With timeless appeal, carousels transport riders to a bygone era

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 4:47 p.m. MDT

The carousel in downtown St. George was purchased with city redevelopment funds.

Dave Becker Copyright

With their vibrantly painted steeds and fascinating history, carousels are more than amusement park attractions. A ride on a carousel enchants and evokes pure whimsy.

“When you ride a carousel you are transported to another world,” says Lori Capener, the caretaker of Lagoon’s historically significant carousel.

“I don’t believe there is any person who isn’t carried back to the carefree days of his childhood while riding on a carousel,” says Kent Perkins, who led a campaign to purchase a carousel for St. George.

“A carousel has timeless appeal and a classic design,” says Utah Repertory Theater's Johnny Hebda, director of Utah’s first major production of the musical “Carousel” in 10 years. “Composers Rodgers and Hammerstein used the carousel to indicate the continuing hope and reality of a brighter future.”

The history of carousels in the state stretches back to the nearly forgotten Saltair Park on the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, as related on the National Carousel Association website. One of the country’s first amusement parks, Saltair was intended from its beginning as the western counterpart to New York’s Coney Island and became the West’s most popular family destination. Master builder Charles I.D. Looff delivered a grand carousel to the resort in 1910. The Carousel of Happiness, as it was named, survived many windstorms and fires until 1957, when the park declared bankruptcy and the state took over the assets.

A tiny footnote to Utah’s history, the Saltair carousel was given to a small park in American Fork named Fairland in 1960. According to chasingmerrygorounds.com, the amusement park was built at what was then called the Utah State Training School and operated there until 1986. Typical of the highly prized collectible creations, the horses were sold at auction, but the carousel frame was moved to Nederland, Colo., where it was rebuilt with new animals and continues to operate.

The carousel at Lagoon is awaiting approval to the National Register of Historic Places as the state’s only hand-carved wood carousel and a rare complete example of the golden age of carousel building. Built by the Herschell-Spillman Co. in 1893 and installed at Lagoon in 1906, it is one of only eight surviving carousels of its type. At the expense of other structures and rides, special care was taken to preserve the attraction during a devastating fire in 1953. The carousel received a major restoration with Capener, the park’s art director, shepherding the painstaking venture that included researching the animals individually and embellishing period details.

“Ever since I started working at Lagoon when I was 14, I wanted to renovate the carousel to make it a true jewel that it once was,” she says. “It was important that we were historically accurate. We preserved the intricate carvings and restored the animals to their original colors.”

With the animals constructed of wood and metal, the carousel at Liberty Park was built in the 1930s by the Allan Herschell Co., which manufactured portable machines used by traveling carnival operators, and was installed in 1984 after a fire leveled the first carousel at the site.

There are a number of other carousels in the state, some more elaborate than others. While a new creation, the faux vintage hand-carved wood carousel at Hogle Zoo, built by Carousel Works and installed in 2008, is decidedly unique. Officials call it a “generations-linking spot for families,” a theme that is punctuated by including adult and cub versions of the same animals.

Utah’s newest carousel opened in St. George in 2011, the only municipality-funded carousel in the state. Built in 1989 by Chance Rides with fiberglass animals, the carousel carried riders in Chicago until 2006, when it was sold to a private owner in Buena Park, Calif.

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