When faced with an autumnal deadline, and winter’s arrival just beyond that, summer sneaks its blessings into sun-soaked days and shouts to the world: “LIVE NOW!”
We join with the waves until one day in early September when they return to the ocean and come back too cold to hitch a ride. Fireflies, crickets, and cicadas seize these fleeting summer nights in a romantic game of “Marco Polo.”
And carousels come to life in traveling fairs and boardwalk escapes. Horses chase their tales to the calliope music, an eternal gallop against time.
Summer is the season of the carousel, and this year my family welcomed summer on top of the wooden horses of the Grand Carousel at Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, PA. Carved, built, and brought to life in 1912, the Grand Carousel and its magical horses turned 100 years old this summer, and their gallop hasn’t lost a step.
The Grand Carousel was built by Kramer Carousel Works of Brooklyn and for many years lived at Riverview Park in Rahway, N.J. It was bought by Knoebels in 1941, and has been spinning ever since. It still dispenses steel rings for riders to reach out and grab — catch the brass ring and the ride is free.
The Grand Carousel and Knoebels itself are time machines not only to the past, but to one’s youth as well. Both simpler times; both calling to be rediscovered. Tucked into a grove of trees and home to a campground bordering the park, Knoebels is a throwback to a time when the world was in black and white. Admission is free, roller coasters are made of wood, and — in an age where insurance companies often dictate how businesses can run themselves — the park’s swimming pool actually sports two high dives. Nothing answers summer’s “LIVE NOW!” directive better than a cannonball off a high dive.
Knoebels opened in 1926, and its first ride was a carousel built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co. (which also built one of the park’s two wooden roller coasters).
Generations of childhood memories can be attributed to the carousel and its Philadelphia roots. The first carousel in the country was set up in Germantown in 1860 by German immigrant Gustav Dentzel. The Dentzel family carved and built carousels in Philadelphia until 1928, when the Great Depression began to silence the music of the ride. If you’ve ridden the carousel at the Please Touch Museum, you can thank the Dentzel family. And if you take a spin on the horses at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in Ocean City this summer, you can thank the Philadelphia Toboggan Co.
After our day on the rides at Knoebels, my family retired to our campsite for the night. We had asked for a campsite close to the park, and they more than obliged. Ten feet away from our tent was the fence separating us from one of the wooden coasters. Late into the night the train raced along the wooden tracks, its wooden cadence muffled only by the accompanying screams of its passengers.
When the coaster silenced for the night, and with my family asleep, I sat looking up at the wooden coaster and its moon-cast shadows. The spirit of the past was in the air, and the words and images of the late Ray Bradbury filled my soul. He died just a few days before, on June 5, at the age of 91. Something Wicked This Way Comes, his dark coming of age masterpiece about a carnival coming to town, sat on my nightstand at home.
The novel was published 50 years ago, and I was rereading it when Bradbury passed on to the heavens. The carnival’s carousel is more than it seems in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ride it forwards, it makes you older. Ride it backward, you return to your youth.
There is indeed magic in the motion and music of the carousel. Unlike its European forebears, American carousels typically run counterclockwise. I believe those Philadelphia carousel-makers knew what they were doing.
Like a time machine, the horses await, transporting us to our youth. So harness up, and hitch a ride, for the season of the carousel is fleeting and fall is never far behind.