Eric Long (left) and Charlie Thomas have focused their volunteer hours removing grease and grime for the frame, working parts and decorative elements of the carousel. (Photo by David Grace)
When Eric Long decided to volunteer his time to the Kingsport Carousel Project, he figured help might be needed carving some of the 32 wooden riding animals and two chariots. But Reggie Martin, one of the leaders of the all-volunteer project, had other plans for him.
Long found himself in a city-owned downtown warehouse with the job of cleaning 50-plus years of grease and grime from the carousel frame, a vintage 1956 three-row Allan Herschell frame that was a gift to the Kingsport Carousel Project from the Beardsley Zoo of Bridgeport, Conn.
Not long after Long’s volunteer service began 18 months ago, another volunteer, Charlie Thomas, arrived to help. Since then, the two have spent part of each Monday restoring the frame, the rounding boards, the light boards, the decorative panels, the center pole and steel tubing sweeps.
“I saw in the paper they were looking for volunteers. I thought he might need someone carving,” Long said. “This is where we ended up. It’s been fine. We’ve enjoyed it.”
In January 2011, two project volunteers made the trip to Bridgeport to look at the carousel frame, which the Beardsley Zoo had been trying to sell for years. Zoo officials were asking $25,000, but when they heard about the Kingsport Carousel Project, they agreed to donate the frame. The frame was moved from Connecticut to downtown Kingsport.
Thomas, who is retired, showed up at an arts and crafts fair at the Kingsport Civic Auditorium to learn more about the Carousel Project.
“Reggie said he needed someone to work on the rounding boards and light boards,” Thomas said.
So Thomas headed downtown and began working with Long to degrease, pressure wash, sand, prime and paint the 12 rounding boards (decorative boards which are painted and which hide the mechanical workings of the carousel) and the 12 light boards (also a decorative element that provides space for lights and hides the mechanical workings). These 24 fiberglass boards, Martin said, had been stored in an outdoor storage building in Connecticut for six years, and were molded, greasy and, in some instances, cracked. Rounding boards are curved to give the carousel its round appearance.
Before Long and Thomas could begin working on the boards, they had to build frames to support them and make it easier to move those parts around the warehouse.
A final green coat of paint has been put on the rounding boards, and those boards are now ready for local artists to paint scenes unique to Kingsport — Exchange Place, Church Circle, the Santa Train, Allandale and the train station, for example. There will be 24 scenes of local interest — two side-by-side on each rounding board. Martin said a paint-in is planned for the Kingsport Farmer’s Market — the downtown area that the carousel and its 625 lights will eventually call home — in January or February.
Once the carousel’s frame is primed and painted, Long and Thomas will start cleaning the 12 mirrors that will eventually be installed on the decorative panels. These 12 panels will be located on the carousel’s upper inside surrounding the center pole and motor. Each panel will have two bird paintings, and each bird will be common to Kingsport.
That frame, Martin said, was first installed in 1956. Its history is a bit murky, but it’s possible that the carousel ran for a few years inside a mall in Springfield, Mass., before being moved to the Beardsley Zoo.
The carousel’s center pole, the stationary central column which supports the entire structure, also came to Kingsport with five decades worth of grease.
“We rented a Steam Genie to blast as much grease off,” Long said. “The rest of it was hand-cleaning, degreasing all of it.”
There’s still work to do on the center pole as well as on the transmission. The Carousel Project will replace the carousel’s motor as well as the 30 horse rods, which support the animals.
Long and Thomas have primed the 12 sweeps (beams that come outward from the center pole above the animals) but those tubes still need to be painted, something that can’t be done during cold temperatures. The 24 cross sweeps, which fit between the larger sweeps and hold them apart, also need to be cleaned, sanded and repainted.
Long and Thomas came from different backgrounds but have a common goal — to see the carousel operating.
Thomas, who has a master’s degree in resource development and geology, is retired. He has worked for the Bays Mountain Park Commission, Holston Defense, Aladdin Plastics, in the construction business, in the mining industry, and as owner of Brandon’s International Shop, a furniture store. Long, a former contractor, also worked for Holston Defense. He has a degree in machine tool technology from Northeast State Community College and has owned a mowing and maintenance business for 20 years. If the weather stays mild, Long said, the two should complete their work in three months. “We want to see this thing going round and round,” he said.
More than 200 volunteers have worked on the project, which is an effort of Engage Kingsport Inc. in cooperation with the Kingsport Office of Cultural Arts. The volunteers have carved and painted animals, refurbished the carousel machinery and painted historical scenes for the rounding boards. In addition to the 32 animals on the carousel platform, all hand-carved from Bass wood, there are two chariots — the Santa Train, which is wheelchair accessible , and an 1800s-style stagecoach. Another 24 smaller animals will reside in the sweeps of the carousel, and a flying pig will sit atop the ticket booth.
The carousel will be located near the city’s Farmers Market along Clinchfield Street inside a 70-foot octagonal structure. The property will also feature a small park.
For more information about the Kingsport Carousel Project, call the Kingsport Office of Cultural Arts at 392-8414 or visit engagekingsport.com.