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VOL. 130 | NO. 109 | Friday, June 5, 2015

Splendid Steeds

Memphis’ Grand Carousel trots to Ohio for two-year restoration

By Bill Dries

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Six years ago, Todd W. Goings took apart the centenarian Grand Carousel at what had been the Libertyland amusement park and packed it into four semi-trailers, which were welded shut and taken to a nearby, undisclosed location.

This week, Goings – of the Carousels and Carvings Co. of Marion, Ohio – returned to Memphis to move the herd of painted horses and other parts from the Mid-South Coliseum to FedEx Corp. trailers for their journey to restoration at his Ohio workshop.

The carousel is due to return to the Mid-South Fairgrounds in 2017 as part of the Children’s Museum of Memphis on the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Hollywood Street.

It will be the centerpiece of a new building; CMOM announced Wednesday, June 3, that Design Shop will plan the carousel’s new home and Montgomery Martin Contractors will build it.

Private museum donors raised $4 million for the project.

“It will be an icon for Memphis – no doubt,” said Dick Hackett, CEO of CMOM and mayor of Memphis at the time the museum was founded. “It’s part of what we continue to assemble here. It’s a place to play to learn and learn to play.”

Museum co-chairman James Rout III has researched the carousel’s history. Philadelphia’s Dentzel Carousel Co. originally built it in 1909, the same year that founder Gustav Dentzel died, for Forest Park in Chicago. It survived a fire at the park in 1920 and was repaired in Philadelphia. It arrived in Memphis in the late 1920s.

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 but lost the status when it was dismantled four years after Libertyland closed.

The carousel is unique in several ways. It is all horses, three rows of them, as opposed to carousels that showcase a variety of carved animals.

And then there is the romance – a carnival term that Goings says comes with a sense of humor because it describes how intricate the carvings are.

“There’s always the joke that they call it the romance side but it was really to romance the quarter out of your pocket,” he said, referring to the practice of an elaborately carved head on a carousel horse while the rest of the body doesn’t show the same craftsmanship or detail.

“They would wrap a strap around or a blanket around, but it would have had fringe or flowers on it,” he said. “This one, the straps come around and they are fully carved all the way around. It’s pretty spectacular.”

By the 2009 crating, the carousel had lost two band organs that were standard equipment for the attractions in the early 1900s. There was a façade suggesting one of the old organs, but it played recorded music instead.

“The band organ and carousels have parted ways because the band organs are 100 years old too, and they are all-wood, highly-mechanized instruments that take a whole other separate set of specialties,” Goings said. He also noted the organs had no volume control and were made to play loud to draw crowds.

Hackett is among the generations of Memphians who rode the carousel as children – in his case with his grandmother.

And because of those memories and the rarity of carousels, the building to house the restored carousel will be its own museum and also will include event rentals. For school groups, carousel admission will come with museum admission at no additional cost.

“There are going to be adults without children that will come,” Hackett said, noting that CMOM doesn’t allow adults without children. “We will at the carousel. This carousel now has significant international attention because it is a true national treasure. And with that comes people that follow carousels.”

It joins two recent attractions on the front lawn of the museum – a splash park and a play area that Hackett said have shown enough demand to extend CMOM’s hours. At times, it has to declare both at capacity and stop admissions until some visitors leave.

Goings didn’t have a lot of time to examine the horses as he crated them in 2009. During the two-year restoration process he hopes to determine if some of the horses are post-fire and, if so, which are originals.

“Carvers are just like signing their signatures,” he said of the craftwork. “It really boils down to the head carver in the factory at the time. Because a carousel goes back to the factory, there could have been a mixed breed of horses on there, even though they are all Dentzel animals.”

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