Monday, May 9, 2016

Going for the Brass Ring: The Eldridge Park Carousel

by Erin Doane, curator

In just a few weeks Eldridge Park will be open for the season and this year marks the 10th anniversary of the restored carousel there. It was opened to the public on May 27, 2006 after years of rebuilding and restoration. The history of the carousel goes back over 100 years and is filled with its share of ups and downs.

Eldridge Park Carousel, mid-1980s
In 1924, Robert A. Long came to Elmira in response to an ad seeking someone to bring a merry-go-round to Eldridge Park. Long was just 23 years old at the time but he had long been involved in building and operating carousels. His father and uncle had a shop in Philadelphia where they assembled amusement park rides. From 1909 through 1916, he helped his father operate a carousel in Elmira during the summer months. Long purchased an old Looff carousel and installed it in Eldridge Park. The machine was built in the late 1890s and had been operated at Young’s Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It measured 50 feet in diameter and had three rows of stationary animals including horses, a sea serpent, giraffes, greyhounds, a billy goat, and a lion.

The carousel’s lion, 1988
In 1942, Long converted the stationary mechanism into a jumping one. He re-carved the legs of some of the horses to become jumpers. This new version of the carousel had 34 stationary animals and 20 jumping horses. The goat, the lion, and the tiger were the only menagerie figures to remain on the machine. Long also installed a mechanism that dispensed metal rings. Carousel riders could reach out and capture the rings as the ride was moving. Most of the rings were made of iron but if you got the brass ring, you won a free ride.

Vinton Bovier Stevens reaching for the brass ring
Iron rings from the Eldridge Park carousel
Long operated the carousel for over 55 years making improvements and repairs along the way including in 1972 when the park was flooded by Hurricane Agnes. He retired in 1980 and passed away three years later. Long’s daughter and her children continued to run the carousel until 1988. The last few years of operation were difficult ones. Visitation was down and the park suffered from a severe problem with vandals. Steel doors were added to the carousel building but that still did not deter vandalism. In its last summer of operation, the carousel was broken into and damaged 14 times. Most of the damage was to the building’s lights, speakers, and columns but the leg of one horse was broken.

Robert A. Long on his carousel, 1966
In 1989, the family removed the carousel from Eldridge Park. They contracted with Guernsey’s Auction Centers in New York City to manage the sale. The original hope was that the ride could be sold in one piece but when the reserve for the auction was not met, the individual horses were sold off. Other than five horses kept by family members as keepsakes, all the other horses and animals were sold. The carousel mechanism itself, however, did not sell and was donated to the city.

Catalog from Guernsey’s Auction Centers, 1989

Page from the catalog showing horses
 from the Eldridge Park carousel, 1989
In 1991, the building that had housed the carousel found new life as part of the Carousel Farm and Craft Market in the park. At that time, the Windmill Farm and Craft Market of Yates County was looking to expand its operations and the city agreed to bring it to Eldridge Park. The Windmill Market provided at least 45 vendors and many other local and regional businesses and individuals also signed on. The Carousel Market opened in June 1991 with around 120 vendors. Some 15,000 people went to the market on its opening day. The market was open every Tuesday from June through September. The attendance for that first season was estimated at about 125,000.

Carousel Farm and Craft Market at Eldridge Park, early 1990s
In its first couple of years, the Carousel Market seemed to be a great success. The 1992 season was extended through October. By 1994, however, annual attendance had begun to drop. Those who still visited the market commented that it looked kind of small as there were only about 80 vendors rather than the 120+ in previous years. The revenues were not covering expenses so the city decided not to open the market for the 1996 season.

Inside the carousel pavilion at the market, early 1990s
The next chapter in the life of the Eldridge Park carousel began in 2002. Bob Lyon was at the park to speak at Elmira’s September 11 anniversary memorial program. The Elmira dentist was trained in forensic dentistry and had been asked to go to New York City after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center to help identify the bodies of the victims. While at Eldridge Park for the memorial, Lyon saw the carousel mechanism and was inspired to restore it to its former glory. The Eldridge Park Carousel Preservation Society was founded and Lyon quickly started to make his dream into a reality.

Watercolor painting of the Eldridge Park
carousel by Talitha Botsford, c. 1980s
Lawrence Pefferly of Cornersville, Tennessee agreed to carve wooden animals for the carousel’s outer row. His wife Jerry painted the animals. Over the course of just three-and-a-half years, the couple created 20 new animals for the carousel. Each one was a replica of one of the original horses or menagerie animals. In 1989, Guernsey’s had photographed and measured each piece of the carousel for its auction so the Pefferlys had detailed examples from which to work. Other carvers were also found to complete the work including John Kolanach, an Elmira native living in Catlin, Oscar Pivaral of San Francisco, Frederick Dilworth of New Holland, Pennsylvania, Dave Albrecht of Minnesota, John McKenzie, and carvers from Bud Ellis Studios in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee.


Photograph of the restored carousel in 2006 from
the Eldridge Park Carousel supplemental magazine
published by the Star-Gazette in spring 2006
On May 27, 2006, the newly restored carousel opened to the public. Close to 20,000 people were at the grand opening gala and the carousel had over 40,000 riders that first season. Today, the Eldridge Park carousel has 56 animals including a horse named “America” that was unveiled on September 11, 2011 to honor those who lost their lives ten years earlier. There are also two dragon benches. The carousel is one of fewer than 20 in the United States that still has brass ring feeders and it is thought to be the fastest carousel in the world moving at 18 miles per hour. Eldridge Park will be opening for the season on Memorial Day weekend

3 comments:

  1. i remember riding the carousel and playing some of the games when i was little and Eldridge Park was vibrant and seemed busy, its really nice to see it back up and running with new things and the people are coming back

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  2. What a history.....so glad it is still there today and what a lovely park it is...always enjoy the walk around the pond and coming back to see the carousel and rides...

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  3. I love the space here. I attended an amazing event here and I ate more than I should. I had bread pudding, apple crisp, waffles and strawberries and cream. The main floor at New York venues is very large and good size without being overwhelming, also there's tons of bar space too to order drinks.

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