Built in 1905 for Denver’s Elitch Gardens amusement park, Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel #6 has operated at the Kit Carson County Fairgrounds in Burlington since 1928. It is the oldest working carousel in Colorado, and its 1909 Wurlitzer organ is one of only three of its kind still in operation. The carousel is the only antique carousel in the country with original paint on both its animals and the paintings on its central core, making it valuable for illustrating the appearance of early American carousels as they were originally produced.
The First Elitch Gardens Carousel
In the early 1900s, Elitch Gardens had a portable, steam-driven merry-go-round. After owner Mary Elitch saw a better carousel at the nearby Manhattan Beach amusement park, however, she decided to get one like it for her park. The carousel she ordered from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company arrived in 1905 and operated at Elitch Gardens every summer through 1927.
The Philadelphia Toboggan Company was one of the leading carousel producers of the early twentieth century. The carousel the company made for Elitch Gardens was officially designated Carousel #6, the sixth of eighty-nine carousels the company built between 1904 and 1934.
The carousel has forty-six hand-carved animals, supposedly based on the animals that were in the Elitch Gardens zoo. The animals were also hand-painted with gold-leaf decorations. Arranged in three rows, they move counterclockwise around a platform forty-five feet in diameter. The carousel is stationary, meaning the animals do not move up and down. (Stationary carousels fell out of style as jumpers became more popular, and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company stopped making stationary ones just a few years later.) In addition to the animals, the carousel features four chariots. The two red chariots have detailed carvings, while the two blue chariots are painted to look carved. Each chariot has two seats and can carry six passengers.
At the center of the carousel, the core holding the drive machinery is decorated with forty-five oil paintings arranged in three tiers. The artists are unknown. Ranging in size from 2.5 feet by 3.5 feet to 3.5 feet by 7 feet, the paintings display a variety of skill levels and styles, ranging from Postimpressionist to Realist. They include American genre paintings as well as European romantic scenes.
The Carousel at the Kit Carson County Fair
In 1927 Elitch Gardens ordered a grand new carousel from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. The $20,000 carousel, designated PTC #51, arrived in time for the 1928 season and still operates at the new Elitch Gardens location in downtown Denver.
With the new carousel in place, Elitch Gardens sold its original carousel and organ to Kit Carson County for $1,250. The carousel was installed at the county fairgrounds in a dodecagonal (twelve-sided) building that could open completely with all twelve walls lifted. Many county residents, however, disapproved of the purchase, which they considered extravagant. As a result, two of the three county commissioners responsible for buying the carousel chose not to run for reelection in 1928.
The $1,250 carousel price did not include the carousel’s original band organ. Instead, the sale price included a 1909 Wurlitzer Monster Military Band Organ that Elitch Gardens had originally purchased in 1912 for $3,250. It was probably used at a roller-skating pavilion before being sold to Kit Carson County with the carousel. The massive organ, which measures nearly seven feet by nine feet by four feet deep, can produce music that sounds like a twelve- or fifteen-piece band. It is one of only three Wurlitzer Monster organs in existence and is the most complete.
The county fair was suspended in 1930 during the Great Depression. The fairgrounds and the carousel were neglected, with the carousel building used to store cornstalks and hay. The building became infested with mice, snakes, and pigeons. When the county fair finally resumed in 1938, the cornstalks and hay were removed. The carousel was in such bad condition that some people thought it should be burned; instead, though, it was cleaned, revarnished, and put back into operation. Mice had chewed through essential parts of the organ, however, so for decades phonographs and tape players had to be used for music.
The original Elitch Gardens carousel received a full restoration for the US Bicentennial in 1976. The newly organized Kit Carson County Carousel Association hired Art Reblitz of Colorado Springs to restore the Wurlitzer organ, which was completed by the 1976 fair. John Pogzeba and Will Morton VII restored the oil paintings around the carousel’s core, which were finished in 1977. Two years later, Morton began to restore the paint on the carousel’s animals. The process, which took a year and a half, uncovered much original paint and gold leaf that had been used to decorate the animals.
The carousel and building were restored again in the 1990s with grants from the State Historical Fund. In June 2007 a museum about the carousel opened at the fairgrounds in a 1920s exhibit building renovated with funding from the State Historical Fund, the Gates Family Foundation, the Boettcher Foundation, the Cooper Clark Foundation, and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. The museum includes exhibits about the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the carousel’s motor, and the Wurlitzer organ.
The original Elitch Gardens carousel operates daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Considered one of the finest remaining original American carousels, it has attracted attention from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Carousel Association.