America’s carousel conservator
They were carved and painted by European immigrant craftsmen who were proud to be in America. Patriotic images such as eagles, flags and banners were used extensively.
Will Morton has spent half his life using his form of exploratory craftsmanship to reveal the character and history of the original craftsman’s work and then meticulously restore it. His museum-quality restoration techniques influenced carousel restoration across the nation.
His original effort was the Kit Carson County Carousel in Burlington, Colorado, which he began restoring in 1978 and still visits for occasional maintenance work.
Originally manufactured by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in the early 1900s, PTC No. 6, like many carousels, stopped spinning in the early 1930s due to the Great Depression, and other factors. The organ never made a sound again until the mid-1970s.
During the Dust Bowl, government-provided feed grain was stored in the carousel pavilion. The rats loved it. The wooden animals never took a bite.
When funds from the American Bicentennial Commission became available, the county decided to make the restoration of the carousel its preservation project.
Will Morton had been an artist and sculptor in Denver and had worked with art conservator John Pogzeba who was chosen to restore the carousel’s 42 original paintings. Pogzeba asked Morton for help. Morton went on to finish the paintings and then was chosen to restore the 46 animals. It was the start of a new career.
I worked during the summers restoring each of the animals at the site in Burlington. I was uncovering the original paint, doing research on the type of paint and on the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and how they did things. I removed layer after layer of varnish and paint until I found the original paint. Then I recreated what was missing. I wanted to present the original paint on the animals to the public who came to ride the carousel. It was what you might call a museum approach to conservation of this artifact.
If there was a scratch I would paint just the scratch or a crack. It was tedious work but art conservation is tedious work. It was something we had to do because it was worth doing.
Was the carousel in bad shape?
It was covered with dust and dirt because it had only run one week a year during the Kit Carson County Fair since 1937. It was all one color, a dirty yellow-brown. You couldn’t distinguish one color from another because the old resin varnishes had darkened. So I was going down through these layers: the varnish, the repaint, the old varnish, taking away one layer at a time trying to awaken a sleeping beauty.
I spent a couple of summers in Burlington to do all the animals. I rode the Greyhound bus three hours out from Denver on Sunday night and came back Friday evening. We only had one car and my wife (Marlene) needed that to get the four kids and herself where they needed to go.
I would often take one of the kids along with me for the week. It was a time of discovery for them. Actually my son discovered a piece of evidence I had not seen. He was crawling around underneath the animals and found numbers carved under each one.
The numbers were created by the original designer, E. Joy Morris, specifying the row, section and machine number for the assembly of the carousel. Subsequent research showed the numbers did not reflect the animals’ placement on the Kit Carson County machine, and carousel sleuths have speculated that the buyer from Elitch Gardens, the carousel’s original owner, was unaware of the layout and selected animals from throughout the shop. Thus, the carousel became a mixture of animals intended for other carousels.
You mentioned a renewal of interest in carousels, and carousel art, was happening about this time.
Well I didn’t know much about it until some enthusiasts got wind of what I was doing. One by one someone would drop by to see what was happening and pretty soon people were coming from everywhere. I soon found out from them about a revival of interest in carousels that was sweeping the country.
The people who were interested in carousel restoration assumed I was an expert at this restoration and knew all about carousels when I didn’t. But I thought to myself: this is working out pretty well so it would probably be wise to become the expert these people were hoping to find out here.
So I read everything I could get my hands on. I also listened to these people who were dropping by because they knew more than I did about the history of carousels, so I learned from them.
So eventually I became an expert and I found myself doing something that no one else had done. They liked the conservation approach I was taking.
What was your next project?
I restored the animals at the Pueblo City Park Carousel starting in 1981. That took about a year. We tried to do the restoration at Pueblo so their staff could touch up the paint as needed. I used readily available paints and basic colors. That was a good theory but as time went on that didn’t turn out to work too well. As parks had to cut staff due to tougher economic times, they didn’t have anybody who knew how to do the work.
After Pueblo we took on the Topeka, KS, Carousel in the Park located in Gage Park.
This one had been with a traveling carnival for a long time. Lots of nails holding them together. Lots of new legs had to be carved. One horse had a head and neck that came from another carousel builder. That needed to be changed in order to make it right.
So I carved an all-new head for the animal and had to re-carve one of the sides. I took this opportunity to carve “The Kansas Horse”. It was the same horse that had been on the carousel but as I rebuilt it I made it unique. I added big sunflowers and sheafs of wheat to the decorations.
Another one I called “The Ribbon Horse”. I added ribbons on the horse and I poofed up the mane to make it larger with peek-a-boo holes through it. I wanted to make this one a lead horse. Most carousels have what people can identify as the lead animal. That becomes the beginning — an especially fancy horse, or it may be some spectacular animal like a big lion.
The other thing I did was create new paintings. The ones on it were Mickey Mouse cartoon panels. So I created paintings of Topeka historic themes from the turn of the century. I tried to paint them in the carousel style, kind of a neo-classical art style. Most carousel paintings were European romantic scenes.
In America, the painters who did these were mostly European-trained immigrants. They had found jobs in carousel shops and sign shops. They were carvers too. There is a myth that the carousels were all carved in Europe. They were not. They were carved in America. Some of the original carvers were very well trained in classical art. Some had been sculptors who worked on churches or public buildings.
There has always been a lot of discussion as to whether this is commercial art or folk art. I don’t know if anyone ever resolved it. I think everyone has pretty much accepted that it is folk art mostly because of the age of the paintings and animals.
What came next?
Sprinkled in with the major projects, I restored hundreds of individual animals for collectors and antique dealers. And then came the Prospect Park Carousel in Brooklyn NY. This one had about 60 animals. It was the largest one I ever did.
When I arrived I put out the call for artists to help with the project. They turned out to be theater scenery painters, costume designers, various other artists. One of them was an Italian fellow who worked in a plaster molding company and created architectural plaster. He was also a painter. I had to train them in the various techniques. It worked out really, really well. The Italian man stayed on with the Prospect Park Alliance to operate the carousel and maintain it.
Did you ever just get on a horse and ride the carousel alone?
Yes I’ve done that a lot, but not to just be alone. I did it mostly to check out the machinery and see how the gears and bearings were working. I wanted to feel what was going on and then maybe adjust something. But I did enjoy those moments. I guess there will always be carnivals won’t there? Time somehow repeats itself like a carousel ride.
In 1984 you took on the Colorado Springs Carousel at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
It had been a portable carousel. It had about 22 animals, which is typical for a portable machine. Trolley park machines have about 40 to 70 animals.
The basic machinery, the gears, rods and mechanisms were in bad shape. I always liked the machinery. This was my first venture into extensive repair of the entire carousel including the machinery. So I took it on. It really became quite a project because you have to take the whole carousel apart right down to the ground because the mechanism hangs from the main top bearing.
The top bearing was trash. The operators had run it and run it until the roller bearing ran out of grease. It was a mess.
Along the way did you find a favorite animal among all that you have worked on?
Everyone always asks me that question. That is like asking me which of my four children is my favorite child. But I do have a favorite carousel and that is the Kit Carson County Carousel. And, it is the favorite of all carousel people we know in the carousel world. USA Today called it the “Jewel of America’s Carousels.”
So now your ride has pretty much come to an end.
Joe Downey called me from Kit Carson County and asked if I had one more carousel left in me. Next thing I knew some horses showed up, so I guess my answer was yes. It is more of an effort for me now, but I’m going to do it. I love the work. The horses came from a carousel in Nebraska.
On The Carousel
I sat upon a painted horse,
And I went round and round
And up and down, and up and down,
To the hurdy-gurdy sound.
Beside me on a painted bear
There sat a painted clown,
And he kept going round and round,
And down, and up, and down.
‘Round and round, what fun it was
For the painted clown and me;
We both enjoyed our ups and downs,
But the clown rode all day FREE!
Donations supporting the ongoing upkeep of the Kit Carson County Carousel can be made by mail at: Kit Carson County Carousel Association Box 28 Stratton, CO 80836.
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