THE McGOLDRICK sisters of Manassas leaned along the metal fence of the Lake Accotink Park carousel, contemplating its corral of horses. Payton, 5, was considering a white horse with a black mane, while her older sister, Cori, 6, wanted to ride "the one that looks like a bunny." Sabrina, the youngest at 2, was supposed to sit in the carousel's still carriage with her mom. "It's safer," said Cori, with quiet seriousness.
A giant white tent held aloft by four posts as tall as ship masts towers over the park ride. While it protects young equestrians like the McGoldrick girls from the summer sun, the tent, made of PVC-coated polyester, is really there to preserve the carousel. Built in the late 1930s by the Allan Herschell Co. of North Tonawanda, N.Y., the antique ride is an example of the "country fair," or "carnival," carousels that were the manufacturer's specialty.
"Country fair carousels were smaller, portable, so they could travel, and the animals tend to be [just] horses" explained David Shayt, associate curator of the industry and transportation division of the National Museum of American History.
Many Washingtonians are familiar with the grand menagerie carousel housed in its own pavilion at Glen Echo Park. However, the metro area is dotted with these simpler, yet no less beloved, carnival carousels in locations such as the Mall, Lake Accotink Park and the Mall in Columbia.
The carousel at Accotink looks like a small circus tent with bright red beams supporting an awning of red, blue and yellow pie slices. The Fairfax County Park Authority purchased the carousel, once part of a traveling carnival, from Fairhill Farm Antiques in 1978, when it was then installed at the park. The Herschell Co. relied on the skills of immigrant German woodcarvers to develop horse designs that could withstand the stress of ongoing travel and repeated carousel setups and breakdowns. Hence Accotink's wood and aluminum horses seemingly gallop three abreast in contained poses, with the forelegs bent inward and the hind legs stretched out slightly in back. Some are posed with heads up and teeth bared, as if running at breakneck speed; others are posed head down, as if in a thoughtful trot. Details are pared down to an expressive minimum; dollop-shaped tails are close to the body, while pointed ears practically merge into low-relief carved manes.
"Our carousel is one of the oldest in the area," Accotink park ranger Tawny Hammond said with justifiable pride. "We restore it annually -- take it apart after Halloween and sand and paint the horses." In keeping with their simple design, the horses are painted in solid blocks of basic colors such as brown, white and black. Saddles and horse blankets are delineated in wide passages of yellow, blue and green. The occasional chip on a flank or foreleg reveals a horse's former color, a testament to its long years of service.
One of the most widely recognized carousels in the area is on the Mall near the Smithsonian Castle and is the brainchild of the institution's eighth secretary, S. Dillon Ripley. "He wanted to enliven the Mall a bit and show that we're not just for scholars and researchers, but children and families as well," Shayt said. "Originally the Gwen Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore owned [it]; when the park shut down, the carousel came to the Mall in '68." Though readily associated with the Smithsonian, the carousel is owned and operated by independent contractors Stan and Donna Hunter.
The Mall's carousel was made by the Herschell Co. in the 1940s; a number of the original wooden horses remain and are easy to identify as they have the same contained pose as those at Accotink. Some are painted to resemble specific types of horses, such as black and tan palominos or, my favorite, the handsome dappled gray.
The horses on the outermost rings suffered the greatest wear and tear, and throughout the years they have been replaced by horses made of fiberglass. While based on Herschell's designs, they are bigger and painted in flashier colors, some to the point that they are turned into other animals.
"I rode the zebra," said Krishna Ewell, 5, referring to a horse figure transformed by white and black stripes of paint. "I enjoyed it -- it was kind of bumpy, though." Krishna was one of 23 students from the Capitol Hill Cooperative Playschool visiting the Mall recently. "We spent the morning at the mammals exhibit," said instructor Frances Slaughter. "Whenever we go to the museums, as a treat we ride the carousel before we leave -- they love it!"
In addition to zebras, the carousel sports a vibrant blue dragon, complete with a curling forked tail and a pair of sharp wings. "The dragon was actually a gift from a [manufacturer] making a bid for a traveling carousel that the Smithsonian commissioned in 1996," Shayt explained. "The kids run for it -- and it's in keeping with the eclectic nature of the carousel."
The dragon was the ride of choice for District resident Ahmad Dove, 3. "It's a dolphin!" he exclaimed triumphantly. Well, close enough. Before his ride, Ahmad went to the National Air and Space Museum with his mother -- a happy example of Ripley's intentions.
During Washington's humid summers, carousel enthusiasts may want to venture to the Mall in Columbia, which houses a reproduction of an early-20th-century German amusement ride produced by the Bertazzon Co. of Treviso, Italy. The carousel is co-owned by Bob Messmer of Baltimore and Bill Christ of Marco Island, Fla. In a modern-day global variation of the traveling carousel, the Bertazzon reproduction "came over from Italy in a container the size of a tractor-trailer -- it took eight men two nights to put it up," Messmer said. It has remained in the Columbia mall since 2002.
Measuring only 24 feet in diameter, the carousel has 21 horses. The animals' smaller proportions and snug accommodations suggest that the carousel was intended only for young riders. The all-white horses are based on a design by 19th-century German artisan Lengle of Bruchsal and lack animation, with stiffly outstretched legs and upright heads. However, the carousel evidences a certain Italian flair with hand-painted panels of romantic Venetian scenes such as St. Mark's Square, the Bridge of Sighs and the Grand Canal.
One decidedly unromantic feature is the carousel's teacup -- "it's very popular," said the carousel's operator, Joyce Fletcher. "Children will stand in line for it." The teacup consists of a round bench with a wheel in the center; while the carousel rotates on its counterclockwise course, riders pull on the wheel, causing the seat to spin clockwise in opposition.
"It's pretty dizzy," said LaFawne Jackson, 7, of Baltimore, describing her ride. Nicholas Ford, 4, of Lititz, Pa., also tried the teacup with his uncle Chad Sisk of Columbia; his preference, however, was for the traditional: "the horse that goes up and down."
These carousels are not pristine examples of the carnival style, what with their layers of paint, replaced figures or interpretive, hodgepodge reproductions. Yet these amusement rides are fulfilling their intended use, delighting small children -- and their families -- with rides and memories.