The St. Louis Carousel: A Treasure Saved

Carousels have been a part of history for more than a thousand years and certainly since the Middle Ages when knights used them for training purposes. The name itself is derived from the Spanish word “carosella,” or “little battle.” Objects, like the proverbial brass ring, were placed outside the carousel and were to be grabbed or skewered by the knight’s sword. Jousting practice was also part of the carousel’s history until a member of the Medici family was killed. Rich people spoil it for everyone, heh?

IMG_9121They became popular as rides in Europe in the 19th century but their design was quite different and more daring than our current models. The horses were on poles but the poles were suspended from the ceiling of the ride and were designed such that, when going around, the centrifugal forces pushed the pole (and the horse and rider) out from vertical. These were known as “flying horse” carousels. Later, floors were put in and the horses stopped “flying” out, but gears were added to give the rider that up-and-down motion, simulating riding an actual horse. Often, these early models were powered by actual horses. That seems a bit odd.

By the mid-19th century carousels were becoming standard fixtures at fairs in England and the designers began to branch out to include small boats that tossed to and fro in addition to the carved wooden animals to ride. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution found its way beyond sweat shops and dangerous manufacturing equipment to include dangerous recreational equipment and the days of pony or horse power were gone.
The heyday of the carousel in America was between 1880 and 1920. In those years, skilled craftsmen, usually immigrants from Europe like Gustav Dentzel of Germany, hand carved realistic and sometimes highly imaginative animals and decorative pieces for the rides.

IMG_9134The St. Louis Carousel, built in 1921 by the Dentzel Company of Philadelphia, included more than 60 hand carved horses and deer. It was installed in the spring of 1929 by Forest Park Highlands on Oakland Avenue at a cost of $30,000, a huge amount of money in 1929. The ride was there until the amusement park was destroyed by fire in 1963. Even though the carousel escaped any major damage, it was uncertain what would become of it.

St. Louisan Howard C. Ohlendorf purchased the ride in 1965, donated the carousel to the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation and it was installed at Sylvan Springs County Park. The carousel was operated during the summer months at Sylvan Springs until 1979, when its location outdoors began to take a physical toll.

Enter the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission. The Commission understood the cultural significance of the ride and knew it had been, and was still, a beloved source of amusement for the area and they began to search for the means to restore the carousel and find it a home indoors.

IMG_9124A not-for-profit corporation, the Faust Cultural Heritage Foundation, was formed to raise funds and support and succeeded in placing what is now known as the Faust Carousel in its present building in Faust Park in 1987.

Faust Park is located at 15189 Olive Boulevard in Chesterfield, Missouri. It includes Thornhill Grounds, the former farming estate of Missouri’s second governor, Frederick Bates, and an historic village, the buildings of which span an era from 1840 to 1910. The park also includes the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Butterfly House, where more than 1,000 live tropical butterflies fly unfettered for the public’s enjoyment.

The St. Louis Carousel is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm. Rides are $2 each or three rides for $5. Children under 1 year of age ride free with a paying adult.