More than a few inside City Hall branded it “Fearn’s Folly.”
That Spokane Parks and Recreation Director Bill Fearn wanted to raise $40,000 to rescue a dusty, antiquated merry-go-round from a defunct amusement park struck skeptics as beyond ridiculous.
This was the spring of 1968, after all. Science had prevailed.
Colorful carousel figures - such as horses and tigers and dragons - no longer needed to be carved painstakingly out of Chinese elm and balsam by master craftsmen. They could be squeezed out of space-age plastic lickety-split and dirt cheap.
The parks director shrugged off the snide remarks.
Fearn, who in death finally is being given his due, was one of those rare visionaries who saw the importance of linking Spokane’s future to its rich past.
The soft-spoken, introspective man was one of Spokane’s great visionaries. He helped make the Expo ‘74 world’s fair happen. Without Fearn’s tireless efforts, there might not be a Riverfront Park.
But the accomplishment that may have satisfied him the most took shape in the spring of 1968. That’s when Fearn sold the City Council and then the rest of the town on his crazy notion to save a relic carousel.
Today, “Fearn’s Folly” merrily spins on the south side of Riverfront Park. It is, without argument, Spokane’s glittering crown jewel.
The whirling, clanging, world-class Carrousel attracts a half-million joyous riders a year.
Children shriek. Grinning adults become kids again. The bouncy music blares, and everyone prays for a grab at the brass ring.
Spokane’s Carrousel, now valued at well more than $1 million, is as much a part of the city’s fabric as the falls that foam and boil through the center of downtown.
“It’s irreplaceable,” agrees Riverfront Park Manager Hal McGlathery. “If there were anything that would hurt the city’s heart if it were gone, it is the Carrousel.”
It is a truly embarrassing oversight that Fearn, who died of a sudden heart attack last year at age 67, never was formally recognized while he was alive for all he did.
Wednesday morning, however, some former and current city leaders and about 50 others did their best to make amends. A fancy plaque honoring Fearn was placed at the copper-topped Carrousel building’s entrance.
As the horses and tigers spun musically in the background, Fearn’s widow, Ruth, told how her husband had acquired this treasure from Bill Oliver.
Oliver, the Natatorium Park handyman and electrician, inherited the ride when the park’s owner, Lloyd Vogel, died in 1965.
The Carrousel had been one of Nat Park’s featured attractions since 1909, when German woodcarver Charles Looff shipped it to Spokane presumably as a wedding present for his daughter, Emma, who married Lloyd’s father, Louis Vogel.
Oliver was a sentimental guy. After the park closed in 1968, he wanted the Carrousel to remain in Spokane, so he offered to sell it to the county for $40,000. “Naw,” Oliver was flatly told. “We can buy a new one for that price.”
It’s anyone’s guess what would have happened had Fearn not stepped in.
“It could have ended up anywhere,” says Gerry Sperling, a former Mead elementary school principal who now lives in Bainbridge Island, Wash.
“For all of the things to have happened in the sequence they did is truly amazing.”
Sperling grew up riding the Carrousel when her stepfather, Lloyd Vogel, ran Nat Park. The ride, she believes, remained in Spokane because of divine providence.
Sperling says the Carrousel even escaped the clutches of Walt Disney, who tried to buy it in the early 1950s for his under-construction Disneyland.
Disney was used to getting his way, but Vogel apparently rejected the creator of Mickey Mouse out of hand.
Nothing was for sale at Nat Park, says Sperling, but especially no family heirloom such as the Carrousel.
And the rest, thanks to Bill Fearn, is Spokane history.
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