In 2019, the Bushnell Park Conservancy opened its famed carousel just for Ellen Sinclair and her family. Ellen was 90 years old at the time and her daughter, Carlotta Luke, brought Ellen to Hartford to have one last look and ride on the carousel that had been an integral part of her childhood, and something she carried with her throughout her life.

Born in 1929 in Ohio at the onset of the Great Depression, Ellen grew up next to Meyer’s Lake Park, a storied and adored amusement park in Canton, Ohio. The amusement park had been purchased by Ellen’s father, Carl Sinclair, and her grandfather, George Sinclair. Both men were in the rollercoaster industry, traveling the country designing and building roller coasters before finally purchasing the park.

Meyer’s Lake Park was the home of the carousel, which now sits in Bushnell Park in Hartford. Built in 1914 during the golden age of carousels, it was one of 6,000 such rides made by Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein’s Artistic Carousel Company, consisting of 48 hand-carved and hand-painted wooden horses. Today it is one of only three remaining such carousels still in operation.

Carl Sinclair purchased the carousel around 1939 when Ellen was ten years old. She spent her childhood weekends in the park, her father giving Ellen and her brother, George, “a pile of coins” to spend on the arcade or rides. 

Ellen’s first stop was Esmerelda, the automated fortune teller, before heading to the arcade, part of her “ritual” for spending her pennies and nickels, according to an article she authored for the book Meyer’s Lake: A Second Look. After that, she went to the carousel, which is now housed in Bushnell Park.

“After I had used up my little pile of coins in the Arcade, I would proceed to the Merry-Go-Round a few yards away,” Ellen wrote. “Even today, when I think of Esmerelda, I can hear the whirring and clashing barrel organ music of the Merry-Go-Round. There was only one horse I would ride, a magnificent jumper with red roses carved in his mane. This horse I considered to be mine.”

Carlotta, now an architectural and portraiture photographer living in the United Kingdom, says the carousel was one of her grandfather’s pride and joys and something that captured Ellen’s vivid imagination, a memory that stayed with her after she left Canton, Ohio for good in her late teens to pursue an art career in Boston.

“I think that part of her childhood was pretty magical, obviously there were difficult things; she grew up in the depression and the war, but I think the carousel was always just a magical thing for her,” Carlotta said. “She would just talk about how beautiful the horses were and beautifully they were made and painted and just the whole periods of riding them were magical. She had a very vivid imagination, so riding them was just a joy for them. I think it must have been amazing growing up with that on her doorstep.”

Meyer’s Lake Park shut down in 1974 and the carousel was brought to Hartford by Jack Dollard, the director of the Knox Foundation, a Hartford foundation established in 1966 following the death of Elizabeth “Betty” Knox, who had served six terms on Hartford’s City Council and left $2.5 million in a trust for a charitable foundation. The Knox Foundation focused on funding community development and “greening” programs, before splitting their operations in two – the Betty Knox Foundation and KNOX — according to the organization’s website.

The Betty Knox Foundation, which continues to focus grant funding opportunities for socio-economic development including 21 community gardens, is chaired by Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford.

“Dollard was instrumental in thinking it would be great to have a carousel in Bushnell Park which is really Hartford’s central park and would really be a wonderful addition to get people inspired to spend more time in the park,” said Mary Zeman, conservancy manager for the Bushnell Park Conservancy. “So, he got it moved here and the city agreed to pay for the pavilion to house it; when people think of the park it’s probably the second thing they think of.”

It had been a long time since Ellen had seen the carousel — her last visit to Bushnell Park was in the early 1980s, but in 2019, Ellen’s family decided it was time to bring their mother back to Hartford for one last ride.

At 90 years old, Ellen was battling Alzheimer’s and dementia. Although the New England Carousel Museum, which operated the carousel at the time, offered to have television crews there to film her return, the family declined, worried that it would confuse and frighten her.

“They were so kind,” Carlotta said. “They opened the carousel just for us.”

The carousel looked very different from Ellen’s childhood, having been restored and repainted, but it didn’t matter; Ellen immediately found her old favorite horse, the “magnificent jumper” she’d written about decades earlier.

“She hadn’t seen it since probably the early 1980s and the carousel looks very different,” Carlotta said. “It’s been painted very differently than how it had originally been painted but she recognized her horse immediately and she just climbed straight on it.”

“It was amazing,” Carlotta said. “They started up the carousel, we all got on our horses, and she climbed up on her own, wouldn’t let us help her and we started up and I turned around and she was smiling but just had tears streaming down her face. It was really moving, and we all ended up in tears. She could speak, her dementia was not as bad as it got, she could speak but she didn’t know why she was crying. She was just crying, and we had a really long ride on the carousel.”

Two years later, Ellen passed away on Christmas Day. And while her memory may have faded before her death, her childhood love of the carousel was preserved in her artwork, which then became a gift to Bushnell Park and the City of Hartford.

Ellen left Ohio at 18 to pursue a career as an artist in Boston. She never lived in Canton, Ohio again but would regularly visit her family and take her own children to Meyer’s Lake Park to ride the carousel.

During that time, she studied painting and art at Endicott College and began to work with Expressionist painter Hyman Bloom. Ellen met and married her husband, Miguel Junger, a physicist, and continued to paint while raising Carlotta and Sebastian – Sebastian Junger is the author of the best-selling book The Perfect Storm, later turned into a blockbuster film. Both Carlotta and Sebastian attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Ellen had some success with her art, but her career was up and down, according to Carlotta.

“She studied art very young, and she had a fair amount of success up to her mid-thirties when she had my brother and I,” Carlotta said. “She didn’t have huge success, I think she would have liked to have more but she very much saw herself as an artist, that was her primary identity, that was what made her happiest is when she was painting and drawing, it was very important to her.”

Ellen was part of cooperative galleries in Boston and Cape Cod, where the Junger family has a home to this day. Her works were largely done in the Expressionist tradition; landscapes and nature. In 1984 she won the Provincetown Art Association and Museum’s Sabrina Teichman Memorial Award.

But during that time, she also painted the carousel horses of her childhood, including a large oil painting and a series of pastels and watercolors she created throughout the 1970s and 80s. 

“She carried the love of the carousel with her,” Carlotta said. “I think it was more about her childhood, and she was very close with her father and the park was so closely associated with her father. He died very suddenly much earlier, so I think it was a way of connecting with her family and her past, and they’re just such beautiful horses. I think as an artist and as a little girl growing up, she loved just how beautiful they were.”

When Ellen’s brother George passed away in his fifties due to cancer, Ellen brought the watercolors and pastels of the carousel horses back to Ohio for a memorial tribute to her brother put on by the Canton Art Institute and Daring Books – the publisher of the book about Meyer’s Lake Park.

As Ellen battled Alzheimer’s she could no longer paint and, after she passed, Carlotta and her family began to ready Ellen’s house for sale, happening upon a storage unit her parents had owned for 17 years. Inside were the carousel horse paintings: five in total.

“I didn’t know what was going to be in there and so we went found these incredible painting in the storage unit. I knew that there had been paintings, but I didn’t know we still had any,” Carlotta said. “They’re just so beautiful but they’re also so huge. So, I was thinking, I was trying to figure out what we could do with them.”

Carlotta considered donating the paintings to the Canton historical society and art association, but then decided that they would be better placed with the carousel itself. “I thought really, they need to be with the carousel, it made so much sense to me that they should be there, and I just felt like it was such a good tribute to my mother for them to be with her muse, the horses. So, I started the process of trying to figure out who to speak to.”

Carlotta ended up contacting both the Bushnell Park Conservancy and the New England Carousel Museum based in Bristol, emailing Mary Zeman about her desire to see the paintings placed with the carousel.

In May of 2023, the paintings finally joined the carousel that had inspired them. During a small, emotional ceremony at the Bushnell Carousel, Carlotta and her family joined the Bushnell Park Conservancy to see where Ellen’s paintings, reflections on her childhood growing up next to an amusement park, would finally come to rest lining the Dollard Pavilion and marking the entrance to the carousel itself.

“It made so much sense to have them there, but I didn’t know where they were going to be put and I didn’t know whether they were going to fit, but to see where they were hung it was just amazing, it was like they were made for that space because she created them inspired by the carousel but not for that space, but then they just fit so perfectly,” Carlotta said. “And it’s funny because I know the Bushnell Park Association feels that we have been so generous in giving them, but for us, it’s so wonderful for us that they’re there, so it seems it’s such a mutually perfect situation for both sides.”

“It feels like it’s completing a circle,” Carlotta said. “Taking my mother to see the carousel when she was 90 was one of the most moving experiences I’d ever had with her. I would never imagine that three years later when she died that her paintings would be there.”

“I just feel so happy that that there’s this lasting connection between her, the carousel and her artwork. It all makes sense to me.”

Ellen was not the only person who grew up around Meyer’s Lake Park to have made the trek out to Hartford to get a glimpse of the carousel and maybe another ride, according to Mary Zeman.

“We get a lot of people in the summers, senior citizens, who say, ‘Oh my gosh I grew up near Meyer’s Lake Park, I spent my summers riding the carousel and all the other rides,’ and they come back,” Mary Zeman said. “When they’re traveling, they stop back here because it’s such a part of their childhood.”

Naturally, Ellen was not the only person for whom Meyer’s Lake Amusement Park held a special place in her memories of childhood. A Facebook group dedicated to the park has 7,400 members who post pictures of the park and reminisce about their time there before it closed. There are even pictures of Esmerelda, the automated fortune teller who was part of Ellen’s weekend ritual before riding the carousel.

The Bushnell Park Carousel sits beside a playground and near a small pond in the park and it is indeed one of the main attractions. Offering rides for just two dollars – and often free during city events – the carousel is crowded with children and their parents riding one of the last such carousels in the world.

Last year, the Bushnell Carousel accounted for 24,517 rides on its spinning horses. Overall, the park hosted over 100 public events and had 500,000 visitors, according to the Bushnell Park Conservancy.

“Because this has been here since 1974 and opened in 1976, we’re seeing the second and third generation of people saying my grandmother put me on this and now my kids and so forth,” Zeman said. “So, it was done at Meyer’s Lake Park and now that it’s here, it’s doing it for other generations. People remember that they had a birthday party here or every summer they’d ride the carousel. It’s really wonderful to hear those stories.”

“It’s amazing the carousel ended up in Hartford and it’s restored and it’s there for everyone to enjoy,” Carlotta said. “So many carousels got dismantled and the horses got sold off, the fact that it was saved and it’s there is quite a miracle I think.”

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Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels,...

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