It might be hard to believe when the C.W. Parker No. 118 Carry-Us-All is fired up that the carousel would be blowing out 100 candles this year.
Cranked up to full speed, the 40-foot-diameter structure might just go fast enough to blow its own candles out. According to C.W. Parker Carousel Museum Director Jerry Reinhardt, that speed is no illusion ― the carousel actually reaches about five revolutions per minute.
“Most machines, park-type machines that are still around, run at about 2-1/2 RPM, so we're twice as fast in most cases,” he said Thursday.
The volunteers at the Parker Museum are hosting a celebration of No. 118 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the museum, 320 S. Esplanade St. Reinhardt said the daylong event will actually be in recognition of four different occasions ― first and foremost, the estimated date that the No. 118 was shipped in 1913 to Fred Shew, but also the eighth anniversary of the opening of the Parker Museum in April 2005, the birthday of Charles Wallace Parker on April 30, 1864, and the 90th birthday of one of the museum's longest-serving volunteers and supporters, Harry Mohan.
Reinhardt said the celebration will include a ceremony with proclamations recognizing the museum from the city of Leavenworth, Leavenworth County and the state of Kansas. Outside the museum on a blocked-off portion of Esplanade Street and in the parking lot across the street, he said, will be carnival games with an accompanying prize tent, clowns, food, music and a tent with a “freak show.” Inside will be birthday cake, ice cream, performances by magician and firebreather Rod Sipe and free rides on No. 118. One of the museum's founding members, Larnie Tate, will also be roaming the museum dressed as Parker himself.
“It's going to be quite a celebration,” said Larry Everitt, a longtime volunteer for the museum.
It's perhaps fitting for a small-statured man whose ambitions were anything but, Reinhardt said. Parker was born in Illinois and moved with his family to Abilene, Kan., at age 5. It was in Abilene that Parker opened his first factory. He would move to Leavenworth in 1911 and become a full-fledged carnival magnate.
“For about 20-something years, Leavenworth, Kan., was an entertainment capital of the world,” because of Parker's traveling carnivals, Reinhardt said. “People came from all over the place. He brought people in form Europe to perform in his carnivals, and he had four of them.”
The Leavenworth factory was located inside the current Tire Town building on Fourth Street, with rail access to the east.
Built two years after that factory opened its doors, the No. 118 tells a story, Reinhardt said. It's unique as a “menagerie carousel,” meaning that it features animals other than horses. In this case, that means two rabbits that as of 1913 were not found on any other Parker carousel, Reinhardt said.
Page 2 of 3 - “If you look at those two rabbits, they are a totally different look than the horses,” he said, with an elongated shape that would be commonplace in next year's horse design. It was also the last year that the horses had real horse hair tails.
Reinhardt said the rabbits could have been the result of a special request by Shew after a visit to the Parker factory.
Also unique to No. 118 is the lover's tub, a feature that Reinhardt said is still popular today.
“The little guys love it, they fight to get in it,” he said.
Getting the carousel back in Leavenworth and establishing a museum to house it was the work of a small group of volunteers from Leavenworth's Historical Museum Association, Reinhardt said. At the time, he said he was on the board of directors of the National Carousel Association.
“They started this group and they decided they should have a carousel in town,” in honor of the city's famed resident, he said. “They were trying to save the historical information from the city's past.”
In 1997, they bought the No. 118, owned and operated for about 40 years by Shew, a farmer by trade from Grandville, Iowa.
“He was really a carney at heart,” Reinhardt said, operating his carnival in the months when farm work was lighter.
Under Shew's ownership, No. 118 was a workhorse, at one time even setting the world record for the most riders in a day, with 16,480. All things considered, Reinhardt said it was in decent shape when the museum purchased it.
“He actually was a really good man to have that carousel because he did well maintaining his equipment,” he said.
Still, Reinhardt said it would be about eight years of painstaking volunteer restoration work before the carousel was ready to be unveiled again, when the museum in Leavenworth opened in 2005. Volunteers made sure to replicate each horse as they would have looked when the equipment first came off the factory floor, Reinhardt said.
“The idea was to produce an all-original carousel that was made in Leavenworth,” he said.
The museum today is still run completely by about 60 to 70 volunteers. Among them is Art Burre, who at 92 is still one of the core group that maintains and operates the machine itself.
“Pretty soon I'm going to be as old as the carousel,” he said. “But I like coming in because it gives me something to do.”
The museum now has two other carousels ― a hand-cranked “primitive” model from about 1850, thought to be the oldest operating wooden carousel in the nation, and the 1950 “Liberty” Carousel, with aluminum horses produced in 1950 by C.W.'s son Paul Parker after taking over the company when his father died in 1932. The Parker factory closed in 1955. The museum collection also includes carousel horses from other manufacturers and non-carousel items that were part of Parker's carnivals.
Page 3 of 3 - Despite its unique status, Reinhardt says he still meets people in Leavenworth who know little or nothing about the museum, the carousel or even C.W. Parker himself. He said he hopes that the museum can continue shedding a little light on what Parker's status as one of the city's leading entrepreneurs and figures from the early 20th century.
“I hope if they can't find him anywhere else, they'll come and look for him in the museum,” he said.