Catch a Ride on the Carsonia Carousel
at the Texas State Fair in Dallas
By MICHELLE N. LYNCH
We folks in Berks County, Pennsylvania have a connection with the folks in Texas.We share a prized piece of American heritage in the form of a 4-row antique Dentzel carousel.
Yes! You can still ride Carsonia Park’s merry-go-round.To do so, just head south to Dallas for the State Fair of Texas, held each year from the end of September into mid-October.
The Dentzel carousel has been a focal point of the Texas State Fair since 1951.Following the closing of Carsonia Park in 1950, it was purchased to replace State Fair Park’s Parker carousel after that machine was destroyed by fire.
The classic carousel is operated each year for the approximately three-week duration of the state fair.The rest of the year, it remains in storage.Over the past few years, it has been systematically dismantled, piece-by-piece during its “down time.”
Under the supervision of Kary Barnett, the ride’s mechanicals, including the 15-horse power motor, are given routine maintenance and its antique components are kept in careful repair.
The 66 beautifully carved horses, two Illions-carved chariots, multiple plaster moldings and painted panels are all in the process of being individually rehabilitated by professional conservators.
Artist Michael “Mikie” Angelino has personally repainted a number of the horses on the carousel.
Kary, who prefers the informality of being referred to by his first name, described the process:
“The horses and chariots are being taken apart anywhere they are broken or loose and re-glued with dowel rods, no screws.There are missing small parts like horse hooves and dragon toes that have been re-carved.”
In some cases, Angelino has taken an artist’s liberty rather than a conservator’s museum approach. She has added artwork on the backside of the chariots where there previously was none. Angelino has also been known to add hand-painted designs to the inner sides of the horses.
Carousel horses traditionally have a greater level of carving and painted details on their outer sides – the sides that show to the public as the carousel turns.Angelino views the inner sides as a blank canvas ready for her creativity.Her exuberant designs often mimic the motifs found in the carousel’s carvings.
Kary declared, “She just couldn’t leave the backside plain. She really cares.”
Before Angelino can go to work repainting the antique carvings, the horses are treated by Lloyd Mulligan and Donny Love, furniture restoration specialists and owners of The Finishing Touch.Mulligan and Love strip, sand, glue and base coat each horse with paint.
Said Kary, “These guys also do the restoration wood carving; I think that is real talent!”
He further described their dedication to the project saying, “I have seen these two sand until their fingers actually bleed and they have to stop for a couple days.”
Once Mulligan and Love complete their work, Angelino can unleash her creativity, personally choosing the colors for carousel horses. As Mikie redecorates each horse, she, Kary and retired operator, Lowell Stapf, have been responsible for affectionately bestowing names on them, though the horses originally had numbers only.
Kary described how the names are chosen using the horse with the bells and musical instruments as an example.
He explained, “We (Mikie and I) named him Pan because he has a pan flute carved on his neck along with a tambourine and a horn. The pan flute is named for its association with the rustic Greek god Pan. We thought the head carved on the saddle might represent the Greek god Pan.”
Two nearly matched horses known as, “The Twins,” were named for Kary’s twin daughters, Addy and Adaly.
Other names are chosen on a whim.
Kary continued, “The horse with the fleur de lis designs was named Tony by Lowell. Tony is different from the other horses.If you notice, he has kind of a mean look to him. His mouth is open wider than the others and his nostrils are more flared.”
Carousel historian Brian Morgan commented, “‘Tony’ is a common Dentzel style, though a little more elaborate than most. I call it a ‘Gustav’ while others call it a thoroughbred.”
Some Dentzel carousels had up to six of these majestic horses on the outer row.They occur frequently from about 1904 through to at least 1923. These particularly realistic carvings are popular with many collectors.
Morgan shuddered playfully as he agreed with Kary, “They are mean looking – never been my favorite style.There are many other prettier Dentzel horses.”
The horses now called Pan and Tony can be identified one in each of two photographs showing opposite sides of the carousel taken in Carsonia Park.
Carousel historians have declared this Dentzel carousel one of the finest remaining antique carousels in operation.
William Manns, co-author of the book, Painted Ponies, stated, “The quality on the Dallas State Fair Dentzel carousel horses is very good. I’d rate them at 9s.”
Morgan in his article, A Tale of Two Cities and One Carousel (Merry-Go-Roundup, Spring 2006) asserted, “We were really impressed with the horses… The outer row standers are what make this carousel special. The horses are wonderfully carved – each one spectacular in its own right.On each horse, the decorations are a complete unit, free flowing and gorgeous.”
The jester faces on the crowning rim are Dentzel trademarks.They immediately mark this carousel as a product of the William H. Dentzel factory of Philadelphia.
At the turn of the 20th century, Philadelphia along with Coney Island emerged as center for the production of quality standing carousels, while the North Tonawanda, N.Y. area was better known for the manufacture of traveling carousels.Quality carousel building continued until the Depression era.
Horses on carousels of the Dentzel factory and other Philadelphia factories are classified by carousel historians in the “Philadelphia style.”
Quoting Painted Ponies: “Philadelphia-style horse were realistic.From the veins carved into perfectly shaped heads, to the careful positioning of each well-formed leg, the wooden reproductions mimicked real animals. Natural poses captured the toss of a mane or a powerful gallop with the faithfulness of a stop-action camera. If it were possible, the carvers would have added the smell of the stable and a high-pitched whinny to their creations.”
Dentzel carousels were the first to be manufactured in America.Sixth generation carousel maker William H. Dentzel, III shares the following family history:
“Michael Dentzel traveled in the southern German countryside with his portable hand carved horse drawn machine, going from fair to fair or market. Michael’s second son, Gustav, immigrated to America in 1864, where he began manufacturing early carousels. Gustav worked very hard and hired many German and Italian immigrant carvers, who had been classically trained in Europe.The mechanisms made by the Dentzel Carousel Company were noted for their good design and operation.
“Gustav’s two sons, William and Edward, continued their father’s craft after his death in 1908 in Germantown, Pa. William, the older of the brothers, embellished the carousel and took it to its grandest state of development. The family’s carousel business continued to flourish under the management of his sons, where it remained until William H. Dentzel’s death in 1928.”
Following William H. Dentzel’s death, his Germantown, Pa. company was purchased by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC), another producer of quality carousels.
Carousel historian Brian Morgan has studied Carsonia Park’s former carousel and has found the inner row jumper horses typical of the Dentzel factory and carvers.However, he finds the outer row standers atypical and inconsistent with the 1914 date given to the carousel in the National Carousel Association’s (NCA) census.
Morgan believes he may have found the reason for this inconsistency in the archives of the Historical Society of Berks County. The Society’s collection includes a photograph of the Dentzel carousel on site in its pavilion at Carsonia Park. A notation on the front of photograph contains the name and address of William H. Dentzel’s factory, implying that this was a factory photograph, taken after the carousel was first installed.
The extensive research of George M. Meiser, IX has led to the conclusion that Carsonia Park received a new carousel for the 1923 season.That year, under the new direction of Edward Rhoads, Carsonia Park underwent widespread rebuilding and renovation in time for the Memorial Day, Wed. May 30th grand re-opening.
Morgan also reported that workers at the Texas State Fair found a 1922 newspaper behind one of the carousel’s mirrors, helping to confirm the completion year. He finds this date of 1922, rather than the 1914 date, consistent with the style. Former operator, Lowell Stapf, concurs.
According to Morgan, the accumulated evidence helps to confirm a handwritten note in the NCA’s files stating that Carsonia bought the carousel directly from Dentzel.
Another outstanding feature of the former Carsonia carousel is its dragon chariots.Marcus C. Illions of Coney Island carved the pair.
William Manns wrote, “The dragon was a popular theme for chariots, probably stemming from the enormous interest in Oriental art that swept America and Europe shortly before World War I.Illions carved several variations and sizes.”
Charles Carmel of Coney Island also carved dragon chariots that according to Manns were almost duplicates of those created by Marcus C. Illions and Sons.Only experts can recognize the differences and experts have declared that those on the Texas State Fair carousel are the work of Illions.
Manns explained how the Illions chariots might have come to be on the Dentzel merry-go-round.
He stated,“These dragon chariots may have been at the Dentzel shop, recycled from a trade-in. Carousel operators are not and never were purists.Swapping parts, horses or chariots happened all the time as machines were traded in or resold from park to park.”
The chariots, too, have been beautifully repainted as part of the restoration efforts in Texas.
There remains here in Berks a great deal of interest in all things related to Carsonia Park, particularly the carousel, which holds a special place in the hearts of those Berks Countians who once rode it.
If we Berks Countians are still nostalgic about a merry-go-round that once operated here for a mere 27 years, over 50 years ago, imagine the depth of affection held for this antique amusement by the generations of Texans, who have ridden and tenderly cared for the carousel over the past 57 years!Texans love their carousel!
Those with fond memories of Carsonia Park are gratified to learn how this carousel has been cherished and is being carefully restored for the enjoyment of generations to come.
As amusement park and carousel historian Charles J. Jacques, Jr. remarked, “Merry-go-rounds are the only rides you can be put on as a small child, take your own children on in adulthood, and ride yourself as a senior citizen.”
Perhaps this, along with its beauty, accounts for the appeal of Carsonia Park’s former grand carousel.
You are never too young or too old for a merry-go-round. Go ahead, ride Carsonia’s carousel at the State Fair of Texas!
Special Thanks to
Kary Barnett, Brian Morgan, Lowell Stapf, Joel Styer, Patrick Wentzel
and, as always, George M. Meiser, IX.
In the late 16th century, European knights began practicing a form of tournament on horseback that became known as carrousel – French for “little war.”Unlike earlier jousts, these contests were less bloody and involved greater pageantry by noblemen of high rank, mounted on horses decked with elaborate trappings. The beautifully carved decorations on merry-go-round horses descend from the highly decorated horses of nobles and royals at such events.
By the mid-17th century, young French noblemen began practicing for carrousels using a machine that consisted of crudely carved horses, suspended by chains from wooden spokes that radiated from a center pole.These machines were operated by hand or mule power.Early traveling carousels, similar to the one Michael Dentzel took throughout the German countryside in the early 19th century, evolved from such military training equipment into amusement devices.
The practice of catching the brass ring on the merry-go-round developed from another important feature of the carrousel – the ring-spearing event.First observed by European Crusaders among Arabian and Turkish horsemen, the practice involved riding full tilt toward a ring suspended from a pole or tree, then running the tip of a lance through the center of the ring. Ring spearing was also popular in the ante-bellum South.The sport was revived in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, a city that soon after emerged as a center for the manufacture of carousels as we know them today.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.