My mom likes to share one particularly embarrassing story about me: Apparently, early in my equestrian evolution (but after I had experienced my first pony ride) I threw myself down on the ground and proceeded to put on amazing display of four-year-old fireworks (aka hysterics) when I was told I could not ride the merry-go-round in the mall. My mother, seemingly conscientious in all other ways, says she had to just walk away, the tantrum was so appalling.
While I no longer scream and thrash around in a fit when I can’t ride, I still acknowledge a twinge of “I want that” every time I walk by a carousel. I might be a mom myself now, but the “painted ponies” still hold magic for me, and I get on board whenever the opportunity avails itself.
The modern carousel blossomed as a feat of engineering and artistry in America in the 1860s, becoming the dreamlike, colorful centerpiece of the many amusement parks being developed in the cities and resorts of the United States. This “golden age” of the American carousel lasted until the Great Depression when the decline of amusement parks meant that many carousels were abandoned or destroyed. Later, in the 1970s, carousels experienced a resurgence…but there is nothing like riding the old-fashioned ones. They are so intricately carved, so extravagantly decorated, and when you are near them, you can smell and hear the past.
I recently had the chance to ride the oldest platform carousel in the United States while visiting Martha’s Vineyard. The “Flying Horses,” as it is known, has been designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a national landmark. It was constructed in 1876 by Charles Dare, and is one of only two Dare carousels still in existence. Originally operated on Coney Island in New York, the Flying Horses carousel was moved to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard in 1884, where it has lived in its red barn ever since.
Even cooler, the Flying Horses still has working ring collection devices, which were developed during the heyday of the carousel in the States—about 1880 to 1921. Back then, carousel riders on the outside row of horses were often given a little challenge, perhaps as a way to entice people to sit on the outside where the horses frequently did not move up and down: Each time they went around, they could reach out and try to grab a ring from a mechanical arm, collecting as many rings as possible as a bit of a game. Most rings were iron, but one or two per ride were made of brass; if a rider managed to grab a brass ring, it could be redeemed for a free ride.
When my son and I rode the Flying Horses (let’s just say we rode the carousel more than once), the rings were a huge part of the fun…although we didn’t ever nab the brass ones. As we reached out with every turn of the ride, a little bit of wind in my hair and the laughter from my son in anticipation of our grab for brass in my ears, I could pretend for just a moment that I was four again–but this time happy as can be, with mom right beside me.
–Rebecca Didier, Senior Editor