MERIDIAN — The horses are causing quite a stir.
Carousel horses, that is.
Even though Meridian is home to the world’s only two-row stationary carousel still in operation at the Highland Park Dentzel Carousel, where two quarters still buys a ride, those meticulously hand-carved animals of bass and poplar wood, manufactured in 1985 and restored since then, aren’t the ones causing all the fuss.
The fuss is about a herd of horses: five-foot tall hand-painted carousel horses permanently displayed around town, thanks to Around Town Carousels Abound, a fundraising project to benefit Hope Village for Children in Meridian. The home for abused and neglected children opened Dec. 27, 2001.
“Around Town Carousels Abound was initially created as a fun outdoor public arts project to promote community pride, spur tourism, instill an appreciation for art and to help the children of Hope Village,” said Sandy Bynum, executive director of the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Bureau. “The response has been tremendous, beyond our wildest expectations.”
Similar to Chicago’s cows, Los Angeles’ angels and New Orleans’ fish, the public art project was the creation of Meridianites Jamie Cater and Debbie Martin.
“We truly wish this project to emerge as an outstanding example of how various city, art and private sectors can become involved in a single project in order to further the arts in a community,” said Cater.
On April 26, project coordinators presented Hope Village for Children, Ward’s pet charity, a check for $55,000 representing proceeds from an Auction Gala held April 6, where more than 50 miniature horses, hand painted by artists, celebrities and dignitaries, including Sela Ward, Archie Manning, Miriam Weems, LeAnn Rimes, Lance Bass and U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, were sold.
With the help of Ward and Sam Haskell of the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills, Calif., many celebrities climbed onboard to hand paint and sign the 9-inch and 24-inch horses sold at the auction. They include Billy Campbell, Shane West, and Steven Weber, all co-stars of Ward’s ABC show “Once and Again,” Vanna White, Jennifer Lopez, Sean Penn, Jewel, Minnie Driver, Calista Flockhart, Christina Applegate, Kathy Ireland, Jessica Simpson, Dolly Parton, Tony Danza, Kirstie Ally and Delta Burke.
The check also included sponsorship money for the five-foot horses on display around town. Another check, which will be donated at the close of the project, will also include proceeds from Around Town Carousels Abound T-shirts, which depict nine of the carousels and are selling at a brisk pace for $20 at Bonita Lakes Mall.
The unveilings of the permanently displayed carousel horses have become community red-letter days. On May 22, “Trojan Express,” painted by Clay’s Paint and Body Shop, was unmasked at Northeast Elementary School, which sponsored the horse. Three days later, “Racing For Hope,” painted by Terri Ann Province and sponsored by Meridian Automotive Group, formerly Sellers, was revealed.
“There’s been a lot of competition in the business district to sponsor the horses because they draw so much attention and provide a chance to showcase businesses while doing something for the community,” said Bynum.
The $2,500 fee for the full-size carousel horses includes an approximate $1,500 donation to Hope Children’s Village. The balance covers building each one and the clear coating process required after painting is complete. The city and county help place and secure the carousel horses.
Allan Stewart, president of BankPlus in Meridian, the sponsor of “Horsecents,” located at the bank’s North Hills location, called the program “a remarkable success.”
“More people have stopped me in the last two months just to tell me they like the horse,” said Stewart. “At least one group a day comes in to ask if they can have children’s pictures taken on the horse. It’s amazing that a little idea for only 12 of these, now going up to 37, has generated so much excitement and money for Hope Village.”
The names have sparked curiosity almost as much as the artwork. There’s “Mare-y the Mall Trotter” at Bonita Lakes Mall, “Lightning” at the Central Fire Station, “Mr. Ed-ucation” at Meridian Community College, “Horseplay” at Meridian Little Theater, “The Clothes Horse” at Rhonda’s Connection, and “Horsepower” at Weidmann’s Square. Many of them can be viewed online at www.carouselsabound.com.
“The state’s welcome centers will have maps to plot the course to see all the horses,” said Bynum. “Very soon, the project coordinators hope to place two carousel horses on the interstate leading into Meridian.”
The horse hunt is expected to intensify this summer, beginning when nearly 5,000 participants in the State Games of Mississippi and their families are in town June 14-16 and June 20-23, and over the long July 4th weekend, when the traveling Smithsonian exhibit opens for its final six-week stop and the Meridian Symphony Orchestra Pops entertain thousands at the annual Bonita Lakes holiday celebration.
“Almost every time you go by the horses, there’s somebody taking pictures or asking about them,” said Dorothy Allen, manager of the chamber section of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation.
Lou Adams Pennebaker, president of the Memory Tree Foundation, host of the Smithsonian Exhibit “Produce For Victory: Posters On The Home Front, 1941-1945,” said the timing worked well.
“There’s so much community pride and I’m excited to be a part of it,” said Pennebaker, who was talking on her cell phone while hanging American flags on the highway for the Memorial Day weekend.
Pennebaker founded the Memory Tree Foundation in 1998 after learning that her former fianc