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Mystery of the Heritage Museum and Gardens Carousel in Sandwich, MA Print E-mail
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Thursday, 30 July 2009

By Elaine Pokropowicz and David Buge

Special to The Carousel News & Trader

The Heritage Carousel, located at the Heritage Museums and Gardens, (HMG), in Sandwich, MA, is a historic carousel which, like so many others, has a past that is difficult to trace. The official census of the National Carousel Association, (NCA), had little definite material about the carousel but lists its date of manufacture as 1911-1912. It has been suggested that the carousel was constructed of remnants of disassembled machines at this later date as Charles I. D. Looff had moved his operation to Long Beach, CA, in 1910. Looff’s son, portions of his shop and many of his machines, however, remained behind in Rhode Island. The goal of this article is to dig back through the past in hopes of discovering the Heritage Carousel’s elusive history.

Heritage Gardens Looff Carousel. David Buge photo.

The most immediate evidence is the carousel itself. Rich with carved animals, it is a treasure trove of traits that make the work of Charles I. D. Looff unique. A gorgeous display of etched mirrored jewels set in rosettes adorn sixteen horses and one of two goats frolicking in their midst. A profusion of tassels ornament these same animals. Two outside-row horses and one middle-row horse have plaid saddle blankets. The lead horse is ornamented with a winged breast plate and has armor on its head and neck that is decorated with carved flowers. Its saddle blanket drapes in large folds. A sword attached to the cantle is adorned with three large tassels and the horse has one, even larger, tassel hanging on its neck. There is a rolled-up blanket under the cantle.

Another outside-row horse has patriotic flag medallions on its breast and romance-side flank. A sword hangs from the cantle and there is a leather-looking pack behind it. Colored jewels are prominent, and set in large, plain frames. Colored jewels; round, square, and diamond-shaped, appear in four other outside-row horses, and one inside-row horse has them on its Y-shaped collar (seven inside-row horses have round collars; two have V-shaped). One goat has a single round green jewel on its bridle.

A third unique outside-row horse has a neck collar, much like a medieval cloth banner, with scaled armor beneath it. This collar is ornamented in rich-colored jewels. Behind the saddle of this horse there is a carved Tyrollean head.

Three other outside-row horses with colored jewels are noticeably simpler. Breast collars are wide bands with round and diamond-shaped colored jewels for ornamentation. Simple spoon saddles sit atop saddle blankets with slightly scalloped edges and a flowerlike arrangement of jewels in the rear corner. The knees and legs of these horses seem thick and somewhat boxy at the knees.

There are large single flowers decorating the cantles of seven inside-row and two middle-row horses.
Most horse have a warm, friendly look about them with alert, bright eyes. Many appear to be smiling, almost laughing, and one has its tongue lolling out the side of its mouth. All the horses have actual horse-hair tails.

Restoration artist, James Hardison found the “Looff, Riverside, Rhode Island” embossed stamp on the Heritage outside-row horses he has worked on. The stamp appears to exist on most of the carousel animals, although on some it is obscured by layers of paint. As the Riverside factory was in operation between 1905 and 1910, these stamps, combined with the stylistic similarities of the horses, add weight to the conclusion that most, if not all of the Heritage carousel was built as a complete unit at the Looff Riverside factory.

Josiah K. Lilly III, (great-grandson of Colonel Eli Lilly, founder of the Indianapolis pharmaceutical company), purchased the carousel through the Bourne Auction Company in 1968. He wanted to make his then-named Heritage Plantation more appealing to women and children visitors as the museum’s collections of vintage cars and military miniatures had a more masculine appeal.

In researching this article, we were able to locate a current address for Mr. Hallett L. Tobin, the previous carousel owner. He responded to a letter of inquiry with a most interesting and informative phone call. Mr. Tobin has been associated with carnivals, such as the Conklin Shows in Canada, since his youth. He owned the Phoenix Carousel Company which brought kiddy rides to carnivals throughout the Southern United States.

This circa 1910 Looff carousel, thought to have operated in Fall River and Provincetown, MA, may very well have spent more time in the deep South.

Mr. Tobin happened to see an ad in the Fall, 1965 edition of Amusement News advertising 30 carousel horses, some menagerie animals, and band organs for sale by a dealer named Mr. Ricky in Washington, D.C. Mr. Tobin made an offer for all of the items, but when his money order arrived, two brothers from Coney Island had already made the purchase and were loading the horses in a truck. Mr. Tobin did purchase two animals: a camel and a greyhound, as well as two small horses and a Wurlitzer 125 Band Organ. The dealer encouraged him to make the brothers an offer for the horses, which they accepted.

In addition, the dealer helped Mr. Tobin find the former owner of the carousel, Pete Sutton, who owned the Gulf States Amusements headquartered in Gulf Shores Alabama. Mr. Tobin drove to Alabama to purchase the rest of the carousel, but it had been stored outdoors and was too deteriorated to save. He did purchase 64 scenery panels, the two dragon chariots, and the original twisted brass rods for hanging the horses.

On his return trip to Provincetown, MA, Mr. Tobin stopped in Coney Island to purchase the 30 horses, completing the reunion of the original carousel animals.

Mr. Tobin believes the carousel was sold to the Gulf Shores, Alabama owner in a tax sale in the 1950s from a park in Meridian, Mississippi where it was owned and operated by a single family for three generations. He also believes that the carousel was originally purchased from the Looff Riverside factory in 1908 for installation in Meridian, a city with a long carousel history. Meridian still has a 1909 Dentzel carousel which is housed in a building constructed using original Dentzel blueprints.

Mr. Tobin then found an Allan Herschell/Chance mechanism for the carousel, but it was smaller than the original. The new mechanism had 12 sweeps, rather than the 16 of the original. Because of the reduced size of the mechanism, some of the animals were sold off, the most important being a rare greyhound dog, one of about a dozen ever carved by Looff. This greyhound was later donated to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston by Claire M. and Robert N. Ganz in 1992.  It bears the “Looff, Riverside, Rhode Island” stamp on the belly. Because of this “Riverside” stamp, the MFA dates their greyhound between 1905 and 1910.

Hoping to assemble the carousel in Provincetown, Mr. Tobin appealed to the town Selectmen where he was emphatically denied permission. Provincetown deemed the carousel far too “Honky-tonk.” This denial brought him to sell the carousel and, in correspondence with Mr. Lilly, he admits: “I had a dream and sold it to you.”

In another letter, he expresses the feelings of many carousel enthusiasts who recognize the importance of keeping these beautiful machines intact when he says that; “to be honest, I was afraid that I would have to sell piece-meal. If I had done that I would have felt guilty of defacing a part of Americana.”

In a letter dated March 11, 1969 written to Hallett Tobin from Josiah Lilly, Mr. Lilly says; “Presently, we are in the process of restoring all the carousel animals and it will be another year before we are ready to set it up.” A builder’s invoice includes an entry for “Erecting Carousel” and is dated 12/8/69 through 2/28/70. Mr. Lilly had a storage facility in Falmouth where, almost certainly, parts of carousel were kept until it was moved to Heritage Plantation.

The final move and assembly of the carousel was completed in 1972 when the circular, wood-and-beam interpretation of a circus tent designed specifically for the carousel, was constructed. Unfortunately, Mr. Tobin was not able to participate in the reconstruction which led to some inconsistencies in its assembly and configuration. Instead of including all of the third row horses in the inner row, they have been mixed between the second and third rows. A beautiful giraffe was deemed too fragile for inclusion and is now on display alongside the carousel. One of the two goats was converted from a jumper to a stander and moved to the inner row alongside a chariot.

The mirrors at the end of the sweeps were swapped with the ones on the scenery panels and appear to have been installed upside down. None of these problems are, however, critical to the functioning or artistic coherence of the carousel.

By saving this historic carousel, Heritage Museum and Gardens has made the carousel experience accessible to visitors, while it provides a museum environment in which to preserve this treasure.

The complete history of the Heritage Carousel has been, and may continue to be, difficult to substantiate.

Jennifer Madden, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at Heritage Museums and Gardens has been generous with documents and letters that shed light on the carousel’s most recent past. Hallett Tobin has given us a whole new direction in which to explore this elusive story. We hope this new information, although it  raises new questions, will lead to a resolution of the Heritage carousel’s still unresolved history.

To help plan your visit to Heritage Museums and Gardens, click here.


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