The magic goes ’round and ’round

Glimpses of Past and Present

Photo by Barbara Lawlor
Photo by Barbara Lawlor

Pam North, Nederland.     Nothing is more evocative of childhood and fantasy than the carousel, with its brightly colored and embellished animals leaping smoothly up and down, and the calliope or organ music playing gaily in the background. It’s no wonder that the merry-go-round has earned its own day of recognition and celebration. Friday, July 25 was National Carousel Day.

The carousel has an intriguing history, beginning back in the 1100s from a horseback game played by Arabian and Turkish horsemen. Spanish and Italian crusaders imported the game back to Europe, where it became an extravagant display of horsemanship and finery that the French termed “carrousel.”

A major event of the carrousel was the ring-spearing tournament, in which a small ring dangled by a ribbon from a pole, and a horseman, at full gallop, would attempt to spear the ring with his lance. A Frenchman with the goal of training young noblemen in the art of ring-spearing later conceived the idea of a device bearing carved horses and chariots suspended by chains from arms radiating from a center-pole. His ingenuity in the 1700s was likely the inspiration for the carousel as it is known today. By the latter part of the 18th century, carousels were built for amusement, and were scattered throughout Europe.

The invention of the steam engine allowed the power of steam to be incorporated into carousels, allowing them to become larger and more elaborate. In the 1860s, Gustav Dentzel pioneered the modern carousels in America, surpassing the old carousels of Europe in size and elegance, with elaborately carved and decorated animals in a rich variety of styles.

The spectrum of species ranged from jungle, farm, plains, forest, mythology, storybooks, and even household pets. Any creature that conceivably might be rideable was fashioned into a fantasy animal from a child’s dream. And catching the “gold” ring was every child’s desire.

The demise of the golden age of the carousel came with the Great Depression of the 1930s. The declining economy spelled decline for amusement parks, and carousels fell into disrepair or were destroyed. When times got better, allowing amusement parks to become profitable, carousels again were produced, but technology had changed their appearance. Fine woodcarving had become too labor-intensive for the animals, and cast aluminum, and later fiberglass, replaced it. The merry-go-round’s previous position as the centerpiece for a park also changed as more exciting rides were devised, and it became known more as a feature for small children.

Antique carousel animals became collector items for decoration in the 1970s, and have risen greatly in price over ensuing decades. Their increasing value caused the dismantling of many of the old carousels so that the animals could be sold for high profit. Fewer than 150 of the original several thousand carousels built in America survive intact today.

Some of the original existing carousel frameworks occasionally are located, taken out of storage, restored, and returned to public operation. That is how Nederland’s Carousel of Happiness got its start, when Scott Harrison trucked its empty frame from Utah to Colorado in 1986. He spent the next 26 years carving and painting more than 50 unique animals, 35 of which are rideable, to bring the empty carousel shell back to life.

A new floor of Southern Yellow Pine was built, and rounding boards (the decorative panels surrounding the top) were restored, along with the original bearings, gears, and metal work. It was a dedicated labor of love, and has stood since 2010 as a culmination of one man’s dedication and determination to recreate a thing of beauty. Adopted by the community as a project, Nederland, with its small population of about 1,500, supported Scott’s dream, raising $700,000 to house the completed carousel.

What better way to enjoy National Carousel Day than to visit Nederland’s very own merry-go-round. Celebrate on July 25 as the Carousel of Happiness, starting at noon, will offer a variety of activities of fun through the afternoon and evening: a bake sale, ice cream, face painting, sidewalk art, a bubble station, a scavenger hunt, magic tricks, a book signing, and a concert. It’s never too late for a second childhood.