Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Over the Jumps Carousel

Arkansas is lucky to have a very unique carousel--"Over the Jumps". It is one of only four "over the jumps" carousels made by Herschell-Spillman in the 1920's. It is the only one left in working condition. Sixteen years ago a group of Arkansans called Friends of the Carousel formed to save and restore the horses, scenery panels, and machinery to their original splendor. Yesterday, the carousel reopened at its new home, the Little Rock Zoo. It is a carousel that many of us remember riding as children when it was located at the War Memorial Park. Now I (and many others) will be heading to the zoo to ride again. (photo credit)

History of the Carousel

The heyday of carousels in the United States was from 1887 to 1935. It is estimated that approximately 8,000 were produced during this time, with less than 150 surviving today. Many of those have not been restored. The Over the Jumps, (the Arkansas Carousel), is even rarer because of its undulating track. The track goes up and down rather than the horses so it is similar to a roller coaster. It was constructed in 1924 as a traveling carousel by the Herschell-Spillman Engineering Corporation of North Tonawanda, New York.

The Arkansas Carousel made its first appearance at the 1924 Arkansas State Fair as part of a traveling circuit of amusement rides. Tom Fuzzell, a Little Rock resident bought it in 1942 and housed it in a shelter constructed from one of the original state fair buildings. The purchase saved the ride from destruction and it continued to entertain Arkansans and visitors alike. It was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places as being of state significance in 1989. (Just recently it was added to the Register because of having national importance.) In 1991 owners Mokie Shotes and Doc O'Kelley decided to sell it.
At the time, there was no guarantee the priceless amusement piece would stay together, much less in The Natural State. Little Rock and Arkansas were in real danger of losing it to out-of-state interests, including some as far away as Great Britain. Then Little Rock resident Marlena Grunewald and at the time Senator Mike Kinard, acting separately, decided something had to be done to save the Little Rock landmark. The two eventually joined forces and formed the Friends of the Carousel group, which collected enough donations to make a down payment, keeping it off the auction block. (photo credit)

The initial plan was to restore the ponies, four chariots, and 24 large wooden wheels by just touching up the existing paint. Once the work began, however, it developed into much more as 40 layers of paint were discovered; it became a conservation project. There are 40 ponies, two of which were added at a later date and are not a part of the original carousel, though they were manufactured by the same company. These two, Smarty Jones and Ginger, will be restored at a later date. Smarty is named after the famous thoroughbred and was adopted by the real Smarty’s owners, Chappy and Pat Chapman. Ginger is named in honor of Ginger Murry of Murry's Dinner Playhouse in Little Rock. All the original animals have one of two poses -- heads up or heads down -- and are either an inside or an outside horse. The exterior ponies are more ornately carved and bejeweled, while the interior ones are less decorated but are slightly larger in size. The majority of the restoration work on the horses and chariots has been done by well-known conservator Rick Parker of Gentry, Arkansas. The large wooden wheels were redone by an Amish wheelwright of Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania.

FOC Chairman David Martinous of Little Rock estimates the total restoration cost including the mechanicals, to be around $1 million dollars. According to Little Rock Deputy City Attorney Cindy Dawson, who is a FOC board member and serves as legal counsel to the zoo's board of governors, "It has been expensive to go the original restoration route, for sure. It would have been cheaper to have done the 'dip and strip' and paint route, but the decision to restore the original was made by the founding members of the group so the subsequent members have continued on the same path."

When completed, Over the Jumps will be the focal point of a new entry complex at the Little Rock Zoo. The entrance will have an elegant Gay '90s feel with a gift shop, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, visitor services, formal gardens, and a replica of "Laughing Sally," a coin-operated fortune teller long associated with the carousel when it was at Little Rock's War Memorial Park. Zoo Director Mike Blakely says plans call for the carousel to be open during evening football games at War Memorial Stadium.

Needless to say, all of those of us who enjoyed this classic as a child are eagerly awaiting the unveiling of the final results. Blakely estimates the ceremony to be in May but with a great deal of luck and good weather, it might be April. In honor of this momentous occasion, the Clinton Presidential Center and Park in downtown Little Rock will have a temporary exhibit of the restored horses April 8-30 entitled "Over the Jumps: The Arkansas Carousel." No matter when the grand unveiling of the totally refurbished antiquity takes place, I'll hazard a guess there will be quite a few adults riding the Arkansas Carousel that day -- and for many days to come.

KATV Video on history of the carousel

3 comments:

mark a said...

Despite having grown up in the Western New York area, very close to North Tonawanda (lived in Kenmore-Tonawanda) I had known about the Carousel museum there but never appreciated the history until I a read your post.
(http://www.carouselmuseum.org/museum.html)

Arkie said...

I was born in Little rock in 1946 and lived there until I left for college.

I have fond memories of the many rides on the old merry-go-round at Fair Park over those years. My brother and friends would spent the days swimming at the pool and hanging out at the "rides". A corn dog and a ride on the horses was always a must.

The last time rode the "Over the Jumps" carousel was in '87 or '87, I reckon. We had taken our 5 year old daughter and our infant son to the zoo and I wanted them to ride that grand old machine before it was gone forever. The day was cloudy and hardly anyone was around the small, shabby old amusement park. The fat lady infront of the funhouse was laughing herself silly, and the carousil's music was drifting over the park. My wife held the baby in one of the chariots and my daughter and I mounted two of the noble steeds. I thought it would be my last ride on one of the joys of my youth.

When the restoration was started I was thrilled, and now that the project is completed I can't wait to for my next visit to L.R..

See you at the zoo....

rlbates said...

Thank you both for your comments. I want to take my young nieces and nephews who never got the chance. Though I would also just enjoy the outing with my husband. We both have fond memories of Fair Park.