Gustav Dentzel pioneered the modern carousel in America in the 1860s. Many men followed his lead and the mystical carousel became the centerpiece for hundreds of amusement parks that began to spring up across the nation. The “golden age” of carousels lasted until the great depression when the economy began to decline. In the 1970’s interest renewed in carousels as beautiful collectables. This was about the time that Gale Joh was growing up in Binghamton, New York. Thanks to a philanthropist in Gale’s hometown, he grew up riding six different carousels.
Gale married a wonderful woman, Valerie, and they settled in Kingsport, Tennessee some time later. After many years and much success in Kingsport, Gale had the quirkiest idea; he wanted to build a wooden carousel right in the middle of town so that the children of East Tennessee would have the enjoyment and memories of a hometown carousel, just as Gale did. In 2008, he told his wife about the idea and she said, “Gale, when pigs fly there will be a wooden carousel in Kingsport.” He didn’t let Valerie discourage him though; he began to get to work on his new dream.
As he began to talk about his dream with the people of Kingsport, the all liked the idea but didn’t know how to make it a reality. That is, until they found out about the “Horsin’ Around Wood carving Studio” in Chattanooga and the two carousels that had been made there. Gale came home and quickly assembled a team of men who believed in his dream as much as he did. These men, The Four Horsemen they called themselves, attended a woodcarving school taught by “Horsin’ Around” owner Bud Ellis. After some figuring, the project began getting physical.
By fall of 2010 the first carvings began, led by the Four Horsemen. What the men didn’t realize was that the project would be a serious time commitment. The Kingsport carousel would require 32 animals and two chariots. Very conservative estimates suggest each animal represents about 1000 hours of work. Fortunately for the community, the carousel leaders came back from wood carving school enthusiastic and ready to inspire others. While 2010 can be considered an exciting time for the carousel project, it was also a sad time for everyone involved. Mr. Gale Joh passed away from a debilitating disease shortly after carving began. While Gale’s death was a devastating loss, many honored his legacy by contributing to the project, which literally became the foundation of the efforts of hundreds of volunteers.
Animals began forming from wood blocks, a frame of poles, sweeps, rounding boards, gears and electric motors began being assembled. As of spring 2015, two chariots, 32 animals, 24 rounding boards, 24 sweep animals and 24 bird paintings have been completed. People who had never carved or painted, such as Valerie Joh, learned a new skill, master crafters and painters also chipped in. Sponsors came from every imaginable place, and literally all the pieces fell right into place. The Kingsport carousel project is almost complete!
Many of the carousel’s pieces are significant, but there are two that are quite sentimental. All carousels have a bell at the top that is rung as the ride begins to take off. Kingsport’s carousel bell was donated by a long time, retired fireman and came off one of the very first fire trucks in Kingsport! Another thing that will be found atop of the carousel is a flying pig. When Gale first told his wife Valerie about his idea, her response was that simple, southern one. After Gale’s death and as the carousel really began to come together, Valerie got started carving her flying pig. He was the dreamer and she was the voice of reason, and they were both right. When pigs fly, there will be a carousel in Kingsport, Tennessee; and that little pig will begin to fly July 6th of this year, celebrated by a ribbon cutting with the City of Kingsport. A soft opening for the public will be July 10th and the Grand Opening is July 25th, which coincides with National carousel Week.