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Orrington museum prepares to take visitors for a spin on vintage carousel

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The Armitage-Herschell Carousel at Willowbrook Museum Village. The Armitage-Herschell Carousel at Willowbrook Museum Village. (Photo courtesy of Curran Village via Facebook)

ORRINGTON - Hold your horses, thrill-seekers: a carousel is coming to town.

The 1894 Armitage-Herschell carousel - or, as it was known in its heyday, “steam riding gallery” - is being installed at 19th Century Curran Village in Orrington, a living-history museum on the shores of Fields Pond. It is among the many artifacts donated to Curran by Willowbrook Museum Village in Newfield, which closed in 2016. 

 Willowbrook was well-known in Southern Maine as a family destination. Its extensive collection, which educated visitors about the lives of rural Mainers at the turn of the twentieth century, was accessible to young and old. 

But the museum’s greatest temptation was the carousel. 

Although paying visitors were able to ride, classes of schoolchildren on field trips had to stand and salivate as the horses flew by - that is, until Willowbrook’s final years, when field trip groups were at last allowed to take a spin. 

For Dr. Robert Schmick, former Director at Willowbrook and now Director at Curran Homestead, the carousel will bring new life to the Orrington museum. 

“Most of my museum career has been punctuated by this place,” says Schmick, who discovered Curran as a tourist many years ago. At that time, Curran Homestead was a small volunteer-run operation, working to preserve the farm that was donated by Catherine Curran in 1991. Outside of seasonal events, the museum was often shuttered; funding was a struggle. 

Schmick joined the Curran team upon the closure of Willowbrook. With the expansion of Curran’s collection, he hopes, the museum will be able to offer hands-on history experiences to a wider audience. From knife-making classes in the blacksmith’s shop to a retail store filled with all sorts of ephemera to a history camp for local youth, Curran will have something for everyone.

And, yes, you’ll be able to ride the carousel.

Schmick showed me into the carousel gallery for a closer look at the ride. It hadn’t been assembled yet and was scattered in pieces around the gallery; even so, it was easy to tell that this wasn’t your typical fairground specimen. 

The horses are hand-painted with real horsehair tails (“donated by a slaughterhouse in the eighties,” Schmick says with a shrug). Unlike other carousels, where the horses go up and down on poles, these horses mount on a circular platform and bounce forward and back, as if galloping. There are chariots for timid riders and freestanding chairs for the more daring. There are gorgeous frescoes. There’s even an organ-grinder automaton; when the ride’s in operation, he “plays” old-timey waltzes.

Ivory Fenderson of Saco purchased the carousel back in 1894. Fenderson toured around Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, traveling by train and assembling the carousel anew at each location. It was meant as a thrill ride for adults; there are photos of men in tall hats astride the horses, the ladies sitting sidesaddle with little smiles of propriety. It’s all very Victorian, but don’t be fooled - those horses can go. Schmick tells me that Willowbrook operated the carousel at its slowest setting. “I would be afraid to run it any faster,” he says with a grin. 

When the Curran team moved the carousel to Orrington, it was the first time it had been disassembled since 1922, the year it was stored in a haymow in Saco. As one might suppose, a haymow isn’t the ideal place to store a carousel. Upon acquiring the ride in the late eighties, Willowbrook carried out a top-to-tail restoration, even dressing the organ-grinder in a new outfit. The carousel is now brightly colored and glorious - the spectacle that Fenderson’s customers once paid for.

The original steam engine has been modified to house a compressed-air unit, which now powers the ride. As we walk the gallery floor, Schmick points out various cogs and gears. “It’s basically like a railroad, because it has cast iron wheels. They run on this track in the round, and a cable pulls the whole thing.” He gestures broadly to the mess and laughs. “We’re not following an instruction manual.” Nevertheless, with a little ingenuity, Schmick and his team plan to finish assembling the ride sometime in November. 

The carousel’s grand opening will be on the last weekend in January at Curran’s 2022 Ice Harvest event. Festivities will include homestyle cooking, roaring wood fires, an opportunity for visitors to harvest ice on a bobsled and, of course, carousel rides. If wooden horses aren’t enough for you, teams of real Belgian draft horses will be on-site, offering sleigh rides. The event will be free and open to all ages. 

So stirrup some friends this January and hoof it to Curran Village’s new carousel. You’ll enjoy the ride, no equestrian about it - even if it’s snowy and colt. 

(For news and updates, follow 19th Century Curran Village on Facebook.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 November 2021 08:22


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