Carousel restorer Todd Goings on the lawn in front of the Children’s Museum of Memphis, the future home of the Memphis Grand Carousel
He’s been called the “carousel doctor” by The New York Times and “America’s Last Carousel Craftsman” by The Atlantic Monthly. And, this week, Todd Goings is in Memphis.
Goings will take possession of the classic wood carousel that came to Memphis from Chicago in 1922 and left Libertyland for storage in 2006. Goings and his company, Carousels and Carvings, will collect the carousel from the Mid-South Coliseum this week and take it to his Ohio studio for a full refurbishment.
After two years of cleaning, repairing, fixing the mechanics, the lights, and the organ, and painting and polishing the carousel’s 32 jumping horses, 16 standing horses, and two chariots, the carousel will return to Memphis with a new name — the Memphis Grand Carousel — and a new home at the Children’s Museum of Memphis.
Memphis magazine: So, what are you going to do with the carousel?
Todd Goings: We’re going to go through every piece and part of it. We’ll lay it out in our shop, and everything will be cleaned before we can make an assessment of current conditions. The one thing that we try to always make sure everyone understands is that the carousel — as romantic as it is — is still a working amusement device. It is a 100-plus-year-old piece of equipment that will function as it did when it was new.
If we find parts that need to be replaced, that’s what we do. We replace it with factory-original materials, including the casting, and the pieces, and the parts. We make our patterns, pieces, and parts because you can’t just go down to the hardware store anymore and buy the parts and pieces and bearings you need on this. They were made specifically by that company, like a Ford or a Chevy.
We start clear back at the basics, so we can get the ride to where it’s going to be here for another 100 years.
The Memphis carousel prior to restoration, photo courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Memphis
How does someone become a carousel specialist?
TG: You just have to be too stupid to say no.
How did you start working on carousels?
TG: Believe it or not, I started out in cabinet making, in furniture building. Then I got into carving. I read about a local carousel project, so I just went over — not to get into it — but I just thought it was interesting. One thing led to another, and now it’s been close to 25 years.
How many carousels have you worked on?
TG: We probably work on about 20 different ones a year in various stages. Some of them, we’ve already done the restoration on them and we go back for annual visits. Some of them, we do bi-weekly maintenance on them. We’re there every two weeks going over it. Some of them, I go in and work with crews in some of the bigger amusement parks.
So, it’s a big range, but we’re also making a few of them in our studio, too. The whole thing, from the ground up.
What’s the allure of carousels? Why do people want to hang onto them so badly?
TG: I honestly can’t answer that for everyone. I can tell you what grabbed me about it. It was the amazing craftsmanship. That’s why I like to do the work on them. When I look at them, that’s what I look at.
When you’re six years old and wanting to ride the carousel, you’re looking at more of a fantasy thing.
The unique thing, too, is that grandma and grandpa have ridden these things. Mom and dad rode these things. Now, the grandchildren are riding these things. So, they’re one of the few things left . . . you know, grandma and grandpa never played on their cell phones when they were kids.
So carousels are a broad connection to a fantasy. It’s like magic.
So, most of your work is on antiques?
TG: I’d say about 60 percent of what we do is on antiques. It’s really hard to argue about the engineering of something that’s run more than 100 years and had millions of riders on it. We talk about all of our updates and everything like that. But here’s a machine that’s been sitting here doing its job all these years, whether it got really well taken care of or it got abused for a while.
Everyone used to have carousels. The industry, they still argue about it. They say, at one time there was somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 carousels. Nobody really knows. The only thing they know now is that there are roughly 150 antique ones left in the country.
Have you seen the Memphis carousel recently?
TG: I haven’t seen it since we packed it away.
Is it still in pretty good shape?
TG: Yeah. I mean, for a 100-plus-year-old machine, it’s in real good shape.