On The Trail: Carousel horses n’ Snake River history
ranch wife & trail gal
Some childhood experiences linger in our adult memories like magical fairy wings, fluttering into our consequence when something sparks the memory.
Whenever I see a carousel, I remember the excitement of quickly, but seriously, selecting the perfect horse to ride round ‘n round. I usually chose the black ones, decorated in rhinestone and ribbon and moved up and down as the carousel circled.
I never minded the repeating scenery as we went round because the music led my imagination into adventures only I could see.
On a recent visit to Idaho Falls, Idaho, I drove just a few blocks off Highway 15/20, through downtown to the Museum of Idaho.
They had an exhibition “Carousels: Art & History in Motion” and never one to miss anything connected with horses, I happily paid the small admission fee and entered the unique, historic world of carousel.
The museum’s main floor had not only three working carousels, but a myriad carved decorations and mirrors that once adorned the tops, centers and seats of long lost carousels.
One smaller carousel had to be hand-cranked with a large gear-system, as it was one that traveled around to town fairs. Nearby a steam engine, complete with huge copper boiler, displayed the next generation of propulsion.
With these steam models, a calliope (pipe organ) was often added, creating the distinct music we’ve come to relate with carousels. When the availability of electricity became easier, carousels became a mainstay of county fairs, celebrations and exhibitions.
In the late 1800s, it was rumored that riding a carousel led young adults to “flights of fancy … leading young men to propose to young ladies while circling.”
I’m not sure that was true but luckily, the romance of the merry-go-round did not diminish.
Most of us think of horses when we think of carousel animals, but in truth, there were hundreds of different creatures used.
I saw farm animals to wild animals, of all shapes and sizes and surprisingly, many from different countries.
A tall giraffe from France stood beside a two-humped camel, while a nearby British ostrich, its feathers ornately carved under a saddle, looked down upon a fan-tailed turkey. Rare seahorses and dragons filled a fantastical exhibit, their painted colors vivid and beautiful.
The smoothed, shiny wooden back of a life-sized St. Bernard dog, carved in 1890, spoke of its many passengers. A lion, complete with flowing mane and long white teeth, silently roared at a dancing pink pig.
I loved the room of “Armored Horses”.
Here stood a knights’ stable of galloping stallions, dressed in gold armor, saddles and long flowing tails, sword sheaths and sparkling gems.
One of the earliest horses, made in 1890, was once part of the Ringling Museum of Art collection of rare carousel animals.
The restoration and preservation of these horses is outstanding, each an historic work of art, yet it made me smile to think that such stunning steeds were created for we everyday people to ride, round ‘n round on warm Sunday afternoons.
Since carousels often moved from place to place, every piece and part had to be created to be disassembled, packed for travel and re-assembled.
Each animal was made to fit into the pattern of its unique carousel, which determined its size, shape and direction of movement. Most carousels were two-animals deep, although some were more.
The “Romance or Public Side” of the animal was the outward side (towards the viewing public) and was ornately decorated with deep carving, bright paint and jewels. The inner circle side had less decorations and detail.
Taking this into consideration, when you see a carousel horse, even off the carousel, you will be able to determine the direction it turned by the detail of its decorations.
A fun fact I learned during my museum visit, was that European-made carousels rotate in a clockwise direction, while North American made models rotate in a counter-clockwise direction.
So the next time you see a merry-go-round, determine its direction and you will be able to know where it was made.
After wandering the halls of Carousel artifacts, I explored the other fascinating parts of the Museum of Idaho.
Upstairs is the Children’s Discovery Room, where you can walk into a forest, complete with trees, beaver dam, waterfall and animals.
Wonderful panorama paintings of vista-views around Idaho Falls decorate the walls, making the whole room feel very real.
Nearby a tipi lodge stands ready to explore and a log cabin invites visitors to experience pioneer life.
Hands-on exhibits make it fun for kids of all ages.
The Local Idaho History Room has wildlife exhibits and a fascinating history of Atomic Power, including a short film on the “splitting of the atom”.
There is an exhibit about Lewis & Clark and another relating how the Native Americans used the Snake River for centuries. Downstairs I stepped back in time to when Idaho Falls was still named Eagle Rock.
Here their Main Street has been recreated, complete with historic businesses of the 1890s. Sounds of horses and wagons, people chatting, dogs barking and even a bar piano playing, add to the impression that the local people have just stepped from view a moment before.
I peeked into the Dry Goods Store, filled with hundreds of items, ready for sale. There was an attorney’s office and a stage station and the barbershop even had a welcoming fire going in its fireplace.
Beyond main street was an exhibit about local history, founding families and how Eagle Rock became Idaho Falls.
A new exhibition: Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World, is coming soon to the Museum and should be great.
But I have to admit, before I left, I took a ride on the carousel, a black horse of course, and from the direction I galloped, I knew I was riding a steed from North America.