Rare Wooden Carousel at Burnaby Village

Photo: Remy Scalza

Michael DesMazes might have the best job in the world.  For the last 14 years, he has operated the historic carousel at the Burnaby Village Museum, a “living museum” that shows how life was in the 1920s.  There’s a working blacksmith’s shop, school house, old-fashioned general store and tons of actors dressed up in period costumes.  But the highlight for most visitors is Michael’s domain: the circa 1912, fully functional carousel

I know what you’re thinking: In an age of gravity-defying rollercoasters and 4-D experiences at the Vancouver Aquarium, how can an old carousel possibly be interesting?  Take one look, and I promise you’ll be converted.  It’s not just an amusement, it’s a work of art.  The carousel was a standby at the PNE Fair in Vancouver for decades before falling into disrepair.  It was then bought by a private collector with a big heart and sold to the Burnaby Museum for $1, provided they restored it to its former glory and built a pavilion to protect it from the elements.

Photo: Remy Scalza

Volunteers lavished 30,000 man hours on painstakingly rebuilding, refinishing and repainting the dozens of wooden horses on the carousel.  Each horse is distinct.  Some raise their heads and whinny at the sky (These are, appropriately enough, known as stargazers in carousel parlance).  Others trot along regally, wooden manes polished to a high gleam.  There are horses with battle armor and brilliant gold trimmings and others dressed for a hunt across the English countryside.  And then there is the glorious “lead horse”: mane a riot of bristling hair; front leg extended

On eBay, individual carousel horses in good condition can fetch upward of $10,000.  But these old nags have been put to a higher calling.  Each day, hundreds of youngsters (and the young at heart) climb on board for a few whirls around the carousel.  Michael, the operator, starts the ride with a safety demonstration: Speeds max out at a blistering 12 kilometers per hour, he warns, so it’s best to hold on.  Then, he punches a button and the carousel starts up, slowly at first, then turning faster and faster until the horses are pumping up and down in a blur.  At the same time, a massive antique Wurlitzer Organ from 1925 cranks out carnival music – complete with clapping cymbals, bass drum, flutes, bells, trumpets and whistles.

Photo: Remy Scalza

Talk with Michael between rides, and you realize that there’s a whole hidden culture around carousels.  Back in the day, they were the highlight of the fair, drawing long lines of riders.  Carousel makers competed to make the fastest, most flamboyantly decorated models.  And the operators were a breed unto themselves – fast-living carnival types who stored bottles of booze in the carousel gearhouse for a nip or two between rides.  Another bit of trivia: While North American carousels run counterclockwise, European versions go clockwise.

Photo: Remy Scalza

There’s far more to the Burnaby Village Museum than the carousel, including a lovingly restored tram and thousands of artifacts that shed light on the history of the Lower Mainland.  Admission is a deal: Only $11.70 for adults; $5.86 for kids under 12 (and Tuesdays all admissions are half-price).  And the best part: If you want to go and just ride the carousel, it will only cost you $1.90.  More information is available at BurnabyVillageMuseum.ca.

Remy Scalza

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  1. I remember I was there….

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