Getting the opportunity to visit a place like the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum is like returning to the wonder years of our youth. There is something magical about taking a spin on a merry-go-round. For many of us, it was our first amusement ride, and one that is not discriminatory of age. The bright lights, beautiful colors, and upbeat music make the appeal infectious. How many of you watch with anticipation, as you try to decide which seat will be perfect for your ride?
We want to thank the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum for their hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own.
Our visit to the carousel museum was our final stop, during our day in Leavenworth, Kansas. When we arrived, we were introduced to Jerry, who would be our tour guide. It became immediately apparent that he has a true love for the care and maintenance of this unique attraction. We would spend the next couple of hours hearing the amazing history behind C.W. Parker, as well as the carousel business in general.
In the main lobby of the museum there was an assembly of people working on the restoration of some horses. We watched as one lady worked at cleaning an ages-old piece, as part of this process. It was interesting to observe the interaction between her and some visitors. Like Jerry, her love for these pieces was evident. We found out that it can take as long as 18 months to completely restore a piece. Of course, much depends upon how much damage has to be undone.
Next up, we noticed another lady, who was in the process of lacquering a recently renovated horse. The amount of detail is amazing, as each horse seems to have its own personality. Once again, she was more than willing to answer any questions we had about the work she was doing.
The Earliest Days
After giving us the once around of horse repair, it was time to check out some of the carousels. Jerry led us into the main gallery, which holds three unique merry-go-rounds. The oldest by far is the Primitive Carousel. Built sometime between 1850 and 1860, this hand operated carousel is the oldest working version in the United States. It was last operated in 1920, and is on loan from National Carousel Association.
Unlike the ornate versions that most of us are familiar with, the Primitive Carousel is far more plain. Each horse is assembled from eight pieces of wood. The details come from hand painting, as well as leather and metal accents. The manes and tails are real horse hair. Due to the delicacy of this piece, we weren’t taking a spin on this carousel. It was still impressive to see a piece that has survived for over 150 years.
C. W. Parker Comes to Leavenworth
It’s odd to think that just last summer we were first introduced to the name C. W. Parker. During a visit to Abilene, Kansas we stopped in the Dickinson heritage Center. Here we found one of the last rocking horse carousels left in existance. We even got to take a spin on this classic attraction. (You can see a video of it in action here.) Abilene was home to the first Parker carousel plant, and by 1900 was supplying all types of amusement devices across the nation. He soon realized that he needed to scout out a new location, which would offer better railroad access.
In 1911, C. W. Parker began moving his operations to Leavenworth, Kansas. He built a new, larger factory space, which would afford him plenty of room to expand. During this same period, the carving of the horses became more fanciful. As we watched the carousel spin, we couldn’t help but notice the feisty expressions on many of the horses. World War I and the Great Depression took a toll on carousel makers, but Parker adapted and survived. After his death in 1932, his son continued the business until 1955.
It’s All in the Details
Much of the attraction of a carousel comes from the intricate designs. When a child first sees an opportunity to ride a carousel, the decision must be made where to ride. Everyone has their favorite animal, and Parker’s versions offered plenty of choices. Do you hop on one of the whinnying ponies or perhaps a speedy rabbit. Those wanting a gentler ride may find a seat in one of the carriages that offer a steadier ride. We even heard that some kids will try to figure out which horse rises highest, so they end up with the best view.
Taking a Spin
Now that we had a good feel for the history of these amazing pieces, it was time for taking a spin. After watching the other kids enjoying themselves, we were certainly ready. The only thing left was to pick our steeds. Crystal asked Jerry which was his favorite, and it was the one with the Leavenworth and Lansing plaques. Later we found out that Jerry was the person who actually carved and created this horse. What a talented guy. Since Crystal had hers picked, I chose to ride next to her.
After creating this video, I decided a couple of things. First, Crystal was having way too much fun in the background. Second, we need to invest in some new equipment that will allow us to make steadier video shots. We have seen an uptick in the number of viewers, when we include videos, so we will certainly try to increase our output in the future. For now, we will just have to get by with the shaky hand versions.
After taking a spin, we were ready to see more of the museum. Jerry pointed out a diminutive carousel sitting nearby. This is a self-powered version that was designed for children. The idea was to get them out in the fresh air and let them get exercise from the use of such a device. We are sure many kids would like it for a while, but would tire of being the “horse power” behind this carousel.
Earlier we mentioned the changing landscape of carousel making, after the Depression. Builders like C. W. Parker found ways to modernize the making of their devices. One of the cost saving methods was to cast the horses out of aluminum. While this increased output, at a lower cost, it took away much of the originality of the individual pieces from before. The Liberty Carousel is an example of this style of device and is used frequently for children’s parties at the museum.
Our time at the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum had come to an end, as it was time for us to start on our way home. We had learned so much about this unique industry and the people who made it work. During our visit, we had the opportunity to make some new friends, and took a spin on a carousel that is over 100 years old. All in all, we have to say it was a great visit. Don’t you think it’s time for you to make your plans for a visit to this uniquely Kansas attraction?
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