Magic and Craftsmanship: The Kingsport Carousel Project

Marquee Magazine, Winter 2014

Magic and Craftsmanship: The Kingsport Carousel Project

Originally published in Marquee Magazine

By: Meghan Palmer

The history of carousels begins in a place that might be surprising. The original idea—long before the invention of mechanisms that would allow our modern carousels to exist—was of games to display the prowess of young Turkish men. Spanish witnesses called the games carosella. The world turned in its own roundhouse of history, and the French used simple carousels (called carrousels) with model horses, rings and other targets to train soldiers.
The world turned again and with it came the rise and fall of the modern carousel’s heyday. With man and horsepower to steam and now electric motors, carousels moved up in popularity in Europe and America until the Great Depression in the 1930s. Although many carousels were abandoned or destroyed in the last century, some were restored and some made brand-new, using aluminum and fiberglass.
Gale Joh, who grew up in Binghamton, New York, the “Carousel Capital of the World,” had a dream of bringing a carousel to Kingsport. He thought the children of the area should have access to the same wonder and delight he’d enjoyed as a kid. His wife, Kingsport Alderman Valerie Joh, told him that Kingsport would have a carousel when pigs fly. Despite doubts, though, the Kingsport Carousel Project took root and burst into a bloom of creativity that about 225 local and regional volunteers would not allow to be dampened.
As Kingsport Office of Cultural Arts Director Bonnie Macdonald put it, “We’ve been with the idea since it was improbable, and now you couldn’t stop it if you tried.” The Carousel Project proves that Northeast Tennessee is home to artists of limitless creativity, community spirit and inexhaustible magical energy.
When I first heard about the Kingsport Carousel Project, I imagined a room full of Geppettos, diligently carving and tock-tocking away at a wooden menagerie, surrounded by drifts of wood shavings. The little girl inside of me clasped her hands over her heart and squealed with happiness when she saw exactly that in an old classroom at the Lynn View Community Center. Reggie Martin of Engage Kingsport, the organization that supports culture and arts in the community, was carving a small animal—a rooster, as it turns out. “This is just to keep me busy,” he said, chuckling. Two other carvers were there, bedecked in woodshop aprons and wielding the instruments that turned blocks of wood and glue into pure magic.
Richard Hanks was creating a tiger, one of the 32 large animals meant for riding. The tiger is his first carving project. Actually, most of the volunteer carvers had never carved before this, a fact I would not have guessed as I toured the collection of animals in all stages of completion. Don Elmes was carving a red panda, a small animal meant to perch in the sweeps—the umbrella-like spokes creating the frame for the roof of the carousel. I asked Reggie how the animals were chosen for creation. “Mostly the carvers themselves decide,” he said.
Don gestured to the squat animal emerging bit by bit from his block of wood. “Mine came about because of my granddaughter. She went to the Gray Fossil camp, where they discovered fossil remains of red pandas.” Although there is a varied menagerie of animals in this project, from fantasy animals (a unicorn and dragon!) to the exotic, such as Richard’s tiger and a chimpanzee, many of the animals represent the region.
Reggie gave me a grin and said, “Remember the wolf that escaped from Bays Mountain about seven years ago? They never found him. We found him, we’re putting him on the carousel.” I saw the wolf, a big black thing with a ferocious coat of fur. I was impressed.
Ellen Elmes is the lead artist for the rounding board paintings depicting the history of Kingsport, as Reggie said, “All the way from the Cherokee on Long Island to cruising Broad in the ‘50s. We cut it off at 1956 because that’s when our carousel frame and the machinery was made.”
The finished project is set to be installed in its roundhouse at The Kingsport Farmer’s Market and open for the public to enjoy early next year. The beautiful craftsmanship of hand-carved and painted creatures, the mechanics of the thing donated by the zoo in Bridgeport, Connecticut and painstakingly restored by volunteers and the representation of the area’s history in 24 scenes on the rounding boards are only the beginning of the story.
If you want to see real, live Geppettos in action coaxing animals of beauty and whimsy out of blocks of bass wood, you are cordially invited to drop in to the Lynn View Community Center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. If you’d like to donate to the cause, $100 buys six official First Rider Carousel Tickets. Also, there will be a “Carousel Fine Craft Show” to showcase the fine craftsmen in the community during the weekend of March 21, 22 and 23, 2014. There will be one carousel animal auctioned off at the event. Visit http://www.EngageKingsport.com for more information.
As for Valerie Joh, you can see her eloquent foot-in-mouth in the shape of a wonderfully joyful pink pig, replete with a set of white angel’s wings. It will be perched like a happy kiss blown to her late husband Gale, on top of the carousel’s ticket booth.

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