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Meet the craftsman reviving the artform of handmade carousels

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The heart of Mansfield in north central Ohio isn't a city hall or a sculpture or a fountain. It's a carousel. It was made locally in the 1990s, and it's become a cherished part of the community. But the business that created the carousel has closed, and one former employee is striking out on his own to give the tradition, yes, a whirl. Kendall Crawford of The Ohio Newsroom has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENDALL CRAWFORD, BYLINE: Kids clamor with excitement as the distinct ditty of the merry-go-round revs up, and its figurines begin to float. A toddler grips the mane of a roaring lion. Parents bob and bounce on tall ostriches. Each animal on this ride has its quirks and, thanks to Richland County Carousel employee Donna Matten, its own name, like the flower-studded steed that stands mid-trot.

What did you name the lead one?

DONNA MATTEN: I'd have - oh, Nellie, I think.

CRAWFORD: Nellie?

MATTEN: I think, yeah, Nellie.

CRAWFORD: Each of the 52 animals on this ride was chiseled, painted and designed by local manufacturer Carousel Works in the 1990s. It was the first hand-carved wooden carousel made since the Great Depression. And Matten says it's what helped revitalize a part of the small city of Mansfield.

MATTEN: 'Cause they changed the whole scenery of downtown, and it became Carousel District. So I think, yeah, it brought in a lot of businesses that weren't here before.

CRAWFORD: But Carousel Works hit hard times. In 2021, the company filed for bankruptcy and disbanded. When former employee Eric Tomlinson heard that the company's equipment and artwork were going to be auctioned off, he couldn't help but step in. He bought it all.

ERIC TOMLINSON: I was able to save their legacy from being either sold off and used for scrap wood or possibly just lost in the wind.

CRAWFORD: He started his own carousel creation business the next year - All Around Carousels in Mansfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD BEING SANDED)

CRAWFORD: Today, Tomlinson is working on restoring a wooden horse that's more than 100 years old. There are cracks through its hooves and splintering wood on its mane. It'll take around four months to bring this stallion back to its original state.

TOMLINSON: Just the sheer history of carousels and the artwork that goes into it. A lot of people think if they call for a figure, they can get it in a week or something like that. And it's like, no, it's not that easy.

CRAWFORD: It takes around five weeks to carve a new creation. This time-consuming nature is part of what's made wooden carousels largely a thing of the past. But Tomlinson is part of a revival. He has a contract to build his first full carousel. He says it's the first step in filling the gap Carousel Works left behind.

TOMLINSON: Look at the people's faces when you go around a carousel. I mean, everybody will remember those days when they were riding with their grandmother in the chariot or riding with Daddy sitting beside him on a horse or a cat or a bunny rabbit. So it's like you're building memories.

CRAWFORD: And keeping the tradition around for the next generation.

For NPR News, I'm Kendall Crawford in Mansfield, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AUDIBLES AND SAVANNAH BLEU SONG, "NOT THE SAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kendall Crawford | The Ohio Newsroom
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