Balboa Park Carousel History Predates 1915 Expo
On a typically sunny San Diego day you might be drawn to the sights and the sounds of the Balboa Park Carousel. As you approach, you see the horses, frogs, dogs and pigs bobbing up and down on their brass poles.
Most of us who grew up in San Diego took a spin on it at one time or another. But for me, it had even more significance. You could say it was a member of the family.
My grandfather started working there in 1925. My parents bought it in the '50s. I got to ride endlessly as a child in the 1960s, and I spent many days in the '70s sitting in that small white ticket box, selling tickets to help put me through college.
Bill Steen, the carousel's owner, told me that its history started five years before the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park — an event whose centennial is being celebrated this year.
“The carousel is a 1910 Herschell-Spillman menagerie carousel, and it was made in North Tonawanda, New York, and shipped to California,” Steen said.
It was initially sent to Los Angeles, then turned up at the resort called Tent City in Coronado in 1915. As Balboa Park grew into a popular spot, the original carousel owner decided to place it near where the Plaza de Balboa & Bea Evenson Fountain sits today on the eastern edge of the park.
The carousel "finally settled down in the park in about 1922,” Steen said.
It remained in that location until 1968 when it was moved to its current spot, he said, adjacent to the San Diego Zoo.
For me, that move in 1968 stands out. The city asked my mom to move her carousel three blocks, near the zoo. It was done to make way for the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the fountain.
Now 92, my mom, Virginia Long, owned the carousel for nearly 30 years. She still speaks with pride of its features, especially the craftsmanship on each animal.
“They’re hand carved. And I know the kind of wood — Lindenwood — from the Linden trees in London, England,” she told me.
Many of the horses have real horsetails, which raises an interesting story for both my mom and me: The story of where they came from.
“The zoo was very kind, and they kill horses when they’re old and feed the meat to the tigers and lions. And they would cut off the pretty tails,” Mom said.
What my mom didn’t say is that she hated to see the bloody tails that had just been removed from the horses. So I would go with her, then take the tails to the tanner, where I watched them clean them up for the carousel. I was a kid and I didn’t care.
The carousel was a fount of stories for our family. Here’s one.
A standard rule is that only the employees can move about the carousel during a ride. As a kid, I remember hearing how actor Robert Preston — who played Professor Harold Hill in the movie “The Music Man” — rode the carousel and wouldn’t stay still. My father gave him several warnings, and finally he stopped the carousel and kicked Preston off.
As a kid, I couldn’t believe my father kicked a famous actor off our merry-go-round. Dad later told me Preston had too much to drink.
The merry-go-round had an added feature for kids, and this one that was special among carousels: the ring toss. A bunch of rings, loaded into a hollow stake, would be extended just within reach of carousel riders. The lucky rider who grabbed the brass ring would win a free ride.
“And I believe we’re the only active ring toss game west of the Mississippi,” said Steen, who now owns the carousel.
Almost everything on the carousel is original, including the “band organ” and the hand-painted murals above the animals. The upkeep is extensive.
My mom calls owning it a year-round labor of love.
“It’s a well-loved merry-go-round,” she said, “and I’m so glad’s there’s a variety of animals: tigers and lions and pigs and cats. I painted the animals, and if they were all horses I would’ve been very bored!”
Steen sees it the same way.
“It’s been 35 years of loving care, carrying on the fine traditions that Virginia and (her dad) Clarence Wilcken set up for the merry-go-round. So little has changed over these, gosh, 90 years that the two families have owned or operated the merry-go-round,” Steen said.
So as you head to Balboa Park to celebrate its history, take a spin on the carousel, which truly can take you back in time.