Stepping through the doors of the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, is like stepping back in time. As you move through the storied and fascinating history of the world’s first and most enduring amusement park ride, you’re transported into childhood memories of parks, racing to claim a spot on your favorite horse or animal, and of warm days gone by.
“It’s just this like symbol for innocence,” says Morgan Urgo, Executive Director of the museum. “It’s pretty universal. And, you know, it’s intergenerational. We have people that come in here and they’re in their 90s. And then we have people who come in and they ride the carousel for the first time, and they all enjoy it.”
Housing most of its collection on the first floor of a large building set back from Riverside Avenue, the museum is expansive. Rather than sprawl or labyrinthian corridors, though, most of the carved animals on display are situated in one massive room, a menagerie of wooden creatures from the mundane to the mythical, a feast for the eyes and the imagination.
“People get here and they don’t know what to expect. And then they come in and they’re like, ‘oh, my God, I had no idea,’” says Urgo. “And then they learn the history of it. It’s really — it’s quite rewarding.”
The Carousel Museum was started by happenstance. It began as a restoration house back in the 1980s, working to save and restore original wooden carousel pieces that had fallen into disrepair. That restoration house eventually went bankrupt even while public interest in their work increased.
“They were doing all of the restoration upstairs and then the finished pieces were kind of put on display here and people were coming to see,” explains Urgo. “There was a lot of interest in what was happening here, so they said, well, maybe we’ll become a nonprofit and we’ll just be a museum.”
The organization was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1990 and eight years later was able to purchase the building they still call home. The restoration house moved upstairs while the first floor became a showroom for pieces in the collection.
Urgo only came to the museum seven years ago but talking to her you would never guess that her life had revolved around anything other than carousels. Though she originally planned to be an art teacher, she came to love museums as an alternative kind of education. She originally worked at the New Britain Museum of American Art before moving on to other ventures and eventually joining the Carousel Museum as a volunteer.
“Every time I drove by here, I was like, there’s so much potential in this,” she remembers fondly. “There’s so much more to that story. And I was really excited to find a way to help this place grow.”
Since she took over, Urgo says she has changed almost everything about the way the museum operates. She’s added new staff and put an emphasis on safety in the restoration rooms. And she’s worked to create interactivity in the museum’s displays.
“You could come and stay all day. There’s always a drop-in art activity that kids can do in the art studio. They can ride the carousel,” she explains. “There’s interactive scavenger hunts. There’s all different kinds of things. There’s going to be more inclusive programming and things like that. There’s something for everyone.”
Urgo’s love of and passion for the work done by the museum is made evident through her animated recitations of world carousel history. To her, carousels are a handmade, brightly colored pathway through American history and a unique and interesting way for local kids to learn about that history through an amusement park ride.
“That’s what these places should be,” she says. “They should be welcoming and open to all children, at all times, for all things. And it should be a place where children feel comfortable.”
“The history of Carousel really is, you know, the late 1800s to the early 1930s,” Urgo explains as she stands in the museum’s entryway. “Really until the Depression is really what we call the Golden Age of Carousel.”
The first room of the museum, what you see upon entering, is an encapsulation of this golden age. Displays tell the story of the earliest use of carousels, training knights to ride during the Middle Ages. As Urgo explains, carousels were not imagined as the mellow children’s ride we know today. They were tests of knightly skill, and as knights went out of style they became thrill rides only enjoyed by men.
The wooden carousels still operating today typically do so at just 20-30% of their top speeds and only a small fraction allow riders to experience a more daring adventure. The carousel at Bushnell Park, one of several wooden carousels in the state, has reportedly increased its speeds recently, though it is still suitable for children. The Derby Racer Ride, operating at Playland Amusement Park in Rye, New York, however, Urgo describes with one word: “terrifying.”
“The reason why they don’t operate that fast is because, not only are all of the figures hand-carved, but all of the mechanism itself is was created by the carvers,” she explains. “It was all hand forged. If you break a ring gear or bevel gear, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars and you’re out for a season.”
Across from the descriptions of medieval knights and their early carousels is a row of horses the museum has assembled to show the progression of the craft. These, Urgo says, demonstrate the evolution of the craft as it traveled to the United States. Labor movements in the early 1900s created a middle class with days off and money to spend. Electricity, also a new invention, brought about streetcar and trolley systems. Operators of this new infrastructure, hoping to entice workers to take the trolley on those days off would build carousels at the end of the line.
“I call it the first American joy because it really is,” says Urgo. “It’s like this first time that they’ve experienced, like, what do I want to do for me? You know, I’m going to go to the park. I’m going to see people. I’m going to promenade and I’m going to do this thrill ride.”
Carousels are also connected to the story of American immigration and part of the struggle for acceptance.
“You’ve got a lot of these German immigrants that settled in around Philadelphia and around World War I,” says Urgo, pointing out a beautifully carved “Philadelphia-style” carousel horse. “They were really facing a lot of opposition, obviously, so they start to really make this very American style, very realistic, very American. There’s a lot of American flags and bunting and that kind of stuff, bald eagles and things like that, to really appeal to the American audience.”
“You don’t get carousels as they are without a lot of different things that were happening at the turn of the century within the United States,” she continues. “Those universal themes of like immigration and language and, you know, what does it mean to be a citizen in the United States? Like, those are the kinds of things that I think are so important.”
But carousels, like the American economy, hit a rough patch in the 1930s. During the Great Depression, American consumers had little money to spend on frivolous things. For many, when they could, they were spending it on a new thrill ride, roller coasters, which had gained in popularity. Many carousels were dismantled to be used as firewood.
“We estimate that at the peak there were probably about 4,000 carousels. 4000 antique wooden operating carousels,” says Urgo, regretfully. “We’re down to about 175.”
The museum now hopes to preserve what is left of that history by providing a home for carousel animals that were separated from their original rides. They do not accept animals from carousels that have been recently disassembled, hoping to dissuade owners from selling a piece of history for parts. And while it happens very rarely, Urgo says they do wish the animals in the collection could be released back into the world.
“Ideally, we would not exist and they’d all go back on rides and we would enjoy them there,” she says. “But, you know, a lot of these mechanisms and frames no longer exist. So we give the animals a home.”
While the first floor of the museum is the biggest draw for museum visitors, the second floor is where craftsmen and museum staff do the work of preserving history. Across several rooms, volunteers work to restore these – in many cases – century-old works of art to their former glory.
Wooden carousel horses were made with glue and dowels. Carvers avoided nails at all costs because they introduced moisture and rust to the inner workings of the animals. But over time, as carousel owners have tried to repair their own horses, they’ve often nailed them back together, inadvertently causing portions of the wood to rot.
“What we do when we get restoration projects is we take off all of the paint, see where these nails are, take all the nails and metal out and then redowel and reglue everything,” explains Urgo.
It isn’t uncommon for restorers at the museum to carve a new foot – or four – for a particularly worn-down horse. Ornate designs on the sides of horses will get worn down by thousands of tiny legs over the years and need to be recurved. Then, there is the paint.
“It’s very rare to find something that’s been on a ride that’s still in its original paint. Because either it’s completely flaked off or it’s been covered over, covered over, covered over,” Urgo says, showing off a specific horse that was covered in 14 layers of paint from retouching over the years. She personally scraped off each layer herself.
“It’s conservation in the traditional sense like you’re conserving a painting. However, generally, the original paint has been ruined. It’s gone. It’s wrecked,” says Urgo. “Unlike when you’re trying to conserve a painting and find, you know, bring back the color and bring back everything, we want to bring it back, but the original paint is not there.”
Once a horse (or other animal) has been stripped down to bare wood, restorers first prime it. Then comes the gold leaf, a process that alone can take 22 hours, before adding a fresh layer of paint. Sometimes, owners stick with the original look. Other times, they will completely change the color scheme of a particular piece.
“Depending on the owner or the carousel that we’re working on, we work with the owners to do color palette and they decide,” says Urgo.
During CII’s tour of the facility , museum volunteers were working on horses from the Merry-Go-Round at Heritage State Park in Holyoke, Massachusetts, as well as several from private owners. Each horse takes about three months, on average, to completely restore. An entire carousel restoration can take upwards of seven years.
The museum’s collection currently stands at over 400 carved carousel animals with 198 on display and about 50 out on loan. Adding to the collection is in many ways a labor of love and sometimes a labor of logistics. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and with wildfires raging in California, Urgo says she received a call about a unique private collection right in the center of it all that had suddenly become available but only if they could transport it immediately.
“So, in the middle of COVID, we raised enough money to have somebody go out,” recalls Urgo. “We went out and filled a 53-foot truck. We received 72 pieces from them, including the North Tonawanda Band Organ, which is very rare.”
Also in the collection was one of Urgo’s personal favorite pieces: a camel.
“Camels are rare. Jumping camels are even more rare. But closed-mouth, jumping camels are like almost unheard of,” she says, excited. “And I love his face because it’s like twisted in a way that it’s like he’s just about to spit on you.”
As the museum staff looks ahead to 2023, Urgo and her team are working on ways to support the museum and its mission while still having a little fun along the way. They’re planning a social media campaign to highlight one of the animals in their collection each day for the entire year and 50 of those will be up for “adoption.”
Urgo says the adoption fee will range from $150 to $500, and adopters will receive an annual membership, a plaque on the wall, and naming rights for the year. Additionally, another five non-display horses will be available for sponsorship with funds going toward their restoration.
“Our mission is to keep carousels operating and to educate people that don’t have an affiliation with their local carousel to really look at it in a different way,” says Urgo. “Really get people to look at carousels, not as children’s rides, but fine works of art that have a very important place in American history.”