The wooden horses were the life of the party, surrounded by bright lights, music and laughing families as they spun under their tent at fairs and festivals. But then the music stopped and the horses were packed away. They waited in two dark trailers, forgotten for decades in the sheep pasture of a Kansas farmer.
On Saturday, the horses and the rest of a vintage carousel were unpacked from the same trailers, where the pieces were put in 1952 before being abandoned. About 150 people gathered at The Granary in Sandpoint to see the unveiling, cheering enthusiastically when the first horse was brought into the light.
The carousel is owned by Clay and Reno Hutchison, who love to tell the story of the forgotten Carousel of Smiles. It belonged to a traveling fair and last operated in 1952 at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson before being packed away and forgotten. It is believed to have been built in 1920 by Allan Herschell, a well-known carousel creator.
Reno Hutchison was not yet born when her carousel gave its last ride. When she was a girl growing up in Butte, she loved to ride the carousel at Columbia Gardens, until it burned down in 1973.
“I, as a child, was absolutely devastated by that,” she said. “I just think there’s magic in carousels.”
That launched her lifelong love of carousels, and she and her husband made it a point to ride them during their travels.
One day about 16 years ago, Clay Hutchison got a call from his sister-in-law, who was helping the family of her former roommate sell a collection of Americana. On a whim, he asked if the collection included a carousel. It did.
The father of the old roommate was Bob Lemons, a folk art collector who purchased the carousel from the sheep farmer in the 1970s but left it in the pasture. He had stripped the paint from the horses and repainted two of them, but was never able to refurbish the entire 36-horse collection.
The Hutchisons struck a deal with Lemons and bought the carousel, removing it from the sheep pasture and sending it to New York for storage. There it sat for another 16 years.
The couple believe now is the perfect time to begin restoring the vintage piece for eventual display and use. “We decided it’s time to bring the ponies to Sandpoint,” Reno Hutchison said.
“The city beach of Sandpoint would be perfect,” Clay Hutchison said. “The city is starting a master plan for the city beach. We are sort of on the idea list.”
No one knows how long a restoration will take or how much it will cost. Hutchison said each horse will be photographed and examined. Many seem to be in good condition and some still have their leather reins and embedded jewels, but others have broken legs, cracks and other damage. All of the mechanical pieces are there as well.
“It certainly seems to be complete,” he said of the carousel. “We might be missing the brass poles, other decorative items.”
Bette Largent, curator of Spokane’s Riverfront Park Looff Carrousel, is excited about the find. She and others have done research on early carousels but had no idea one was sitting intact in a sheep pasture all those years.
“We sort of knew this one was out there,” she said. “We’d lost track of it.”
Largent said she believes Sandpoint is the perfect spot for the carousel. “It’s an ideal place,” she said. “I’ve seen it transform communities.”
Woodworker Dan Mimmack was in the crowd looking at the horses as they were removed from the trailers. He ran his hands over the detailed carvings, excitedly examining each horse and talking about its features.
Mimmack said he hopes the community retains the enthusiasm for the project shown Saturday. He said he’s offered to restore a horse for free.
“This is an enormous undertaking,” he said as he surveyed the room. “This is an authentic restoration.”
His comments were echoed by Clay Hutchison, who urged people to sign up to help with the restoration effort.
“For this to work, it takes the community, all of you, to adopt this carousel,” he said.