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Revisiting historic Rocky Springs Carousel sparks memories for its former owner

Tom Wolf, former owner and caretaker of the Rocky Springs Carousel, tells a story about one of the horses to his left. (Photo: Olivia Smucker)

Tom Wolf, former owner and caretaker of the Rocky Springs Carousel, tells a story about one of the horses to his left. (Photo: Olivia Smucker)
Tom Wolf, former owner and caretaker of the Rocky Springs Carousel, tells a story about one of the horses to his left. (Photo: Olivia Smucker)

For Tom Wolf, the horses and menagerie of animals that once made up the Rocky Springs Carousel are family.

"Everything I have came from these guys," said the carousel's former owner and caretaker as he tenderly touched the hand-painted saddle of one of the horses; something he has not been able to do for more than two decades.

Related: Author to speak on carousel history

Wolf and his husband, Russ Webber, were invited late last month by the Rocky Springs Carousel Association to be reunited with many of the components of the carousel, which have been kept at an undisclosed location for decades since being returned to Lancaster.

History

The Rocky Springs Carousel Association, now headed by Gail Groves Scott, was formed in the late 1990s. It is the organization responsible for bringing the carousel back to Lancaster County, with the goal of restoring it for the public. Her husband, Steven Hohenwarter, serves as the association's treasurer.

From left, Steven Hohenwarter, Tom Wolf, Gail Groves Scott and Russ Webber (Photo: Olivia Smucker)

The carousel, also known as the Stoner Carousel, was originally a part of the Rocky Springs Amusement Park. Following the park's closure, it was installed in Lake Lansing, Michigan, and Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, under the ownership and operation of Wolf and his ex-wife, Kimberly.

In 1999, the association arranged a lease-purchase agreement for the carousel with Wolf for $1.3 million, raised from private donations. The intent was to install it in what is now Ewell Plaza, according to a 2019 LNP op-ed by Eileen Gregg, who wrote a book on the carousel's history.

However, the plan fell through and the carousel was placed in storage.

Since 1999, that's where it has remained, paid for out-of-pocket by Lancaster real estate developer Rob Ecklin, in memory of his wife, Ruth. Ruth was on the association's board, said Groves Scott, and "had a passion" for the carousel.

Reuniting and reminiscing

The chance to show Wolf the carousel came about purely by chance, Groves Scott said. She found out that he and Webber intended to be in town on vacation — and to visit with Gregg — and decided to extend an offer to open the storage facility.

Until that day, Wolf had no idea where the carousel was being kept. Seeing the antique pieces brought forth a flood of emotions and memories.

"No one knows more than him; (no one) is more passionate than him about this carousel," said Webber as he watched Wolf wipe away tears.

Wolf recalled specifics about each piece, from the date that certain animals were carved to why each of the 18 jester faceplates created in 1923 have unsymmetrical façade detailing. (The scroll is tighter on the right than the left to enhance the illusion of movement as the carousel spins.)

There are 47 figures currently in the storage unit: 18 "jumper" horses, 14 standing horses and 15 menagerie animals. Many of the menagerie animals are extremely rare, such as the two Weimaraner dogs.

Segregation at Rocky Springs park

The Rocky Springs Amusement Park, original home of the Rocky Springs Denzel Carousel, practiced racial segregation at its pool, barring Black swimmers, an unjust policy that led to protests and lawsuits.

No such rule applied to the carousel, and Black Lancastrians remember enjoying the ride, but for some, the association with the pool remains a concern. In 2018, Leroy Hopkins of the African American Historical Society of Central Pennsylvania recommended that any reinstallation of the carousel should include signage to provide historical context.

Gustav Dentzel's workshop, whose workers hand-carved the carousel in 1901, never created any other Weimaraners, Wolf said. Both are a part of the Rocky Springs Carousel: One is being stored by the association, the other by Steinman Communications.

Wolf estimates the dogs to be worth $250,000 each, with the entire carousel worth about $4 million.

One of Wolf's favorite stories about the carousel's animals involves a horse whose restoration gave it a unique distinction: A saddle with a parrot head.

Wolf has always been very protective of the carousel's components. Between 2005 and 2007, the restoration of 17 carousel animals was entrusted to Lisa Parr and her father, who owned Old Parr's Inc. in Illinois.

Part of the restoration involved repainting some of the original horses, especially those whose saddle paint had worn away from decades of riding. Many of the saddles include the carved and painted head of an eagle.

When Wolf saw photos from Parr of the restored animals, he noticed that one horse now had a green and yellow parrot head instead of the brown and white head of an eagle.

At first he thought that the Parrs had not known what bird it was supposed to be because the paint was gone, said Wolf. Parr explained that her father knew it was meant to be an eagle, but simply loved parrots more.

"She said that he would paint a parrot any chance he got and so he did," recalled Wolf, with a smile. With its new paint job, this horse is now one of his favorite pieces in the collection.

The future of the Rocky Springs Carousel

Groves Scott said the long-awaited return of the Rocky Springs Carousel may be coming soon, with some help from the community.

According to Groves Scott, the association aims to have the full carousel assembled indoors permanently somewhere in Lancaster County, so that people can come view it and learn about its history.

The carousel is about 60 feet in diameter when fully assembled, the building to house it would need to be at least 80 feet wide. There is likely no building of that size in the county that also meets the appropriate standards for the carousel's preservation, so something new will need to be built.

"The most important thing is for us to find the right partner," said Groves Scott, since the construction costs could easily reach $3 million or $4 million.

A piece of the organ's facade in storage (Photo: Olivia Smucker)

When a partner is secured and the project is under way, the Rocky Springs Carousel Association will begin searching for volunteers to create stands for the animals.

In the meantime, Groves Scott said that at least one carousel component will be coming into the public eye soon: The Gavioli Band Organ.

Pioneered by Anselme Gavioli, it plays book music, large folded sheets of thick cardboard with perforations representing notes, similar to player piano rolls. Webber called the Gavioli "the Cadillac of organs."

As the Rocky Springs Carousel's caretaker, Wolf often was the one playing the organ as it operated.

Groves Scott hopes to be able to bring the organ out of storage early this summer, though a display location has not been finalized.

Gallery

(Photos: Olivia Smucker)