The centuries old craft of wood carousel carving lives on in Ohio. A family owned company is keeping alive the timeless craftsmanship of hand carved horses and other merry-go-round pieces.
When you ride on a merry-go-round, you probably think you are sitting on a big block of wood carved in the shape of a horse. You’re not.
“Each figure is actually built of two inch pieces of bass wood and they’re put together kind of like a puzzle,” says Kate Blakley, director of marketing and operations for Carousel Works. The Mansfield company is the world’s largest manufacturer of wooden carousels.
She said making the figures out of small pieces of wood is better than carving a large block.
“A lot of people think the pieces are solid and they’re actually anywhere from 30-70 pieces of wood in each figure,” Blakely said as she gave a tour of the fabrication shop. “A straight block of wood would crack. Wood moves so if it was that big and solid it would just crack.”
Blakley knows about wood. She is, after all, the daughter of a wood carver. Her father is Art Ritchie, one of Carousel Works two founder-owners. Dan Jones is the other. The business began thirty years ago this month.
“I was carving professionally and I was doing whatever anybody wanted to pay me to put a chisel into and I met a man who came in who had a picture of a carousel rabbit,” recalled Ritchie. “At the time the rabbit was selling for probably $7,000 or $8,000, and he said ‘how much to make one of these?’. And I looked at it and I said, ‘$1,800.’ He couldn’t put his hand into his pocket fast enough to give me the deposit. Something was there!”
Ritchie started researching the carousel market. At the time customers had two choices: spend up to a million dollars buying and restoring an old wooden carousel. Or buy a fibreglass carousel at around a quarter of that price, but fibreglass cannot be crafted and detailed in the same way that wood can.
“He just saw there’s a huge space in between to revive this wooden carousel business. There hadn’t been a wooden carousel built since the Depression,” said Kate Blakley.
From the start, Carousel Works aimed to build new wooden carousels. However, in the beginning, Ritchie and Jones had to focus on restorations whilst they waited for someone to have sufficient faith to order one made from scratch.
That first commission finally came in 1996 and was for a zoo in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Twenty years later, they’ve just begun work on their 60th new carousel. And there’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ buyer.
“We have a lot of different clients,” notes Blakley. “We do a lot of carousels for zoos which are looking for endangered species carousels. We’ve done quite a few in city parks, malls.”
Some clients ask for off-the-wall items.
“For the Bronx Zoo we did an entire insect carousel, so it’s all grasshoppers and ladybugs, and as a joke in a meeting, one of the owners suggested for the chariot, we should do like a dung beetle, like they could sit in the ball of dung. They thought that was great, they loved it, so we literally made a ball of dung that’s pushed by a dung beetle for the chariot [and we’ve done about five more of those since then,” Blakely recalls laughing.
Because Carousel Works custom builds its products, they are tailored to fit their environments in unique ways. Kate showed off a big box of chocolates being painted. It’s destined for a carousel already in place in Dayton which honors things made in that city.
“And so we’ve done like a huge cash register and Iams dog food is from Dayton so we have a huge Iams dog food bag with a little puppy sticking out of it that you ride. And they’re just adding a candy box for a chocolatier that’s down there.”
Carousel Works has changed with technology. It uses 3D computer modelling. But the business hasn’t gone all high-tech by any manner of means.
“Essentially we build carousels the way you have seen them built 100 years ago”, said Tim Gorhka a Carousel Works wood carver. “We do include some computer design but for myself personally, I’m a hand carver. I work with gouges and chisels all day and that’s as primitive of wood working as you can get basically.”
Carousels made here in Mansfield can be found all over the world. And although it may not be a run of the mill business, neither Dan Jones nor Art Ritchie had any doubts that Carousel Works would be a success when they founded the company 30 years ago.
“There’s very few places you can go, grandpa can take the kids, and families can go, and you can go on a date. So far the only people we’ve found that don’t like carousels are boys between 15 and 17”, said Ritchie.”
And even those teenage-boys rediscover carousels.
“What happens is they meet girls and then all of a sudden: ‘oh yeah, we’ll go ride the merry-go-round.’”
"Folk Ohio" will look at the state's traditional culture. It is produced for WOSU in partnership with the Center for Folklore Studies at OSU and is presented by Rachel Hopkin.
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