A BRIEF HISTORY by Jay Ducharme

They're known by various names: merry-go-rounds, carousels, roundabouts. These simple amusement devices date back to medieval times, when they had a more practical purpose as a training machine for knights in battle. Knights would sit on wooden planks arranged in a circle, suspended from a wooden centerpost. As they were spun around, the knights would try to thrust their lances through a small stationary ring that represented the head of their opponent in a jousting match. From this rather gruesome tradition, merry-go-rounds evolved into elaborate mechanical works of art that bring joy to young and old alike.

The dawning of the industrial revolution in the 1800s made two things possible: the mass-production of heavy machinery that was needed to create larger and larger amusement devices, and leisure time for workers which allowed them for the first time to relax on a day off. Private parks were created, usually at the end of trolley lines, in cities and towns across the United States. Each weekend, amusement parks drew thousands of families eager to unwind after a long week of work. One of these parks was located in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Built onto the side of picturesque Mount Tom, Mountain Park was a popular retreat not only for the residents of the rapidly growing city but for tourists from all across the country. The park opened in 1894 and featured attractive gardens. A unique cable railway was added in 1897. It took passengers to the very peak of Mount Tom, where a spectacular Summit House overlooked the picturesque Pioneer Valley. Also in that year, a large circular building was added to the park. It functioned as a dance hall. A small roller coaster was built next to it along with an open air restaurant. And a small German carousel was also installed in a modest pavilion.

The park changed little over the next two decades. The dance hall was converted into an arcade when a new ballroom was built. A new enclosed carousel pavilion was built. The Summit House twice burned down, and the cable railway was eventually dismantled. In 1929 Louis Pellessier, then the head of the Holyoke Street Railway Company, took over the management of the park. He expanded the midway, adding many new concessions and rides including a new roller coaster and a merry-go-round, both manufactured by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. The dance hall/arcade was modified and the merry-go-round was installed in that building.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were many companies in the business of supplying merry-go-rounds to amusement parks: the famous workshops of Dentzel, Looff, Illions, Mangels, Herschell and Parker were a few. They were founded by immigrant wood carvers, many of them from Germany. After the Great Depression in 1929, many of the companies ceased to exist. The only modern survivor from that time is the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (now known as Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters). Founded in 1904 by Henry Auchy and Chester Albright, the "Toboggan" in the company's name refers to its main business: roller coasters (often called toboggans at the turn of the century). If a park expressed interest in buying a PTC coaster, the company would sweeten the deal by throwing in a merry-go-round. By 1907, merry-go-rounds began to make up most of the company's business.

In 1909, Auchy patented a merry-go-round drive mechanism that is still considered to be the best of its kind ever devised. A big problem with other drives was that they used gears to power the ride. If any of the gears happened to jam, the teeth on the gears would snap off from the forces. That would mean costly repairs. What Auchy did was design slippage into the drive. The motor spun two wide leather belts. The belts wrapped around two flywheels. One of the belts was twisted into a Moebius strip, so the flywheels would spin in opposite directions. The flywheels powered two leather cones which in turn spun a large iron drive wheel. All that leather provided for a much smoother operation and less chance of a major mechanical failure. Auchy's design did use gears to spin the ride platform and make the horses move. But the belt drive assured that the main mechanical system remained safe.
PTC had many carvers working for them over the years. Daniel Muller, considered by many to be the most talented horse carver who ever lived, worked for PTC for many years and produced some of the companies greatest rides. Because demand for their rides was so high, and there were only so many carvers the company could hire, PTC created a giant jig for carving three horses at a time. The master carver (Muller, for instance) would carve a horse's head out of wood by hand. The head would be placed on the jig. Three blocks of wood could be mounted on brackets above the head. Then any worker at the company could follow the head's outline with the jig. The three blocks would be mechanically routed out to make an exact copy of the original head.

By the late 1920s, PTC had an overstock of merry-go-rounds. The company had resumed making roller coasters, but business had slowed down and their shop was filled with pre-made carousel parts. The company laid off many of its workers. One person they kept on was Frank Carretta, who not only carved some of their horses but painted scenery panels as well. When an order came in for a merry-go-round, Carretta would make whatever horses were needed to complete the ride, but most of them were pulled from existing stock.

This is what happened when Mountain Park ordered a merry-go-round to go along with their new PTC roller coaster. It was the fifth-to-last merry-go-round that PTC made. When the ride was shipped to Mountain Park, some scenery panels from PTC carousel #75 were mixed in. PTC also supplied the Artizan Factories band organ that went along with the ride.

The ride was assembled in the old modified pavilion and opened for the 1929 season just in time for the Great Depression to hit. But unlike so many other trolley parks of that era, Mountain Park survived. Holyoke was still a bustling city, and people came year after year.

In 1953, John Collins purchased Mountain Park from Pellessier. A new generation of parents needed someplace to bring their young children, and Collins reshaped the park as a perfect place for those families. Over a dozen kiddie rides were added, most of them a miniature version of the adult rides. One of these was a little Alan Herschell metal carousel. But many parents still preferred to bring their children onto the "adult" carousel that they remembered from their own childhood.
For the next thirty-five years, the park remained virtually unchanged. But in 1987, John Collins' son, who had run the park for decades, felt it was time to close. As rides were advertised for sale, Collins received several offers to buy the merry-go-round. This was a period when individual carousel horses were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Collins was offered $2 million for the ride, but wanted to see it remain closer to home.

John Hickey, at that time the head of the Holyoke Water Power Company, approached Collins with a proposal to save the merry-go-round for the city of Holyoke. Collins agreed to sell the ride to the city for $875,000. Hickey gathered a team together including Angela Wright, a Holyoke resident known for her fundraising ability. Within a year the newly-formed non-profit group The Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round had raised the money necessary to purchase the ride. This was an astounding achievement because at that time the state was in a recession, and Holyoke had been struggling to get back on its feet. The merry-go-round was seen as one step in Holyoke's revitalization. Donations poured in from all over the country. Holyoke's schoolchildren raised $32,000 from simple activities like bake sales. Many local businesses donated their services, from printing brochures to catering parties. James Curran, the head of a local construction firm, donated his services to dismantle the carousel and rebuild it.

When noted carousel historian Frederick Fried came to Mountain Park in 1988 to appraise the ride, he marveled at its good condition. He also pointed out some examples of the many different carvers that had contributed to the ride, among them Muller, Caretta and John Zalar.

After the ride was purchased, it was decided to rebuild it at Holyoke's Heritage State Park, in the center of the city's downtown. Timothy Murphy, a local architect, donated his services to design a spectacular recreation of the original carousel pavilion. On December 7, 1993, PTC merry-go-round #80 re-opened to the public in its new home. In its first ten years of operation there, it delighted over a half-million riders. The ride is self-supporting and each ride is only $2.00. The pavilion is a popular spot for birthday and corporate parties. The merry-go-round has hosted many weddings and receptions as well. It thrills new generations of families not only from the city but from all across the country, and it has helped revitalize the city's downtown district. This jewel of Holyoke is still living up to the name John Hickey gave it so many years ago: Holyoke's Happiness Machine.