Getting Straight About the Merry-Go-Round

Hoyt Griffith and his wife Gail collect carousel animals from merry-go-rounds  Photo by Matt Rose

Hoyt Griffith and his wife Gail collect carousel animals from merry-go-rounds Photo by Matt Rose

Way before arcade kicks came in the form of virtual video shoot-’em-ups, entertainment existed in the real world, in the parks and fairgrounds of America. Leading these particular promenades were sparkling, dizzying carousels full of dancing, dashing horses.

Hoyt Griffith, a motion picture videotape film editor who retired to Mills River, is an expert on these daring figures. A collector whose house stables a herd of wooden horses that he and wife Gail have found around the country, Hoyt will tell all he knows on August 22 at the Blue Ridge Center for Lifelong Learning.

Each of the Griffiths’ horses has a name and a distinctive history, many having been wrought at one of the four great carousel carving centers that existed in the United States around the turn of the 20th century.

The first carousel horses created had three or four feet on the floor. Called “standers,” they were fine until Europe and the United States entered the Industrial Age, at which time people wanted a little more action. So carvers created “prancers” — horses rearing on their hind legs or frozen in mid-gallop. As time and energy speeded up, carousel makers responded by making “jumpers” that rose and fell on the poles that supported them.

Each carved horse has a “show” or “romance” side that faces outward to the audience around the carousel, Hoyt explains. Craftsmen typically devoted most of their talents to this side, creating wild manes and lolling tongues, blazing ribbons and fanciful jeweled bridles.

Second-generation carvers became even more adventurous in their designs, creating horses outfitted like the stout steeds that carried knights into battle during medieval times. It was during those times that carousels were created, to help soldiers sharpen their battle skills.

At the height of their popularity, there were more than 1,000 wooden carousels in the United States, Hoyt says. The Great Depression stopped the fun, however, and today there are about 100, including one in Shelby, N.C.

But the lights and sounds and heaving horses never stopped spinning in Hoyt’s mind. His passion for carousels attests to that.

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