By Tom Carrier
Kit Carson County residents thought it to be quite the mistake. Buying a carousel? The very idea. But, the county commissioners thought otherwise and in 1928, bought the Ellich’s Zoological Garden’s carousel for $1,200. A good decision in hindsight, as the carousel is now a National Historic Landmark, called the “Jewel of American Carousels” and Colorado’s oldest carousel.
Ah, if you have youngsters or even slightly oldsters, the ring of the bell of the carousel brings back wonderful childhood memories of sitting on painted horses, going round and round, waving to Mom, Dad and grandparents.
Barbara Charles, a carousel historian responsible for the first national carousel census, found and photographed the Kit Carson carousel on one of her earlier visits there 25 years ago. She has original photographs of the horses and instantly can see that each are individually hand carved and hand painted without the use of commercial manufacturing methods. The Philadelphia Toboggan Company manufactured 74 carousels like this one, although fewer than 30 survive today.
The Kit Carson carousel is PTC #6, the sixth one to be handcrafted by the company in 1905. It is a menagerie, meaning that it has more than just horses to ride. It has giraffes, sea horses, lions and other fanciful animals. All are ornate, colorful and particularly unique. The antlers on the deer and the tails on the horses are all real. Eyes are made of glass, not painted wood. Because it is an earlier carousel, the animals don’t go up and down, but so what.
If someone who visited the carousel when it was new in 1905 visited today, they wouldn’t see a thing out of place. The menagerie is still the same, the paint is original, the Wurlitzer Monster Military Band Organ, one of only three left intact in the world, still plays the same tunes (such as “Dixie,” “A Bicycle Built for Two,” and alike), and the oil paintings covering the machinery are all original, too. It is a work of art in motion and memory.
“This carousel is just a super example of what a community can do to save their own heritage,” Charles says. “It’s considered the pinnacle of preservation. It’s just loved by the community and it shows.”
Every year, the carousel volunteers tell the story of the brave county commissioners who saved the carousel for the community. After the commission bought the carousel, there was quite a bit of antagonism toward the commissions, as many in the community questioned the huge outlay of public money on a non-essential purchase. “Two of the commissioners lost their seats when they were up for election the next time, and a third person decided not to run, so the people got back at them that way,” a volunteer says. But at five cents a ride, the carousel paid for itself in just a couple of years. So there!
You don’t have to be a child to appreciate the carousel. But it does help to have a childlike appreciation for the color, the excitement, the possibilities of riding round and round on a golden lion or an effervescent seahorse somewhere in Middle America. The Kit County Carousel can still help create those possibilities for the next 100 years, if we wish to.
The Colorado Carousel Society provides the volunteers and the fundraising to help keep this unique American treasure in peak condition for newer generations to enjoy. You can help The Carousel Society’s mission to save and preserve America’s antique wooden carousels by sending contributions to the Colorado Carousel Society, 7061 South Quince Street, Englewood 80112.
Watch a video about the Kit Carson County Carousel here.
Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects.
WorthPoint: Get the Most from Your Antiques & Collectibles.