For many people, Eldridge Park in Elmira wasn’t just another amusement park. Sure, the bumper cars, roller coaster and even the Dragon Boat weren’t unique; the same greasy, sugar-filled treats were served there just as in countless other parks across the country. The element that made Eldridge Park stand apart from all the rest is recognized by the people who enjoyed it during its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s. The park was a place of simple, wholesome fun where families could spend time together and enjoy each other’s company. It represented the pleasures of living in a small town.
Dr. Bob Lyon recognized this when he returned to the park in 2002 to give the September 11 memorial address. Although the rides were gone, the carousel building stood strong with the original mechanism inside. The animals had all been auctioned off in 1989 at an auction house in New York City. When Lyon saw the carousel mechanism still intact with only the animals missing, memories of the park came flooding back to him. He realized how much of Elmira’s history had already been lost. He thought how great it would be to rebuild the carousel and in doing so, restore that part of Elmira’s past.
Bob immediately began contacting talented local business people, bankers, lawyers and engineers whom he thought might be interested in the project. His idea was met with a great deal of enthusiasm, and before long, the Eldridge Park Carousel Preservation Society was formed. It is a not-for-profit organization committed to restoring the carousel that was brought to Elmira in 1924 by Robert Long.
Giving the Project Legs
The first step was to search for carvers, a project that Bob and his wife, Mary, excitedly undertook. To find the best, they had to look a little farther than their small hometown of Elmira, from Pennsylvania to Tennessee to California. The only local carver they chose is John Kolanach, who was born and raised in Elmira. The six carvers worked individually to recreate the animals and shipped them to Elmira when they were completed.
Susan Hamlin, a retired Cornell professor, is the assistant treasurer of the preservation society. She is glad that they were able to get a handful of different carvers to work on the project. When a carousel is made by one company, only one style is displayed and all of the animals look basically the same. “I like the variety, the artwork of several different people. I think it’s unique,” Hamlin said.
The new carousel will greatly resemble the old one. Larry Pefferly, a carver from Cornersville, Tennessee, built the 20 outer row animals. He used pictures to make reproductions as close to the originals as possible. Several other horses and the two dragon benches are also copies. Like the original, the brand new carousel will not only have horses. A greyhound, tiger, giraffe, swan, goat, bear, lion and zebra are also part of this magnificent menagerie.
All 56 of the animals were carved in a “coffin” style, meaning that their bodies are empty boxes. Often the carvers themselves will put things inside, such as the red wooden heart that Kolanach added to the honey bear. Some of the people who sponsored the animals before they were finished also put things inside, “almost like a time capsule,” Hamlin said.
One of the horses is actually an original that the preservation society was able to retrieve. Mary Lyon discovered that one horse, Sylvia, was owned by a couple in Pennsylvania. She contacted the couple, and they were so enchanted with the carousel reconstruction project that they sold Sylvia back for a very low price and donated the rest of her value to the restoration effort.
The carousel building itself has been redone, with new roofs, windows, siding and doors. An eatery has been added, as well as a gift shop, which will sell unique items that relate only to the Eldridge Park Carousel.
Many individuals and businesses showed their support for the project by sponsoring the carousel animals. Beneath each one will be a cast metal plaque with the animal’s name and the sponsor’s name or a catchy phrase. People could also choose to sponsor the carousel building, the mechanism, the gift shop, the eatery, or the Victorian-style memorial benches that are placed around the carousel building. The walls will be covered with solid brass stars engraved with the names of the sponsors. This fundraiser was thought up by Monte Trammer, publisher of the Star-Gazette, the local newspaper which has shown tremendous support for the project throughout.
A Long-Awaited Event
The grand opening of the carousel is scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, and a number of festivities are planned. There will be live music during the day and a huge fireworks display in the evening. Speeches will be given by Brian Williams of NBC News, designer Tommy Hilfiger and representatives from city, county, state and federal governments. They will be available later in the day to sign souvenirs purchased at the carousel gift shop.
Who gets to have the very first ride on the brand new carousel? That has been promised to the brass ring holders. As its first fundraiser, the preservation society sold brass rings for $100 each. The rings have a tag with the Eldridge Park Carousel Preservation Society logo and a number 1 to 440. Mary Lyon came up with the idea to sell 440 because that’s the number of light bulbs on the roof of the carousel.
The first of the general public to ride the carousel will be a group of children chosen from schools, community centers and youth groups in the region. Following the children’s ride, anyone with $1 can take a spin.
People from all over are getting hyped up about the opening. Visitors from 46 states and six foreign countries are expected to attend the event. The reason for all the excitement has a lot to do with nostalgia, according to Hamlin. People have fond memories of a place where you could ride the roller coaster with your best friends, have a picnic with your family or spend a night in the dancing pavilion with your sweetheart. These were times when cell phones and computers didn’t detract from spending time with the people closest to you.
“I think we’ve gone so far the other way that it’s important that a family does have a place to go and spend the afternoon or evening with their kids,” Hamlin said.
This beautiful piece of artwork will be a source of pride for the locals and a source of enjoyment for out-of-towners. It will bring back numerous memories from the past, as well as create hundreds more for the future.
by Stacy Majewicz