The Kingsport Carousel: A Dream Come True

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Kingsport and Northeast Tennessee boasts so many great things but from an art perspective, nothing compares the beautiful, historic, Kingsport Carousel!

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Every town in America has dreamed of owning a carousel at one time or another, but for Kingsport, Tennessee, they were able to make there somewhat unrealistic dream a reality!

            The story cannot start anywhere but with the late Mr. Gale Joh. In 2008, Mr. Joh submitted an inquiry about what it would take for Kingsport to get their own carousel. He enlisted the help of the City of Kingsport Cultural Arts Office and his fellow Kiwanis members and before long, they found out that Chattanooga had two working carousels and their animals had been hand carved! The small team that was interested in seeing the carousel come to fruition had to see this project for themselves. The owner of Horsin’ Around Wood Carving Studio, Bud Ellis, carefully explained the process to his visitors and the fire was officially lit for this to happen in Kingsport.

            Even though everyone involved was truly in love with the idea of Kingsport having a carousel, there was still the issue of funding or finding artists to carve these masterpieces. But sometimes, fate takes over projects and leads them toward the finish line and that is exactly what happened here. It did not take long for a group of four horsemen, also known as, Reggie Martin, Milton Nelson, George Gibson, and Ted Heling, to show up with a willingness to participate, Around the same time, the Office of Cultural Affairs was awarded a small grant, in the category of Art Builds Community. Then, suddenly, there to appeared to be a little traction on the project and the volunteers could see a light slowly forming at the end of this proverbial tunnel. With this grant and money out of their own pocket, the four horsemen headed back to Chattanooga and to Bud Ellis’ school of carving. 

            By fall of 2010, the four horsemen had spent an entire week carving horseheads. But most carousel animals take up to 1000 hours to carve and they had estimated needed at least 32 animals and two chariots. Even though the revelation of this was daunting, the ones passionate about this project had no intention of quitting. The carvers soon moved the project into the Lynn View Community Center, which had served as a school on more than one occasion but had recently been acquired by the City of Kingsport. The building needed a lot of attention, but the merry band of carvers were just thankful to have somewhere to carve and store their completed items. 

            At the annual Farm Expo in January 2011, the carvers decided it might be the perfect location to find some other volunteers and they did just that, many of which sent themselves to learn to carve from Bud Ellis! Even though there was so much excitement in the air about the progress of the project, the hardest part was still yet to come. They had to find the body of a carousel. After numerous feelers were put out all over the country, the team realized the money just was not there to make $15,000-$20,000 purchase. But, just as everything else in this story, sometimes things are meant to be, and it seems as though this carousel fits that bill on every level. The Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Connecticut had replaced their carousel frame and put the old one in storage. After finding out the information and seeing pictures, the team knew this was the moment they had all been waiting on the needy to pounce on this offer. What they did not expect was for the carousel frame to be given to them to clean up some storage space. 

            The volunteers in both carvers and painters just kept coming and it was not long before Kingsport was able to bring Mr. Joh’s vision to reality! They had a carving studio and the volunteers in place but needed somewhere to show off this project of love and community. To raise money for the construction of a building to house the carousel, each of the 32 animals, 2 chariots, 24 rounding boards, and 24 bird paintings had to have sponsors. Pal and Sharon Barger saw the effort and decided to sponsor the Roundhouse themselves. 

            Today, visitors can visit both carving studios, at the Lynn Meadow Community Center and the one above carousel and watch the artists hard at work repairing an item or building something new for the exhibit. The studio hours at Lynn Meadow Community Center are open Tuesday’s, 3:00pm-9:00pm and Saturday’s 9:00am-1:00pm. The studio at the carousel is typically open Wednesday-Friday mornings from 11:00am-12:30pm but call ahead of time to ensure there are artists working.

            The Kingsport Carousel serves the community in so many ways but one of the biggest is as a special event space or party location. Guests can participate in a small party rental, which for $100 gets you two hours of unlimited rides for up to 20 guests and much more! Reservations are required so make sure if you are planning such an event. 

            The carousel is located at 350 Clinchfield Street in Kingsport and is open Wednesday-Sunday. However, before you go, make sure to check their Facebook where they will announce special events and weather-related closings. 

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