By all rights, the Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs should be enshrined somewhere in a museum, red velvet ropes in place to keep little hands from touching and climbing on the precious antique horses. But to do that would deprive generations of kids of a unique and timeless experience.
The Flying Horses Carousel, constructed in 1876 and moved to Oak Bluffs in 1884, is the nation’s oldest platform carousel. But over the years the carousel proved to be expensive to maintain, and in 1986 it was acquired by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust to prevent it from being dismantled and sold off piecemeal — antique carved horses can be worth tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars.
But the care and maintenance of the carousel proved to be challenging; what’s more, though the charge of the trust was to preserve the original integrity of the carousel, after more than a century of attempts at restoration by countless people of varying abilities, by the mid-’80s, it was unclear what the original color scheme of the horses even looked like.
The trust determined that no one on-Island had the requisite skills to bring the 20 horses and four chariots accurately back to life, so they held a fundraiser; individuals and companies bid on the right to sponsor a horse or chariot, and the proceeds were used to send the pieces to Rosa Regan in Raleigh, N.C., the premier carousel conservator in the United States.
Today, John Anderson of West Tisbury, who has been the painting contractor for the Preservation Trust for close to 40 years, oversees the preservation of the Flying Horses. The Dunkl brothers were in charge of handling the restoration work before the horses were sent to Rosa Regan, but Anderson took over that responsibility after the horses returned to the Island.
“From 100,000 to 200,000 kids climb all over the horses each year,” said Anderson. “I’ve gone from being a protector of color for the carousel horses to being a wooden horse veterinarian.” It’s Anderson who gets the call when a horse snaps a leg; he has to have everything back up and running by the beginning of the next business day.
When Anderson first started working on the Flying Horses around 1992, they had about one broken leg a season, but over the years it’s gotten worse. These are all the original horses, and their legs have become increasingly fragile. A few years back they had five broken legs, and last year they had three. For routine breaks, Anderson will take care of them himself. For compound breaks, or where a leg may have been broken many times over the years, master boatbuilder Myles Thurlow is there to help out.
“Thurlow is the mechanical engineer for the Flying Horses — and the restorer of broken parts,” said Anderson. “If a horse needs more repairing than I can do overnight, we’ll take the horse to Myles’ shop in West Tisbury, and he will carve a new leg. Doing surgical repairs, Myles might discover that a leg has been broken six times. It’s his job to create a new leg where there aren’t too many pieces — his joinery is amazing.”
Bob and Peggy Schwier of West Tisbury round out the Flying Horses team — their specialty is painting restoration. “Rosa Regan [the North Carolina restoration expert] did a first-class restoration,” said Bob Schwier; “she went down through the layers of color to find out what the original colors were.”
“The colors were vibrant, bright, and happy,” said Anderson. “They were sign-painter colors.” But in many cases, the actual provenance of the colors was unclear. “What Rosa gave us was her interpretation of what the colors were in 1876.”
“When we first started working on the horses,” said Schwier, “because they got so much wear and tear, we wanted to build up a protective coat. So in the beginning we applied around three coats of restoration varnish a year. And while it did help protect them from scratches and nicks, it began to discolor the horses, so a horse that was originally white acquired more of a yellowish tone over the years. We try to get by with less varnish these days, but when you figure we’ve been working on the horses for 25 years, that’s still 40 or 50 coats of varnish.”
“When Rosa Regan did her original restoration,” Peggy Schwier said, “she provided us with about 30 different paints. For the most part we use about 10 of them from year to year; each horse has its own palette. There were oil paints, sign-painter paints, different tints, the only problem was that she didn’t give us the formulas to mix the paints. Bob is really good at matching colors, but even so, every year there’s a bit of trial and error.”
Aside from the horses, there are also four chariots that need attention. “The sides of the chariots are somewhat fantastical, but they don’t get as much wear and tear,” said Peggy. “Mostly just pregnant mothers and grandmothers sit on the chariots.”
“We have to take down the panel paintings on the carousel each year,” said Anderson. “They’re very fragile and come from the Hudson River school of painting; we store them for the winter at the Whaling Church, where it’s temperature-controlled.”
The paintings are not the only things that are stored in the off-season. Anderson has to store the tails and manes of the horses each winter, because rodents love to eat the horse hair, and use it for nesting. The manes and tails are real horse hair taken from mustangs that are culled each year from the Great Plains by the U.S. government.
About the only things that require no yearly maintenance are the eyes of the horses. The trademark of a Charles Dare carousel — the maker of the Flying Horses Carousel — is a distinctive glass eye, or a “shooter” as it’s called, with a “Cracker Jack” type of little toy inserted in each eye. And they’re pretty much indestructible.
For John Anderson, working on the Flying Horses Carousel has been a rewarding experience. “It’s given me an extensive knowledge of how to do things,” he said. “To fix things, you have to be able to do the research and figure them out. It’s not like you can just go to the local hardware store to get replacement parts.” But it can also be heartbreaking, Anderson said. There’s a lack of understanding and disrespect on the part of the general public. Kids climb on the antique horses like they’re a jungle gym. “Why do people think they have the right to steal a tail from one of these beautiful horses?” he wondered.
For the Schwiers, working on the Flying Horses is a labor of love. “I love it when people peer in the windows,” said Peggy. “They tell us they used to come here as a child; it’s amazing how much the Flying Horses mean to people. It’s a great feeling.”
“I like old things and I like the continuity of it,” said Bob. It’s not a static display, not just a museum piece. People get on it and participate: “It’s a living thing.”