Merry-Go-Round Museum in Sandusky celebrates the ride, its artwork and its history

SANDUSKY, Ohio - The leg of an old wooden horse was in desperate need of repair.  Like a surgeon, Kurri Lewis was going over every inch of the horse that had gone many thousands of miles on a merry-go-round track. 

He is an integral part of the Merry-Go-Round Museum in Sandusky,, where the history, art and lore of the ride is chronicled and celebrated. 

"A lot of the horses go through restoration," Lewis said. "They get paint, get touch-ups and everything."

Aside from one of several woodcarvers at the museum, Lewis is also a curator. He works near an actual merry-go-round that takes up most of the room of the building that once served as the main post office in Sandusky.

The merry-go-round in the museum still works and turns hundreds of times a day as visitors pony up a few dollars for the tour, which includes a few turns on the ride itself. The museum opened in 1990 as a place to restore the horses and other parts of merry-go-rounds. The horses and other animals on the ride are made of wood.  Some are more than a hundred years old.

Some of the parts of the ride were destined for trash barrels, but the museum tries to save as many as possible.  At one time, the U.S. boasted 6,000 merry-go-rounds.  The number has dwindled to about 150.  Changing times and age caught up with herds across the nation. 

"They're gone," said Veronica Vandenbout, executive director of the Merry-Go-Round Museum.  "Some were burned, others were caught in storms; they were just neglected."

The mission of Vandenbout and the others who work at the Sandusky museum is to preserve the history of the rides. Throughout the museum are photographs of the workers who handcrafted the horses and other animals that drew the crowds in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, the history goes back farther than most people realize.

In medieval times, armor-clad knights sat astride wooden horses on a turning platform. As they were slung around, the knights, with lances or swords in their hands, practiced hitting dummies. It prepared them for war.

"They would have big rings on the outside and they would go in a circle and try to put their jousts through the rings," Lewis said. Eventually, that training mechanism for war evolved into an entertainment ride.

Early in the 20th century, the merry-go-round, sometimes called the carousel, was for grownups only. No children allowed. The ride was a faster-paced one. Many women riders would hold on to the men who accompanied them. It became a very romantic ride. In many ways, it still is romantic, especially to those who remember riding merry-go-rounds during their own childhoods when the rides were slowed for smaller children.

"This is beautiful," said Susan Huss-Lederman of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. She and her husband visited the museum and rode the ride.

"It's like a simpler age when people just relaxed and enjoyed life," said Steven Huss-Lederman.

They rode side-by-side as the merry-go-round museum filled the building.

"I think all this tells us a lot about our country and how it used to be," said Charlene Allen of Columbus. "It used to be slow, and fun, and family-oriented."

The museum is a part of Americana. Reggie Pratt of Sandusky knows the museum very well. She is a regular visitor. She owns one of the horses and loans it to the museum. The horse was given to her by an uncle who worked at an amusement park that was discarding parts of its merry-go-round.  He knew his niece loved the horse so in the mid-1960s, the uncle rescued it.

She had it repainted and repaired, then donated it to the museum, where it runs in the herd of other horses on the merry-go-round.

"They restored this horse for me," said Pratt, offering a wide grin.  "I wish you could have seen it beforehand."

Pratt's daughter stopped by the museum to pose for photographs with the horse her mother loaned to the museum.  It is obvious the horse will stay in the family.  Like so many of the other animals on the ride, it was rescued from a heap of scrap. The horse, built in 1910, "lives" to run again, helping detail the history of the merry-go-round.

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