The sounds of laughing children playing could be heard for blocks as the colorful, historic carousel rotated with its horses and carriages in Fairyland Park.
For decades, families made the now 108-year-old Armitage-Herschell carousel a place to remember for birthdays, anniversaries or a place to go when relatives and friends came to visit.
But the carousel fell on hard times. The carousel sat silent and exposed to the elements for years under a leaky canopy, as Fairyland Park became a place that many just forgot.
Now, all of that has changed thanks to the efforts of the Greenville Junior Women’s Club and the Delta Children’s Museum. The two non-profit organizations have partnered to bring the historic carousel not only back to life, but also as part of a vital cog in an economic development revitalization project for another city historic landmark.
After several years of restoration work by an Ohio company, the carousel was returned to Greenville in late August for reassembly in the Delta Children’s Museum Pavilion, which is in the original E. E. Bass High School gymnasium space.
The former school building has also been renamed to the E.E. Bass Cultural Arts Center.
The Bass Center was a former high school and junior high school over the years but it, too, became a derelict eyesore on the city’s landscape after it was closed as a school decades ago.
The mammoth gym area, once used for basketball and pep rallies, will soon echo again with the sounds of carousel music and the accompanying laughter of children.
“It’s a wonderful project and one that is needed to bring back to life a part of Greenville’s history,” said Dr. Lee Engel, former president of the Delta Children’s Museum and a driving force behind the fundraising efforts towards restoration.
The Greenville Junior Women’s Club, started in 1953, has as its primary focus the carousel project, with all proceeds from fundraising events and activities going towards the restoration and operation of the carousel.
From a “tea tasting” party to the glitzy machinations of a Las Vegas-style illusionist, the fundraising efforts continue in order to pay off the remaining $30,000-plus restoration bill.
The club has operated the 108-year-old Armitage-Herschell carousel since taking ownership of it in 1956 when it was placed in Fairyland Park across from Greenville High School.
“I think the club, as a whole, is really excited that the carousel is back in Greenville,” said Beverly Auerswald, past president of the Junior Women’s Club. “There aren’t many of these around. We have worked hard over the years to raise funds to restore the carousel.”
As for the economic development potential of the carousel for the city, Auerswald said, “I think its something Greenville can benefit from greatly. This is something great for our city as far as economic development is concerned. It’s a good start but we have a long way to go.”
“We can see many people coming to E.E. Bass to see the carousel. That’s brings people to Greenville,” said Auerswald.
“We’re really excited to see the carousel back in Greenville,” said Kelli Branton, president of the Delta Children’s Museum. “There’s still much to be done but with everyone working together, it will get done and the community will benefit. We appreciate anything the community can do for us to help pay off the remaining debt on the restoration costs.”
The carousel was originally brought to Greenville in 1901 by Eli Wineman. The carousel was then powered by a steam engine, and is remembered by many for the calliope with a “big whistle.”
The park was also home to a “Pony Cart Ride” and a “Tank Ride,” which have already been restored as well and wait in the gym location for reassembling.
The carousel and small rides were closed to the public in 1988 due to the carousel’s deterioration.
The restoration services of Carousel Magic Inc. of Mansfield, Ohio, one of only two carousel restorers in the country, was engaged by the club to help bring the carousel back to life.
In order to do that, almost $100,000 was needed for the restoration effort of the carousel and the other two rides.
The carousel was dismantled in May 2000 by Carousel Magic craftsmen who then took the entire carousel and two rides to Ohio.
The rides were restored first and returned to Greenville in November 2001.
In late 2003, the Delta Children’s Museum, whose main purpose is to provide education projects for children of the Mississippi Delta, joined in the effort to save and restore the carousel by purchasing the carousel and two rides, along with its remaining debt, from the Junior Women’s Club.
It was felt by both organizations that the Delta Children’s Museum, with its tax-exempt status and broad community support base, could be effective in helping raise needed funds, and begin the restoration process.
In early 2004, due to the continuing deterioration of the carousel still in Ohio, fundraising efforts went into high gear.
The McTeer Foundation and the Delta Children’s Museum sponsored a “blues” fundraiser, a $20,000 “Match Challenge Grant” from the King’s Daughters and Sons Circle No. 2 was also received and several other “Crawfish” party fund-raisers were held helping to raise an additional $20,000.
Carousel Magic decided that since the Greenville fundraising efforts were bearing fruit, the company would go ahead with restoration efforts and wait for the remaining money.
“Every child in Greenville is contributing to the restoration project,” said Engel. “The museum sponsors five learning projects per year. Most children pay a $5 admission fee for the project. One dollar of every child’s admission goes directly to the carousel project.”
Michael Retzer, owner and CEO of Retzer Resources Inc., owner of most Delta-area McDonald’s Restaurants, recognized the need for restoration dollars.
With only five days left before departing for his current post as U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania, he made a personal $10,000 donation to the restoration effort.
“It was the right thing to do because the carousel is a part of Greenville history and heritage,” said Retzer.
And the return of the Armitage-Hershell Carousel to the E.E. Bass Cultural Arts Center is “great news” for Beth McKnight, executive director of the E.E. Bass Foundation, which oversees the renovations of the E.E. Bass building.
“I can see a lot of economic development potential from the carousel being located in the Bass Center,” said McKnight. “It just seems a natural place to locate the carousel here where there’s already so much Greenville history. And we have the space to put it so that it’s protected from the elements.”
Once the carousel and the pavilion area are completely refurbished and opened to the public in February 2007, “I can see tourists and visitors coming here to see this historic attraction,” said McKnight.
And an attraction is what the public will find.
“We’re really going to do it up right,” said Engel. “It has all been restored back to the original colors. We also plan to have a whole week of grand opening activities in February to celebrate the return of a Greenville icon.”
The E.E. Bass building has also been designated a historic building by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. It has also received funding for renovations and refurbishing of the building from the same department as well as the Mississippi Arts Commission.
“It will take us a while to complete our renovations to the main building, but in the meantime, we are already working on the north end and that’s where the carousel is located,” McKnight said. In all, renovations to E.E. Bass will cost upwards of $5 million when all is said and done.
“We are making an investment in the city and historic preservation. When the E.E. Bass Cultural Arts Center is completed, it will be the home to the city’s arts organizations and community,” McKnight said.
An indication of the interest generated so far with the arrival of the carousel is the number of birthday parties, receptions and anniversary celebrations already being booked into the pavilion.
“It’s wonderful there’s so much interest. I think it bodes well for when we officially open up the Delta Children’s Museum Pavilion with the restored old Armitage-Herschell carousel,” said McKnight.
Contact MBJ contributing writer David Lush at email@example.com.