Kit Carson County houses a historic menagerie
One of Colorado’s small towns on the Eastern plains, houses a hidden gem, a must see for anyone traveling the I70 corridor. The little town, Burlington, home to just over 4,000 people, has a secret, but not one they are trying to keep.
One of America’s most famous antique wooden carousels is at the Kit Carson County Fairgrounds, and this is not your average, run of the mill, summer fair carousel. This antique, wooden carousel has 112 years of secrets, and has become the pride of the community according to Robbie Fearon, summer supervisor and Kit Carson County Carousel Association member.
Originally manufactured in 1905 for Elitch Gardens by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co. (PTC), the carousel was considered old news by 1927, when the park purchased a new modern carousel, with four rows of horses that rise up and down.
The ride was sold to Kit Carson County for $1,200, including delivery, to Burlington. Its purchase was originally criticized as an extravagant expenditure by three county commissioners, and is blamed for all three losing reelections. “Originally when they sold it to Kit Carson County, the community was not very happy,” Fearon said. But times have changed.
Of the nearly 2,500 wooden carousels carved in America between 1885 and the 1930s, fewer than 150 are still in existence. Dubbed PTC#6, the Kit Carson County Carousel was the sixth of 74 carousels manufactured by the PTC between 1904 and 1933.
The carousel is made up of 46 hand-carved animals on a 45-foot diameter platform, with the 16 outside row animals being the largest. The stationary (the animals do not move up and down) ride has 25 standing horses, 21 menagerie animals (two burros, three camels, one dog, three deer, three giraffes, three goats, one hippocampus, one lion, one tiger, three zebras), and four chariots, and travels at almost 12 miles per hour.
Hold on to your hats. That is almost twice as fast as today’s modern carousels with risers (animals that go up and down).
“People start out, and you just see the look on their face, wondering why I’ve told them to hang on tight,” Fearon said. “But when it gets up to speed, they don’t need a reminder.”
IN THE DETAILS
The intricate details in the carvings on the carousel include unique features like an Indian pony with horse shoes, a snake twined around a giraffe’s neck, and a gnome with a spear hiding behind the saddle of a zebra.
The texture of each animal’s coat is faithfully detailed; teeth, slathering tongues and hooves are carefully included. There are real antlers on the deer and real horse hair tails on many of the horses. All the glass eyes are of a color and expression suitable to the temperament of their animals. Hand-painted decorations can be found on each of the carousel figures; intricate flowers of varying design adorn many of the inside row animals. Saddle trappings are reminiscent of those used on cavalry mounts in the 18th Century Napoleonic Wars.
Housed in a 12-sided frame building, it is the only antique carousel in America with the original paint on both the scenery panels and on the animals, and it is the only surviving menagerie carousel made by PTC.
But its permanent home in Burlington has not been without some struggles.
In 1981, a new era of “horse thieves” stole three of the carousel horses and a donkey. They were found a few months after the burglary, in Salina, Kan., and eventually brought back to the small town, amidst some pomp-and-circumstance, parade-style down main street, before they were put back in their spots.
Wear and tear over time on PTC#6 also took its toll. Between moving it by train and storing it during the dust bowl era, the original valances and cresting on the carousel were destroyed. In 1997, grants from the State Historic Fund of the Colorado Historical Society and from the Boettcher Foundation financed research, patterns and reconstruction of the valances, restoration of the carousel’s original lighting, and additional restoration work on the machinery room, the moldings on the paintings and the Wurlitzer Monster Military Band Organ.
The Wurlitzer Monster Military Band Organ is another story in itself, with only two others in existence. Originally advertised by Wurlitzer as “The Twentieth Century Wonder” circa 1909, the Monster contains 255 pipes, bass and snare drums and cymbal, played by Style 155 music rolls. The leaded glass windows in the front may be opened or closed to control the volume. The retail price was $3,250 in 1909. The equivalent 2001 retail cost would be more than $250,000.
Refurbished in 1975, and again in 1996, Kit Carson County’s Monster plays just as it did in 1909 with the carousel’s marching counter-clockwise to the waltzes from the turn of the 19th Century.
But the Monster was not the original on PTC#6, according to Fearon. “Elitches wanted to keep the original. But we think we got the better of the deal.”
The 45 Victorian era oil paintings were restored in 1977. Because they are painted on fragile, light cotton muslin, and because so many of them were torn and punctured, they were strengthened by attaching them to new solid panels. Despite the tears and age, most were in good condition.
The carousel was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, making it one of only 19 National Landmarks in Colorado and the only one you can take for a spin. That same year, Will Morton contracted to restore the original paint to the animals, the four chariots, and the outer rim. This project was completed 18 months later. The carousel building was re-faced with siding and the area around it was landscaped with an eye for Victorian charm.
Visitors, according to Fearon, come from all over. “We have people visit every year from almost all 50 states and several foreign countries.”
Ten years ago, a museum was added, dedicated to the carousel, and its history. With displays about carousels, reproduction, restoration, the theft, the Monster, PTC, and more, it’s a must for not just carousel fans, but anyone interested in a slightly different view into the history books.
While the original trio that purchased the carousel for the county may not have been real popular, the ride has become a community project. “The entire county has been instrumental in fundraising,” Fearon said. “Pride wise, it’s been a real gift to us. It’s had a big influence in a lot of ways.”
During the past decade, public enjoyment of the carousel has resulted in a new generation of small gouges, nicks, bruises and cracks, so a “re-restoration” of the animals was undertaken in 1992.
When the county fair rolls around, along with two rodeos, Fearon said the kids are quick to respect the history and enjoy the ride. “They kick their boots off. You’ll see little rows of boots with spurs lined up.”
Today, although it is 112 years old, it still costs just 25 cents to ride the piece of history. The Kit Carson County Carousel opened May 27, at 11 a.m. and runs through Labor Day, every hour and half hour.
— Eatherton is a freelance writer from Beaulah, Wyo. When she’s not writing, she’s riding her horse or playing with her grandson. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.