Merry-go-works of art


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 22nd. 

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The sound of children on a carousel…you probably haven’t heard that in a while.

Most amusement rides around the country remain shut down. But WORLD Radio intern Vivian Jones takes us to meet a Tennessee man who makes those memorable characters found on the merry-go-round.

AMBI FROM OUTSIDE THE SHOP

CORRESPONDENT, VIVIAN JONES: Soddy Daisy is a small town nestled at the foot of Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Down the street from a car repair shop, there’s an unassuming tan building with a small sign that reads: “Horsin’ Around.” If you’re not looking for it, you might miss it. 

From all over the country—and around the world—people travel here to learn the historic craft of carving carousel animals. 

RIDGE: My name is Larry Ridge, been carving since I was 14… I am the owner here at Horsin’ Around Carving School, but sometimes I refer to myself as the keeper because we have…people and animals that need someone to take care of them…

Horsin’ Around is the only full-time carousel carving school in the United States. Since its founding, more than 800 students have studied carving at the school.

RIDGE: In the United States, we don’t have a formal apprentice program like they do in Europe. In Europe… you go to the school, they teach you how to use this tool, this technique to accomplish that carving… In the United States, we pretty much figured out on our own. It’s a self taught type of thing. 

Inside, the shop is a woodworker’s dream. About a dozen workbenches are set up in two rows. A yellow sign hanging from the ceiling says “old timer crossing.” Taped to one wall, life-size carousel horse diagrams map how pieces of wood will be assembled. 

Ridge says many of the patterns carvers use today have historic roots. One classic pattern for a lion was originally used in European synagogues. 

RIDGE: When some of the Russian Jews… immigrated to America to get away from persecution…they’d been carving in synagogues or churches. And then all of a sudden, it’s like, I need a carver. Can you carve me a lion? Sure. I got a lion pattern… And now we use it as a carousel animal. But their history had it back in Europe is the lion of Judah. 

Tools cover the workbenches, along with bits of carousel animal anatomy in various stages of completion.

There’s a bright pink pig, one of her feet broken off, visiting the shop for repairs. 

And the unfinished head and neck of a giraffe wearing a pair of sunglasses. 

RIDGE: I always like to say that the history of America is written on the side of the carousel horse… 

The newest carousel animals are rough wood blocks glued together, just beginning to take shape. 

The oldest are faded and broken down, tired from carrying children on their merry way for nearly 100 years. 

RIDGE: That right here is actually an antique that we’re restoring. It’s from the 1900s…they were beautiful animals, they did a great job on them. That’s what we all try to achieve. 

AMBI: TOOLS CLINKING, CARVING 

Carving a carousel horse is a vast undertaking. One horse can take hundreds of hours to complete. The amount of materials depends on the size of the horse.

RIDGE: In most cases, you’re talking about 100 board feet of basswood, which is from the linden tree. It’s the classical carving wood… It’s a medium density hardwood… We get ours from of the north in Pennsylvania, Michigan…even some from Canada…

The techniques and tools Ridge uses while teaching his students are exactly the same as his predecessors used more than a century ago. 

JONES: What are these tools here?
RIDGE: These are all the carving chisels, you’ll notice each one of them has a specific profile… This one is a number nine, they call it because it’s a half circle… I can take one of these chisels… and I can find a cut on any of these animals that matches that. 

Carousel animals aren’t carved from one single piece. They’re usually more than a hundred pieces glued together. They’re carved in stages. First, Ridge and his students assemble the large body and saddle, where the rider will sit. Then they move on to the neck, face, legs, and hooves. 

RIDGE: We’ll keep it apart as long as we can. It’s easier to do it you know in small quantity and then… we’ll go ahead and glue them all together and then carve the thing as a unit at that point before we sand it and prime it. 

The animals are carved entirely from wood, except for their eyes. Those are glass, and they’re added toward the end of the creation. 

RIDGE: You can carve on an animal for weeks and weeks and weeks. And it’s got a personality… but then as soon as you put the eyes in there… you’ll be carving along you’ll look up that eyes got you kind of sizing you up and so you have to be a little bit more attentive at that point.

Once a horse is fully assembled and carved, it’s sanded, painted and finished. It has to be sturdy. 

RIDGE: So you have to remember when you get hundreds of kids climbing all over, it’s got to be strong. It’s got to be fixable. It’s got to be durable.

When the carousel animal is complete, it’s a work of art. And it’s also quite valuable. Ridge says antique carousel horses can sell for anywhere between $1,000 dollars and $50,000 dollars.  

To many carvers learning at the Horsin’ Around school, their new masterpiece is priceless. Ridge speaks of one 88 year old student.

RIDGE: She’s done five… the last two that she made, we converted to rocking horses, and she gave them to her nieces who had their first child… So now they’ve got an heirloom… and the kid could get all kinds of mileage out of it…

Larry Ridge is passing down carousel art through his own family, but in a different way. He’s working together with his son and grandson on a horse project funded by a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission. Their horse will be made from a historic pattern, and decorated with a Tennessee tristar symbol, festooned with irises, the state flower. 

Ridge says training new custodians for the historic techniques of carving is what the school is all about. 

AMBI – VOICE AND CARVING SOUNDS

RIDGE: So we do try to keep the faith if you will…trying to maintain what the guy did 100 years ago…We’re keeping a lot of things trying to keep them alive here: old processes, old techniques, even restoring old animals that would normally be thrown away or burnt or, you know, sent to the landfill…

AMBI – VOICE AND CARVING SOUNDS

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Vivian Jones in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee.


Larry Ridge (Photo by Vivian Jones)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Merry-go-works of art

  1. Thank you, Megan, for your fascinating report on Horsin’ Around! My family and I have visited a carousel refurbishing Outfit in Bristol, CT , and loved it! Your article brought happy memories to all of us. Thank you so much!

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