PITTSFIELD — The golden age of carousels may have peaked a century ago, but don’t tell the people of this Berkshire County town. They came out on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late June to celebrate the opening of the third season of their very own Berkshire Carousel.
The carousel was set in motion by Dr. Jim Shulman and his wife, Jackie. Jim Shulman has fond memories of growing up in Pittsfield, and wanted to give back to his community. The carousel also represents the sweat equity of about 400 volunteers, most of whom had never contemplated carving a carousel horse until Maria Caccaviello posted a small ad in the local newspaper. The response to her call for volunteers was overwhelming, the carousel’s executive director recalled as she watched small children climb onto their favorite horses. There was just one problem: “Nobody knew how to carve.’’
At first, one master carver worked with about 15 volunteers, teaching the skills and the steps for turning planks of wood into blocks and turning blocks into carvings. The learning spread through the “see one, do one, teach one’’ protocol imbued by TV medical dramas. The first trainees passed on their new skills and, over time, carving went viral among the carousel volunteers.
The 40 figures reflect the major styles of master carousel carvers during the 1880-1930 period, when the art was at its apogee. They are painstaking labors of love, with several people contributing to the finished works of art. Each horse required about 750 hours of carving — the equivalent of 20 full work weeks — and another 750 hours of sanding. Even when the woodworking was done, another 500 hours of careful painting and decoration remained. Making carousel art is not for the impatient. Carving began in August 2008, and the finished carousel debuted on July 1, 2016.
Local individuals, families, and businesses sponsored the carousel figures. Some horses marked births or anniversaries. Many honored a deceased loved one. Sponsors could select the style of the figure and the color scheme. They could also add personal details. Beloved pets ride behind the saddles of some horses. Another horse brandishes a spray of a loved one’s favorite flowers on the saddle blanket. One horse is emblazoned with a Red Sox baseball. Angels and butterflies figure in yet others. The horse called Lady Jane, for example, was sponsored by the late state Senator Jack Fitzpatrick in honor of his wife, Jane. A carved red lion and shield on the saddle blanket reflect one of the businesses long operated by the couple, the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.
“When people are remembered in a happy way,’’ said Caccaviello, “they go on forever.’’ And there’s no doubt that the carousel is a happy place.
In addition to the jumping figures, the carousel has some unusual features. Teens seem to pack into the spinning tub chariot, for example, while little kids daunted by mounting a tall steed are fond of the rocking chariot. One stationary chariot is also constructed to be handicap accessible.
Several painted ponies are modeled on real-life horses. The highly realistic horses of Philadelphia carver Daniel Carl Muller provided the template for the horse named Brewster. Sponsor Tjasa Sprague of Undermountain Farm in Lenox had the steed painted to look like the farm’s then 37-year-old saddle horse Brewster. Over three decades, the horse had patiently accommodated hundreds of youngsters learning to ride.
Gary Gnat was one of the carvers, and became one of the state-certified amusement ride mechanics required to keep the carousel operating. “What a crazy project, to put it all together,’’ he said of the multiyear construction process. “But they all turned out so nice.’’ Gnat’s favorite horse is Apple Harvest. Modeled on a C.W. Parker “stargazer’’ (a horse with a raised head), Apple Harvest bears a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables on its flanks and prances around munching on an apple. The decorations represent Berkshire County agriculture.
There’s no mistaking where this carousel belongs. The volunteers emblazoned the decorative rounding boards above the horses with Berkshires scenes from Bash Bish Falls in Mt. Washington to Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield. Figures on the interior column record more personal, even intimate stories. It is as if the painters were coding the loves and losses of the broader Berkshires community onto the decorative surfaces. In the final analysis, the carousel is a grand collaborative artistic expression.
The children taking a spin — free on opening day thanks to Lee Bank — seemed largely oblivious to the carousel history. They simply embraced the facility as fun. The new icon of innocent summer days has already achieved a spot in the Berkshires psyche.
Small fry aren’t the only ones who have been enchanted. There have already been four marriages on the carousel. A marriage tradition has even developed. The bride sits astride Richmond Pinky, a bejeweled and gold-leafed white steed with flowers carved into the saddle’s cantle and on the bridle. The groom sits on the adjacent figure of Missie, modeled on local author Kevin O’Hara’s companion on his walk around the coastline of Ireland. Missie, by the way, is the carousel’s only donkey.
If you go . . .
50 Center St., Pittsfield
Open Saturdays noon-5 p.m. through Sept. 15
One ride $2, six rides $10