Fort Edmonton Park Carousel

Thursday, 15 February 2007
By John Chalmers


When Canada’s newest carousel began spinning for the first ride, it was the culmination of a dream come true for the volunteers in Edmonton who started planning the project seven years before it opened to the public on Canada Day, July 1, 2006.

The carousel is the newest major attraction at Fort Edmonton Park in Alberta’s capital city. Situated in its own pavilion in the new midway section at the Park, the carousel has historical beginnings.

It is modeled on one built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, founded in 1904, and is styled like the original PTC #40. Image

It was one of the amusements provided by the Johnny J. Jones Exposition, a ride and attraction company that first entertained Edmontonians at the Edmonton Exhibition in 1919. For over a decade, all through the 1920s, the Jones Midway arrived each summer.

Besides the 32 horses on the carousel at any time, another six horses are stabled for use as replacements if any need to be removed from the ride for repairs. All 38 horses and the two chariots were hand-carved from basswood and each one is a splendid original sculpture.

Horses on PTC carousels were typically ornate, dashing figures with complex and detailed trappings and paint. Most horses were blocked up by workers at Alberta Job Corps, a government re-training operation. The basswood was provided by the Fort Edmonton Foundation, and labor for blocking up was provided at no charge. Carving each horse for the Edmonton carousel took up to 500 hours, with sanding, filling, priming and painting adding up to another 250 hours per horse. But the results are worth it.

Among the horses are two received as gifts from locations in the United States. Carvers in Missoula, MT, and Salem, OR, have donated horses for the Edmonton project, which were then painted in Edmonton.

While some of Edmonton’s carvers had a little experience, most had never carved before and none of the volunteers had ever carved a horse. The same could be said for the painters. None ever had the opportunity to paint one. But for many, once was not enough, and several individuals carved more than one horse and painters often worked on two or three horses as well, often in teams of two or three.

My wife, Linda Chalmers, and her friend, Maryetta Harper, served as co-chairs of the carousel committee for the Fort Edmonton Foundation, the fund-raising operation responsible for building the carousel. Funds were obtained from government grants, donations and dinner auctions as well as through sponsorship of rounding boards, shields and panels. While Linda and Maryetta were involved in the planning and completion of the project, and while neither carved, they spent hundreds of hours painting horses and other components of the structure. No wonder Linda’s eyes filled with tears when she saw the carousel operate for the very first time at a special pre-opening night for volunteers – it was a dream come true. Regrettably, Maryetta’s late husband, Gus Buysen, was not there, but his spirit was remembered. His enthusiasm was one of the reasons that the carousel existed at all, and although he had never carved before, his horse was the first Edmonton-made animal to be completed.

In total, some 150 volunteers donated some 50,000 hours to working on the carousel, and some of the dedicated workers must be mentioned. Master woodworker Ron Critchlow and his capable team built the 12-section platform, center panels and rounding boards.

Each of the 12 rounding board sections feature an original painting on canvas by a different artist. Twelve historic Edmonton-area scenes were portrayed in oil or acrylic and were donated to the carousel. Subjects of the paintings include Indian teepees, buffalo, the fur trade, riverboat transportation, homesteading and farming, early aviation, summer fairs, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and scenes of Edmonton representative of the 1920s.

Now mounted in the centre of the rounding boards, the paintings themselves comprise a rotating art gallery of art. Ornate woodwork, fancy painting, stenciling, beveled glass mirrors in shields and 1,188 light bulbs add to the glitter and sparkle of the carousel. On a 40-foot platform finished with oak flooring and ironwood trim, the horses, now mounted on brass poles, leap to life as the carousel turns.

Some aspects of the total carousel project were contracted. A local architect prepared the plans for the new 12-sided pavilion that houses the carousel. Then the drawings went to the contractor who submitted the successful bid. The mechanism itself was done by experienced builder and carver, Chuck Kaparich of Missoula, MT. In visits to Edmonton, Chuck supervised the construction of the mechanism, platform and rounding boards by willing volunteers.

So how was a team of largely inexperienced people able to build such a splendid carousel? The experience is not entirely unique to Edmonton. In Canadian and American communities, enthusiastic volunteers have contributed their talents over an extended period of time to learn as they go and see a project through to completion, a project in which they had sincere belief as a worthwhile undertaking.

Good leadership, too, has played a part. Before work ever began in Edmonton, a small group of workers attended a painting workshop at the home of carver Bob Cherot, a former Edmontonian now living at Somers, MT. Bob had carved and primed a few horses for a workshop, conducted by National Carousel Association President Bette Largent of Spokane, WA.
Following that, a painting workshop in Edmonton was conducted by Largent for several more enthusiasts, adding the final touch to four horses purchased from Bob Cherot. Carving began soon afterwards with a carving workshop conducted in Edmonton by Cherot. Over the next few years, Bob stopped in at the carving shop to provide advice, encouragement and instruction during family visits. He was further involved when commissioned to carve the armoured lead horse, now known as “Centurion.” Bob’s daughter, Micki Mayzel of Edmonton, an accomplished horse painter, completed the horse with its outstanding finish.

Lauren Baker, who was working for the Fort Edmonton Foundation during the carousel’s construction, designed many of the horses, produced color schemes, carved one horse and was involved in painting several as a volunteer. Employed by the Fort Edmonton Foundation at the time, she also participated in many aspects of production and management in her capacity as administrative assistant with the Foundation.

Although intimately involved with the carousel, Lauren says, “It was seeing how pleased and proud other people were of their accomplishments that gave me the most satisfaction. Our carousel is an amazing project in that it touched so many people, and will touch so many more. It also brought so many people together from such diverse areas and ages, and they have all become like an extended family for me.”

Richard Bechtel, a graphic artist, contributed his skills to the design of panels, rounding boards, color scheme and signage. His expertise also included serving as lead carver on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police horse, a large stander that provides a unique touch of Canadiana to the ride. The horse was carved at the South East Edmonton Seniors Association and when the Alberta divisional headquarters of the RCMP learned of the horse, they asked for one as well. Richard designed and painted the second “Mountie” horse, which was then carved by SEESA members. It was placed in a memorial display at RCMP divisional headquarters in Edmonton to honor police officers who have been lost in the line of duty.

From the beginning, Doug Warren served as ex officio foreman on the project. A recently retired engineer, he brought his technical knowledge and planning ability to the shop and put in countless hours not only carving and painting, but working in all aspects of construction.

At a pre-opening event for volunteers to ride the carousel, Doug summed up the entire project in just a few words: “This whole project was a team effort. You get to work on something like this only once in a lifetime. This is a legacy project that will bring joy to people for generations.”

The carousel fits into the area of the park depicting the 1920s (the most recent addition to the park). Street cars have been restored and are operated by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, running on rails through 1905 and 1925 streets providing free rides to visitors. Around the perimeter, a 1919 steam train also provides free rides. With the train and some of the buildings on 1885 Street repainted for shooting of the Brad Pitt movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, due for release in 2007, and shot in part on site at Fort Edmonton Park, the facilities are looking every bit as good as they did when the park opened over 30 years ago.

Fort Edmonton Park is a jewel, located on the North Saskatchewan River, which flows through Edmonton. The park is divided into various sections, with the earliest era depicting the fur trade, including a replica of the large fort built by the Hudson Bay Company in 1846.

Continued development of the park has resulted in a historical complex that portrays many aspects of western Canadian history. Like other such parks in Canada and the U.S., original buildings have been moved to the site and restored, while others, such as the fort and the carousel, have been re-created in the style of the time.

For many volunteers the fact that the carousel is now operating does not mean that they are ready to stop working. Now they are building two hand-cranked juvenile rides for small children. One is a Chair-O-Plane or ‘bug” ride that will hold 10 riders in seats of flying insects, like ladybugs, dragonflies and butterflies. The other is a two-row juvenile carousel with six horses, six menagerie animals and two chariots. Both rides will be replicas of Victorian-era machines that were popular in Europe and North America.

A used ferris wheel has been purchased and will go into operation when its restoration is complete. Games of skill complete the attractions in the midway at Fort Edmonton Park.

Print projects have also been created by volunteers. A colorful descriptive booklet has been produced and a “coffee table book” is planned. A coloring book featuring the horses and chariots was developed by Sharon Abbott. She also designed and painted horses, produced an original scene on one of the chariots, and created one of the paintings on the rounding boards.

While it was the Fort Edmonton Foundation that raised the funds, and the City of Edmonton that now operates it, the carousel simply would not exist without the volunteers who built it. It is a story also heard in other cities and towns, where community support has been responsible for restoring or building a carousel that can be expected to bring delight to riders young and old for a hundred years or more.

Fort Edmonton Park is open from Victoria Day weekend in May until the Labor Day weekend in September. However, a 1912 railway business car, restored to 1920s appearance, can be rented year-round for meetings and group events. Hotel Selkirk, a new building with 30 guest rooms, replicates an early Edmonton hotel and offers accommodations and meals, and is open year-round. In the off-season, the carousel may be booked for special occasions.

For more information, call 780-496-8787 or visit the website at: www.fortedmontonfoundation.org/carousel.htm.

John Chalmers is an Edmonton writer, historian and photographer.

--30--