TrThe merry-go-round at last ran down. A beloved wooden carousel that had thrilled the young at heart since 1910 in Cleveland and the coast of Maine was heading for the auction block. There were approximately 4,000 wooden carousels made in this country between 1885 and 1930 when the Great Depression decimated the industry - today fewer than 150 survive in working order. Fire and fading interest have claimed the rest. Barring a miracle, another collection of faded horses and gilded chariots seemed destined to a similar fate, slated to be broken up and sold to the highest bidder.
She was the nineteenth carousel manufactured by the Philadelphia Tobaggon Company, makers of wooden roller coasters and merry-go-rounds since 1904 whose creations are regarded as masterworks of American folk art. PTC #19 originally had 58 horses and two chariots, a deluxe four abreast ride with rows of jumpers and prancers in lavish baroque style. Some of the finest German immigrant carvers worked on the carousel, producing works like this elegant jumper from PTC #14, a 1907 creation that last operated in Mossic, PA at Ghosttown in the Glen.
"The scale featured 8 bass notes, 21 trumpet notes, 18 melody notes, and a separate piccolo section. The rolls were orchestrated to operate bell ringers, a director, as well as orchestra bells. North Tonawanda, Artizan, Wurlitzer, and B.A.B. all made rolls for this scale...The rolls featured great arrangements of concert waltzes like Wedding of the Winds, Skater's Waltz, and great marches like Entry of the Gladiators, National Emblem March, World Progress March, as well as many popular hits of the 1920's such as Melancholy Baby, When It's Springtime in the Rockies, No No Nora, Five Foot Two, Baby Face, Shakin' the Blues Away, On the Sunny Side of the Street, Brown Eyes Why are you Blue?, Stein Song, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, and many more!"
PTC#19 arrived at its first and longest home in 1910 at Cleveland's Euclid Beach Park. A Midwest Coney Island, Euclid Beach was a family destination for urban and rural residents alike, served by trolley lines and boasting great shade trees and picnic sites as well as amusement rides. My grandfather Barker, a Clevelander born in 1909, would have known and loved Euclid Beach and perhaps rode the grandest of its three carousels, the glorious Philadelphia ride.
Through the decades, the Philadelphia carousel acquired an Art Deco look but retained many baroque elements. There were changes at the park and in the city, too. The growth of the suburbs and abandonment of the urban core took its toll. The park had a long history of limiting contact between African American and white patrons, even evicting interracial groups, and there were several protests in 1946. Racial tension, television, the advent of malls and growing urban decay finally contributed to the closure of the park in 1969. Some of the rides were sold to other amusement parks, but most of the remaining structures burned in a series of fires until "by 1986, nothing remained of Euclid Beach Park at the original site save the arch of the gate, which has been declared a Cleveland landmark and is now protected from demolition."
PTC#19 was purchased by Old Orchard Beach in Maine to replace a carousel that had been lost in a fire. There it continued in service for 27 years, until it was once again dismantled and prepared for auction. Four of its original horses had been lost along the way, but the remainder were likely to command tens of thousands a piece if sold separately. However, when a wooden carousel goes to auction, there are often provisions so that it might be kept intact. In the case of PTC#19, each of its pieces would be a separate lot, and once bidding had concluded the entire carousel would put to bid for the sum of the established value of its parts plus a 10% mark up. If there were no takers for the merry-go-round, the original winning bids would prevail and that would be the end.
A group in Cleveland, calling itself the Euclid Beach Park Nuts, determined to bring the carousel back to the city. They had few resources other than a passion for reclaiming a lost part of their childhood and the commitment to find a way to realize their dream. Although they galvanized supporters and managed to have the auction held locally, with less than two weeks before the big day they had only $6,000 in pledges to bid on the carousel. Although in need of restoration, estimates to purchase the entire ride were as high as $750,000.
This story is not only part of the mythology of Cleveland, but also of my employer, The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization whose mission is "Saving Land for People." TPL works on the widest array of conservation projects, from family farms and wilderness to pocket parks and urban recreation areas, but it had never before been asked to help save a carousel. When approached by the Euclid Beach Park Nuts at the eleventh hour, TPL realized that time was too short for local efforts to secure enough funds to be serious bidders. The story goes that when the project was presented to the organization's executive committee, they practically fell over themselves to endorse saving the carousel. Armed with temporary funding from the Ford Foundation, TPL veteran Kathy Blaha attended the auction and prepared to bid on the whole merry-go-round to bring it back to Cleveland.
The first horse went for $43,000. Others realized bids in five figures from collectors and dealers from all over the world. When the bids were tallied, the full carousel was offered at auction, and even those who had won their horse or chariot were swept up in the excitement. When the gavel came down after a dramatic series of bids, PTC#19 sold for $650,000 and was finally coming home.
The story doesn't end here. The carousel has undergone restoration work but is still in storage awaiting the day when it can return to its original site at what is now Euclid Beach State Park. There is much left to do before that will be possible, but Euclid Beach Park Now, the successor to the Park Nuts group, is convinced that that day, too, will come. I wouldn't bid against them.