One of the last remaining rides from Forest Park’s legendary Amusement Park — open from 1908 to 1922 — is undergoing a $1 million restoration and is set to debut at the Memphis Children’s Museum in November.
The restoration is the latest turn in the decades-long history of the carousel, which was sent back to its manufacturer for repairs, Philadelphia-based G.A. Dentzel Company, after a fire at the park in 1922. The carousel, one of the most popular rides at the Amusement Park, has not been in town for many years but it is a historic Forest Park artifact.
“One of the things we were missing here was being able to teach about historic preservation and just the story about this national treasure. It’s really unique,” Art Davis, chief operating officer at the Memphis museum said in an Aug. 25 phone call. “We are always looking for ways to set ourselves apart.
The Memphis Park Commission bought the carousel in 1923 and installed it as a ride at the city’s fairgrounds. The ride eventually made its way to Libertyland, a Memphis amusement park, in 1976. Libertyland closed in 2005 and the carousel was packed away in storage.
Then in 2014, the Memphis Children’s Museum leased the carousel from the city of Memphis. In June 2015, it was shipped off to Ohio for restoration. Carousels & Carvings in Marion, Ohio is handling the project. Contributors include FedEx and Plough Foundation, Davis said, but also individuals.
He said the carousel will return to Memphis in October.
The museum is in the midst of a capital campaign to fundraise for the restoration and the new $5 million, 20,000-square-foot facility adjacent to the existing museum that will house the carousel. There will be an acknowledgement of the carousel’s long history in the new facility, Davis added.
“We wanted to bring back childhood memories of adults but also create childhood memories for today’s kids,” Davis said.
Interest from Memphis residents, some of whom remember riding the carousel as children, has been significant.
“Yesterday, I took four calls. That was just in one day,” Davis said. “People in Memphis are very aware of the iconic nature of it.”
Following the restoration, he added, the Memphis Children’s Museum will be one of only three nationally accredited children’s museums in the country with an operational carousel.
There are, according to the museum’s website, only a few dozen carousels produced by Dentzel in existence today.
“As you can imagine, bringing this historic artifact back to its original condition is a monumental task,” Richard C. Hackett, chief executive officer, wrote in the museum’s 2016 annual report.
Forest Park Amusement Park, a 22-acre site, sat on what is now the Eisenhower Expressway between Desplaines and 1st Avenue.
In an October 1989 Forest Park Review article, then 83-year-old Edna Blank recalled going to the park as a kid.
“I still have vivid memories of how dazzling it all was,” she said. “All the roller-coasters and the huge entrance towers were all outlined in electric bulbs. What a sight! Of course, this was about 1912 when electricity was something new and special.”
Rides aside, there was also a beer garden and a picnic grove.
The park debuted, however, under some controversy, according to the Forest Park Historical Society.
Some residents were concerned about its proximity to Waldheim Cemetery.
Fifty-year-old Ken Knack was born and raised on the south side of town and has been following the restoration efforts.
“They’ve really done an amazing job,” Knack said. “They’ve meticulously tried to replicate the exact color scheme.
Knack, a self-described history enthusiast and author of a book on Forest Park, wrote about the restoration efforts on Facebook on Aug. 22.
There is also a fundraising opportunity. For $4,500, anyone can “adopt” a horse on the carousel.
There are 15 horses available, Memphis Children’s Museum spokesperson Ramona Johnson confirmed in an Aug. 25 email. The sponsor’s name and information will be on the horse, she confirmed.
Knack’s Facebook post quickly got dozens of likes and a few comments.
Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone wrote, “I’m in if a fund is started, let’s go.”
Local business owner Marty Sorice Sr. wrote, “If a fund is started I will donate!”
“That’d be appropriate if one [horse] could have the name Forest Park, considering this is its original home,” Knack said. “It’s just really cool that a piece of history still survives from that era.”
Knack said he had no plans to start fundraising but hoped some other Forest Parker would take charge.
“I don’t know anything about fundraising,” Knack said. “I’m hoping someone who knows fundraising will take that over and do it.”