Originally published August 2001, Ithaca Times
By Tom M. Paolangeli
It’s a sunshine-blue-sky-puffy-white-clouds-eighty-degree kind of midsummer afternoon at Stewart Park. A lake breeze rustles the trees, and wafts the smell of fresh popcorn through the playground. The sounds of tiny, happy, high pitched voices fill the air. Toddlers to preteens climb, crawl, chase, swing, run, fall, laugh and shout, while a few adults keep close watch.
At the edge of the playground, under a red, yellow and blue canvas top, the merry-go-round is mute. Gaily colored horses stock-still, frozen in mid leap. Outside the chain link gate, ten short kids and four tall adults stand, stare, and collectively will the carousel back to life. But hey, even merry-go-round operators have to go to the bathroom sometime.
After five minutes of anxious waiting, one of the dads convinces the kids that they should go back to the playground until the ride opens again. Reluctantly, they wander off.
A few minutes later a lady with long blond hair and dark sunglasses unobtrusively unlocks the gate to the carousel. She walks into the cool shade of the canvas top, and turns on the music. Happy, tooty, circus tunes beckon through tinny low-fi speakers, and within seconds kids come running, little legs churning, flip flops flopping, with parents behind them, striding to keep up.
Not any horse will do, oh no. The gray one is much faster than the black one. And the one with polka dots is definitely the prettiest.
The older kids struggle up onto their chosen steed, while moms and dads lift up and steady the younger riders. Then with a clang clang of the bell, the carousel creaks to life. Slowly at first, the platform starts round, the horses up, then down. As the speed increases, the creaks and groans and rattles settle into a rhythmic pattern at odds with the bouncy calliope music. Faster, faster, hold on, hold on, wave to mom, wheeeeeee!
Mom Jenny Gomez waits by the fence, hands on a stroller, watching the merry-go-round. Every ten seconds a little girl with pigtails whirls by astride a white horse with black spots. She waves and shouts, “Mommy!” Jenny waves back and shouts “Gabby!” For the five minutes the ride lasts, they never miss a turn.
Afterwards, I ask Gabby, age five (five and a half! she corrects me) what she likes most about the merry-go-round.
“I like the horses. They look pretty. And it goes round so fast! I pretend it’s a real horse.”
Back in the center of the merry-go-round, operator Donna Irvin makes sure all the new riders are settled, then clangs the bell and pushes the button to start another ride.
“Honestly, I got it made in the shade,” she laughs, gesturing at her little oasis in the middle. “Kids are in and out, and the day goes by quickly. And if it rains, I read a book.”
This is Irvin’s third summer working the carousel. During the school year she drives a bus, “So I’m always around kids.”
She says for the most part the riders are well behaved, though sometimes she has to tell the little ones to sit down. The only tough part of the job, she says, is trying to get away for a lunch break or a trip to the bathroom.
“It never fails. Just when I think things are quiet, and I can get away for a minute, some kids will show up and go ‘Please, please, please!’”
“Some days,” she continues, “more adults than kids ride. Parents, grandparents, they get on and say, ‘Oh this brings back memories. This was here when I was a little girl.’”
Modern day merry-go-rounds can trace their beginnings back to the late seventeenth century. French noblemen trained for jousting tournaments by sitting on legless wooden horses that their servants pushed around a centerpole. The noblemen would try to spear a dangling ring. This practice is reflected in the later carousel game of “catching the brass ring.” The training device became popular as a form of entertainment, and spread throughout Europe.
By the early nineteenth century Americans were also building wooden horse “circus rides.” An ad for one such ride stated that not only was it great fun, but it was highly recommended by physicians as an aid in circulating the blood.
These early rides were powered by horses, mules or humans. Then, in the 1860’s, Frederick Savage, an English inventor, designed a portable center-mounted steam engine to power the horses around. He later designed the mechanisms that would also move the horses up and down. These “roundabouts” traveled to fairs throughout England.
Various entrepreneurs began building steam powered carousels. In America, in 1882, Allan Herschell visited New York City, where he saw one in operation at Coney Island. Herschell was a partner in a boiler company in North Tonowanda, NY, and when he returned to his factory he decided to go into the carousel business. The merry-go-round now in Stewart Park is a later day Herschell, built around 1951.
At the turn of the twentieth century, trolley line owners, trying to increase ridership, often built amusement parks at the end of the line. This was the strategy employed by the Cayuga Lake Railway Company in 1894 when they created the forerunner to Stewart Park, Renwick Park. They put in a small zoological garden, a theater for vaudeville, a pavilion where “Patsy” Conway’s band could play, a miniature railroad, and of course, a carousel.
But business wasn’t as good as they’d hoped it would be, and in 1914 Wharton Studios leased the property. Thus began Ithaca’s short stint as a silent movie producing mecca. However, Ithaca’s weather couldn’t compete with year round sunny California, and the Whartons soon decamped.
On July 5, 1921, with help from a bequest by former mayor Edward C. Stewart, the city took control of the property and officially opened Stewart Park.
The current merry-go-round was placed in the park as a privately owned and operated ride around 1951, four years before I was born. It thus remains for me a nostalgic connection to many a fine summer day spent at the park. As the happy, old time calliope music (now courtesy of a CD player) fills the air, I close my eyes, and let the memories drift back.
When I was a child, it wasn’t the pretty horses that drew me to the merry-go-round, it was the marvelous machinery. Just how did they make such a huge thing work? It’s like spinning a house around! I’d sit on my horse and stare at the mysterious space in the middle of the merry-go-round, where motors and gears and belts turned and twisted. Somehow this translated to round and round and up and down. I’d look above me, to where the pole bisecting each horse ended in a fat, grease-drenched bearing. That in turn connected to a large rod with u-shaped bends in it. Ah ha! As the rod went round, the bent U caused the horses to move up and down! But what turned the rod?
As the platform turned, I studied the inner sanctum from every angle, seeking enlightenment. Each circuit brought a momentary blast of music as I passed the speakers. I watched the operator as he moved large steel levers to start and stop this wondrous machine. While we were warned to wait until the ride stopped before dismounting and stepping off, the merry-go-round man came and went as he pleased, collecting tickets, jumping from moving platform to stationary ground with aplomb. What a cool job!
As the ride slowed, I’d wait until I was on the backside, out of my parents sight, then tempt fate and slide off the horse early, move to the edge, and seconds before the ride crept to a stop, I’d hop off the still turning platform. Daredevil.
Back in the sixties there was also a miniature train ride at Stewart Park, located to the right of the merry-go-round. And across the street, over by the lagoon, was a zoo. In retrospect it was a sad little affair, a row of square cages housing mostly various birds, with an occasional raccoon or monkey. A few deer roamed a larger fenced area, along with a mule or lama. I didn’t much care for the zoo; it smelled stinky to me.
Much more fun was feeding the ducks. Back then it was encouraged, or at least not discouraged. We’d save up our old stale bread, then head to the duck pond and fling it onto the water, and laugh as the ducks squabbled and gobbled it up.
The playground back then was a mass of unforgiving steel, unlike today’s safety conscious wood, plastic, and round-edged designs. My childhood monkey bars, slides and swings were built strong to last long, and slips and falls drew blood and bruises.
One of my favorite Stewart Park playground pieces was a kid propelled merry-go-round of sorts. The base was a round steel disk, about ten feet across. The disk was set at a slight angle to the ground, mounted on a center hub, so that it could spin. Bent metal bars on the disk provided handholds for riders. Kids on the ground outside the disk would grab hold and run around, pushing it faster and faster. The riders on the disk would try to keep from being flung off. Eventually one of the riders would tumble off, usually taking a pusher with him. The worst thing to do was to try and cling to the spinning platform if you stumbled, as that meant you’d be dragged through the dirt. Man that hurt.
For the bigger, braver kids, say age 10 and up, there was another spin-around ride available. This consisted of a spoked-wheel-like device, about 12 feet across, mounted parallel to the ground. Riders sat around the outside edge, facing in. At four or five stations around the wheel you placed your hands and feet on big metal bars that you pumped back and forth. This powered the wheel around, to dizzying speeds. Little brothers were often enlisted as “slaves” to climb into the middle of the wheel, between the spokes, and help push the ride around. Inevitably one would slip or be tripped and get dragged through the dirt, or better yet, the mud.
Swings back then had hard rubber covered steel seats, which could knock out a tooth or blacken an eye with ease. I won’t even mention the havoc we created with teeter-totters.
Forty years ago you could even swim at Stewart Park. In our family album is a picture of two three-year-olds playing by the water’s edge. A cute little girl is pouring sand on the squatting little boy’s head. Yep that’s me, ever the lady’s man.
Swimming is now prohibited, the miniature train tracks torn up, the stinky zoo is gone, and the dangerous and just-waiting-for-a-lawsuit playground structures replaced. But what still remains, fifty years later, is the old merry-go-round.
The City runs the ride now. Back in 1999 they took ownership from Monte May. May’s family had run the concession since 1983, more as a labor of love than as a money maker. Andy Hillman, the City Forester, oversees its operation now.
“Initially it needed a lot of maintenance,” Hillman said. “Lots of painting and repairing, and we had to bring it up to electrical code. We’d work on it during the winter, whenever there was a lull in the schedule. Dave Hunt led the crew that did most of the work, and they did a fantastic job.”
Hillman would like to see the City build a permanent pavilion over the merry-go-round. Right now they have to disassemble the merry-go-round every winter, then reassemble it in the spring. That’s a lot of wear and tear, and man hours.
Much of the merry-go-round is original. The 35 horses are aluminum, not wooden, and were refurbished by local artist Annie Campbell in 1986.
Hillman says the city has reduced the price and increased the length of the ride. He says the ride is not much of a moneymaker for the city, but that’s not the point.
The Stewart Park merry-go-round, or any old merry-go-round, is more than just a fun ride that goes round and round and up and down. They’re also time machines, bringing back many happy memories, and a fountain of youth. Monte May recalled one particular visitor.
“One hot day there was an older woman, and she sat on the bench outside the carousel. She sat there for a long time. And finally she came up to me and said ‘Do you allow older people to ride?’ And I said, ‘Oh sure, that’s some of our best customers.’ So she rode, and when she got off she smiled and said, ‘You know, you’ve taken twenty years off my life.’”