, my grandchildren are the fifth generation to ride it,” says Largent. “Each one of these carousels has a story.”
Here’s the story behind eight fascinating and beautiful carousels across the country:
Watch Hill Flying Horse Carousel: Watch Hill, Rhode Island
The oldest carousel in America in continuous public operation is located in the village of Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Named the Flying Horse, it provided its first ride way back in 1876. The 20 horses on the carousel are not actually attached to the floor but suspended from a center frame, which gives the appearance that the horses are flying. Many of the manes and tails are still made out of real horsehair. Unfortunately, due to the fragility of the carousel, only children are allowed to ride.
Kit Carson County Carousel: Burlington, Colorado
Built in 1905 and moved to Burlington in 1928, the Kit Carson County Carousel was the sixth carousel constructed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and is its only surviving "menagerie" (meaning it included animals other than horses). At the time it was one of the country's fastest carousels, with speeds of 12 miles an hour.
Today, it is the only remaining antique wooden carousel in America with original paint on both the scenery panels and animals. In 1987, the carousel was designated a National Historic Landmark.
The Arkansas Carousel: Little Rock, Arkansas
The Arkansas Carousel at the Little Rock Zoo is the only fully operational carousel of its kind left in the world. It's known as an "Over-The-Jumps" carousel due to the up-and-down movement of the track, which gives the rider the sensation of going over hills. Only four were ever constructed.
Despite its placement on the National Register for Historic Places in 1991, the carousel faced threats of dismantlement until the community and local leaders stepped in and bought it. Sixteen years and a $500,000 restoration later, the carousel made its debut at the Little Rock Zoo.
Jane's Carousel: Brooklyn, New York
Despite its simple name, the Jane's Carousel is anything but. Located between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges on the shore of the East River, the carousel sits in a $9-million transparent acrylic jewel box designed by award-winning French architect Jean Nouvel. The carousel itself was originally made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1922, and took artist Jane Walentas 20 years to restore.
A Carousel for Missoula: Missoula, Montana
While it may not be as historic as some of the others on the list, this carousel is notable for having been hand-carved completely by volunteers from the community of Missoula. Running since 1995, it includes 38 ponies, 14 gargoyles and the largest band organ still in continuous operation in the United States. As Largent put it, "they are not going to let go of this carousel for generations."
1921 Dentzel Carousel: Glen Echo, Maryland
This 1921 Dentzel carousel, located in Glen Echo Park, is the only carousel owned by the National Parks Service. Known as a "menagerie carousel" for its assortment of animals, it's now in its 95th season of bringing delight to young and old alike. The restoration, done by Rosa Patton, took 20 years, but Largent says it was worth it. She calls the carousel a "must-see" and "the best of the best."
Cedar Downs Racing Derby: Sandusky, Ohio
One of only two racing carousels left in the country, Cedar Downs has been running at Cedar Point Amusement Park since 1920. The ride was originally constructed for Euclid Beach Park in Cleveland before being sold in the 1960s to Cedar Point, the second-oldest operating amusement park in the country. The 64 horses and 93-foot-track were restored to their original condition in 1980.
Flying Horses Carousel: Oaks Bluff, Massachusetts
The Flying Horses Carousel on Martha's Vineyard is the oldest operating platform carousel in the country, and has been giving rides since 1876. Operating originally on Coney Island, it was moved to its present home in Oaks Bluff in 1884. The carousel was originally steam-powered before being converted to electricity in 1900. It's known for its "lucky" brass rings, which riders try to grab as the carousel rotates (rumor has it that doing so might get you a free ride).