Wooden Carousels: Historic “Collectibles” Worth Preserving

Editor’s Note: Most collectibles are displayed on shelves, hung on walls or snuggled into a corner of the living room. WorthPoint’s Mary Brenneman came across a type of “collectible” that wouldn’t make it through the front door and needs plenty of space to spin—the wooden carousel.

Carousels have ignited the imagination of Americans of all ages since their golden days in the late 1890s through the 1920s when carousel makers in New York, Pennsylvania and Kansas built elaborate ones destined for parks and resorts and simple ones that would travel by train and horse-drawn wagons to small towns all across the country.

Out of the 2,000 to 3,000 wood carousels built in America, there are fewer than 200 left. Most of the surviving carousels are on the East and West coasts. Colorado has five that together tell a fascinating story of America’s carousels.

Back in the late 1990s, I spent a good part of a year researching, writing and producing a documentary about Colorado’s historic carousels. This article is based on the documentary, which I am posting in segments on the WorthPoint Web site with the permission of the Colorado Carousel Society.

”Jewel of American Carousels”

The Kit Carson County carousel is Colorado’s oldest, a national landmark, often called the “Jewel of American Carousels.” It is the only one in America that still has all of its original paint and the only surviving menagerie carousel from the Philadelphia Toboggan Co., once the premier builder of carousels in America. The carousel’s Wurlitzer Monster Military Band Organ is the only one left like it in the world—still in its original cabinet and still playing the music it played almost a century ago.

The Philadelphia Toboggan Co., or PTC, built 74 carousels. Today fewer than 30 survive. This one, PTC #6, the sixth one the company built, is among the finest American carousels in existence.

Although it is a PTC carousel, the design and patterns for the animals came from an earlier company owned by E. Joy Morris, who sold it to PTC in the early 1900s. That purchase helped PTC emerge as a major player in the carousel business.

The Kit Carson County carousel is significant because it is virtually the same as it was when it was built in 1905. It still has the original paint. You can still see the artists original pencil markings on the back of a giraffe. It is also the only menagerie and the only stationary PTC carousel that still exists.

Philadelphia Toboggan’s carousels were beautiful, elaborate, artistic and expensive, the best that money could buy.

Magical and ornate decorations

Everywhere you look, there is something to catch your eye. Nothing is allowed to distract you from the magic. Everything is covered, decorated and ornate. Even the drive machinery is hidden, obscured by oil paintings, the original ones from 1905—paintings, that like the music, lift you up and away.

You can see the craftsmanship in the detail. The toed animals have dewclaws. The hoofed animals have shoes. The antlers on the deer and the horse tails are real. All the eyes are made of glass, not the painted wood you see on many carousels.

The carousel was just an amusement ride, but the men who carved these animals and built these carousels were fine craftsmen and artists. And it is a testament to the quality of their work that nearly 100 years later, we can still ride this carousel and appreciate that quality.

For Barbara Charles, a founding member of the National Carousel Association and carousel historian, the Kit Carson County carousel is a good example of a community coming together to preserve its heritage.

“This carousel is just a super example of what a community can do. It is considered a pinnacle of preservation. And every year, they add something new. They worked on the animals—restored those. They worked on the military-band organ. So it sounds just like it did originally with all its old rolls. The valances were put in recently. The lights. The paintings. These are all the original paintings, and they have been carefully touched up. It is just loved by the community, and it shows.”

Every spring, carousel volunteers make certain that the torch is carried on, that a new generation learns about this magnificent machine and the story of the county commissioners who made a good decision 70 years ago but weren’t appreciated at the time.

Volunteers tell the tale

As the carousel goes round and round, the volunteers tell the story all over again, how the carousel was at Elitch’s, a family-owned amusement park in Denver; how in the late 1920s, there was a technological innovation that allowed the new carousels to go up and down, as well revolve.

According to volunteer Jo Downey, who is a founding member of the Colorado Carousel Society and along with others worked hard to preserve the Kit Carson County carousel, “Elitch’s had it from 1905 to 1928, but Elitch’s wanted a new one. They wanted one that goes up and down. So they sold this one to Kit Carson County for $1,200.”

Volunteer Ted Wickham continues the story. “. . . and that was a tremendous amount of money to be spent in those days. A dollar those days looked as big as a house. Two of the commissioners, the way I understand it, lost their seats when they were up for election the next time, and the third person decided not to run. So the people got back at ’em in that way.”

But the carousel surprised them all. At a nickel a ride, it paid for itself in just a couple of years.

In 1931, during the Great Depression, the county fair was canceled, and the carousel building was filled with cornstalks and hay. Then the rats and snakes and pigeons moved in. The rats ate the hay and chewed through the rubber tubing and the bellows on the band organ. When the fair started back up in 1937, some people in the county wanted to burn down the entire infested mess, but they decided to clean it up with soap and water instead.

“The animals were getting very chipped and torn and bruised and broken, and so in 1976 when Colorado was 100 years old and the United States was 200 years old, we started restoring it to celebrate the centennial and the bicentennial. It has a Wurlitzer Monster Military Band Organ that is the sound you hear. [Restoring it] was the first thing we did,” Jo Downey said.

“We have lots of things besides horses. The one that is Elitch’s now has just horses. We have the only menagerie carousel carved by this company left in the whole world. There is a dog on that carousel—there are four other dogs like that, but they all belong to people who are collectors or they are in museums. But the magic of the carousel is because all the animals are still on this platform and you can ride it. If you have a carousel in your living room, it is nice to look at, but you have lost all of that magic.”

The Wurlitzer Monster Military Band Organ

Back in 1905 when this carousel was built, amplified music didn’t exist. There were no tapes, no CDs, no big speakers. Music was either live or from mechanical machines.

The Wurlitzer Monster Military Band Organ, with its 100 instruments and rolls of paper that made music, was a marvel to behold. This is the finest example of the three monster-band organs left in the world.

And finally, on a summer night during the Kit Carson County Fair, a sort of life Olympics of the Plains with blue ribbons for the best of everything—jams and jellies, pickles and peppers, quilts and steer—it’s time for the magic, time to ride the carousel.

It’s a night when you can feel the past whisper in your ear. A night to breathe a silent thank you to county commissioners and civic-minded people as you ride round and round on one of the last of these magical carousel “collectibles.”

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To contribute to the Colorado Carousel Society—send a check to Colorado Carousel Society 7061 South Quince Street, Englewood  80112.

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