A permanent whinny resides on the face of a beautifully carved wooden carousel horse.

Taking a Spin at C. W. Parker Carousel Museum

Getting the opportunity to visit a place like the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum is like returning to the wonder years of our youth. There is something magical about taking a spin on a merry-go-round. For many of us, it was our first amusement ride, and one that is not discriminatory of age. The bright lights, beautiful colors, and upbeat music make the appeal infectious. How many of you watch with anticipation, as you try to decide which seat will be perfect for your ride?

We want to thank the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum for their hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own. 

Jerry was an informative host during our visit to the CW Parker carousel Museum.

Interactive Staff

Our visit to the carousel museum was our final stop, during our day in Leavenworth, Kansas. When we arrived, we were introduced to Jerry, who would be our tour guide. It became immediately apparent that he has a true love for the care and maintenance of this unique attraction. We would spend the next couple of hours hearing the amazing history behind C.W. Parker, as well as the carousel business in general.

A volunteer works diligently at repairing years of damage to a carousel horse.

In the main lobby of the museum there was an assembly of people working on the restoration of some horses. We watched as one lady worked at cleaning an ages-old piece, as part of this process. It was interesting to observe the interaction between her and some visitors. Like Jerry, her love for these pieces was evident. We found out that it can take as long as 18 months to completely restore a piece. Of course, much depends upon how much damage has to be undone.

A worker adds lacquer to protect the paint on a refurbished horse.

Next up, we noticed another lady, who was in the process of lacquering a recently renovated horse. The amount of detail is amazing, as each horse seems to have its own personality. Once again, she was more than willing to answer any questions we had about the work she was doing.

This old wooden carousel was powered by two people in the mid-1800's.

The Earliest Days

After giving us the once around of horse repair, it was time to check out some of the carousels. Jerry led us into the main gallery, which holds three unique merry-go-rounds. The oldest by far is the Primitive Carousel. Built sometime between 1850 and 1860, this hand operated carousel is the oldest working version in the United States. It was last operated in 1920, and is on loan from National Carousel Association.

One of the oldest carousels in existence resides at the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Unlike the ornate versions that most of us are familiar with, the Primitive Carousel is far more plain. Each horse is assembled from eight pieces of wood. The details come from hand painting, as well as leather and metal accents. The manes and tails are real horse hair. Due to the delicacy of this piece, we weren’t taking a spin on this carousel. It was still impressive to see a piece that has survived for over 150 years.

Crystal examines photos of the Parker factory in Leavenworth, Kansas.

C. W. Parker Comes to Leavenworth

It’s odd to think that just last summer we were first introduced to the name C. W. Parker. During a visit to Abilene, Kansas we stopped in the Dickinson heritage Center. Here we found one of the last rocking horse carousels left in existance. We even got to take a spin on this classic attraction. (You can see a video of it in action here.) Abilene was home to the first Parker carousel plant, and by 1900 was supplying all types of amusement devices across the nation. He soon realized that he needed to scout out a new location, which would offer better railroad access.

Three original Parker horses are ready to carry guests around the ring.

In 1911, C. W. Parker began moving his operations to Leavenworth, Kansas. He built a new, larger factory space, which would afford him plenty of room to expand. During this same period, the carving of the horses became more fanciful. As we watched the carousel spin, we couldn’t help but notice the feisty expressions on many of the horses. World War I and the Great Depression took a toll on carousel makers, but Parker adapted and survived. After his death in 1932, his son continued the business until 1955.

The authors were taking a spin on this carousel that is over 100 years old.

It’s All in the Details

Much of the attraction of a carousel comes from the intricate designs. When a child first sees an opportunity to ride a carousel, the decision must be made where to ride. Everyone has their favorite animal, and Parker’s versions offered plenty of choices. Do you hop on one of the whinnying ponies or perhaps a speedy rabbit. Those wanting a gentler ride may find a seat in one of the carriages that offer a steadier ride. We even heard that some kids will try to figure out which horse rises highest, so they end up with the best view.

An ornately carved horse at the museum.

Taking a Spin

Now that we had a good feel for the history of these amazing pieces, it was time for taking a spin. After watching the other kids enjoying themselves, we were certainly ready. The only thing left was to pick our steeds. Crystal asked Jerry which was his favorite, and it was the one with the Leavenworth and Lansing plaques. Later we found out that Jerry was the person who actually carved and created this horse. What a talented guy. Since Crystal had hers picked, I chose to ride next to her.

After creating this video, I decided a couple of things. First, Crystal was having way too much fun in the background. Second, we need to invest in some new equipment that will allow us to make steadier video shots. We have seen an uptick in the number of viewers, when we include videos, so we will certainly try to increase our output in the future. For now, we will just have to get by with the shaky hand versions.

This healthy alternative to a carousel required the children to supply the power.

Healthy Alternative

After taking a spin, we were ready to see more of the museum. Jerry pointed out a diminutive carousel sitting nearby. This is a self-powered version that was designed for children. The idea was to get them out in the fresh air and let them get exercise from the use of such a device. We are sure many kids would like it for a while, but would tire of being the “horse power” behind this carousel.

Another of the carousels in the museum was built with aluminum horses after World war II.

Changing Times

Earlier we mentioned the changing landscape of carousel making, after the Depression. Builders like C. W. Parker found ways to modernize the making of their devices. One of the cost saving methods was to cast the horses out of aluminum. While this increased output, at a lower cost, it took away much of the originality of the individual pieces from before. The Liberty Carousel is an example of this style of device and is used frequently for children’s parties at the museum.

The authors pose for selfie outside of the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum.

Making Memories

Our time at the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum had come to an end, as it was time for us to start on our way home. We had learned so much about this unique industry and the people who made it work. During our visit, we had the opportunity to make some new friends, and took a spin on a carousel that is over 100 years old. All in all, we have to say it was a great visit. Don’t you think it’s time for you to make your plans for a visit to this uniquely Kansas attraction?

the authors signatures.

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6 thoughts on “Taking a Spin at C. W. Parker Carousel Museum”

  1. Mary Ann Groody

    This destination should be on everyone’s bucket list that has child like asperations. I watched the volunteers put their blood sweat and tears into this Merry go Round. This venue was not put together in a day as the volunteers had to go to school to know how to restore all the animals then they had to find a location and proper building to display the carousel in. This Carousel was gifted to the city and brought to town and I don’t think the town people knew what they were gifted except a Parker Corousel and t was taken back after a while, but the faithful volunteers worked hard and got it back and started restoring the animals. There is quite a history in this museum and one that the people of Leavenworth are quite proud of as they should be.

  2. We have children, parents, grandparents, visitors and community members visit the museum but this article by Jeff and Crystal puts the opinions of all into words. They very eloquently share their experience and it was heart warming to read an account of their visit. As a museum volunteer I appreciate the sharing of their experience. Thank you Jeff and Crystal.

    1. We are humbled by those gracious words. It was a delight getting to experience the museum and the volunteers caring spirit shone through to us. We want to thank all of you for your diligence that has brought this special place to life and allowed us grownups a place to feel like kids again.

  3. Visited there, and also the Patee House Hotel & Museum. Cool places to go, certainly! Also, there’s the Jesse James Home & Museum, but someone broke in and stole the framed “Bless our Home” cross-stitch Jesse was straightening when he was killed by Bob Ford. I don’t know if it was ever recovered, but how could someone do that? It should have had the best security available because of it’s historical importance.

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