The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Society may think it owns the Flying Horses. And of course we’re glad the living history group is under that impression. Who among us wants to start our day with, “Honey, the Wurlitzer is broken, can you spray it with WD-40 and bang the pipes?” But yes, we do individually own the 125-plus-year-old carousel. It nestles in our memories and is tucked into our hearts.
And now it’s spring again and the merry-go-round is open on weekends. Over Easter it cranked out its first ride and organ standard.
Robin Meader has managed the Horses for the past 22 years. “My Grandma Adeline was born here in 1912 and she rode the Flying Horses when she was a little girl. My parents [Anthony and Marilyn Rebello, also Island natives] rode them in the 1930s. It was five cents then. I was born here in the 1950s and back then the price was ten cents, three for a quarter.”
Ms. Meader’s own three kids, Flying Horses riders in good standing, Jared, Jamie and Willy, are now more than fully grown, with children of their own; well, to be exact, Willy expects his first kid in two months. But you needn’t be a multi-generational Islander to tuck the merry-go-round in your psyche’s pocket. Young couples ride the painted ponies to put a few more necessary spins on their courtship. Daytrippers flock to America’s oldest operating carousel. And moms, dads and grandparents bring their tots here to inaugurate them in one of the Vineyard’s memorable treats, right up there with Giordano’s pizza slices and a day with plastic pails at State Beach.
You need to work fast with the little ones because their enchantment with the shiny horses, the whirls and Wurlitzer melodies, tiny fingers grasping for brass rings (to which handy grown-up hands forge a link), soon gives way to the machine lights and beeps of the small game room next door. The star piece in this setting is not the screaming yellow taxi ride, the Atari boxes with point-and-shoot guns, the prosthetic claw devices that grab at stuffed animals, big felt balls and discs with rubber porcupine quills. After all these years, the gator game is still here. This reporter watched in drifts of nostalgia as six-year-old Robert Rota thumped one rolling alligator head after the next, racking up 59 points, not bad for a first-time effort: the top score of the day is 93.
Back in the 80s, the horses were colored a flat black, white and tan. I remember this because my own three-year-old son screamed bloody murder if he failed to seat his tiny behind — padded by red Superman trunks — on a black horse. It was black or nothing. Occasionally I would carry him weeping from the carousel, the organ similarly wailing at our backs.
Nowadays there is not a single black horse to be had. The horses are tinted various shades of brown, beige and tan. Ms. Meader explained it all: When the Preservation Society took over from private owners in 1986, the trustees shipped all the horses to a restoration company in South Carolina. There an expert artisan stripped and sanded 30 coats of paint to arrive at the original 1870s shades. These vintage colors were reapplied, followed by coats of varnish to protect the horses for another century, century-and-a-half.
The organ, dating back to 1901, frequently needs adjustment. Ms. Meader says, “Mike Fuss does everything. In the winter he comes to give the carousel an overhaul. And sometimes we have to place an SOS to him in the summer when a pin comes loose or something jams up. We’re never down for long.” Even as she talks about it, her hand strays to the Rolodex a foot ahead of her, where the master mechanic’s number resides.
In the high season, Ms. Meader maintains 24 workers on staff. “Each summer I hire seven or eight new employees, although this year 98 per cent are coming back, so there are only a couple of positions open.”
Built in 1876 by Charles W. F. Dare, The Flying Horses arrived eight years later on the Vineyard with a traveling circus. Legend has it that a gambling debt kept the merry-go-round in situ. Praise the Lord for gambling debts! All through the Gilded Age of Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs), dazzling structures towered over the little carousel that could: a five-story and five-star hotel, the Seaview, a glitzy lavender-colored dance hall called the Tivoli, a skating rink of similar size, and the terminal for the train that chugged back and forth from Edgartown. Now all those Victorian grandiosities are gone, but the carousel keeps on twirling from Easter Saturday through Columbus Day.
On this Saturday in April, the facade of the Flying Horses looks shuttered and undisturbed. A gentle rain falls on the yellow clapboard of the not-yet-opened Old Variety Store. Next door, slightly indented so that one might not immediately notice it, the barn-red clapboard of the carousel faces the sleepy wet town with an open door. Inside, popcorn is freshly crackling. The shiny horses with their genuine wild mustang manes stand motionless as visitors clamber up the saddles.
I pay my two bucks (yes, it’s up to two dollars, but it all goes to Preservation Society good works), and climb aboard an amber-brown horse. The beloved organ cranks into an umpa-umpa melody, the horses start to move. They’re fast, faster than I recall from my last ride some 22 years ago. The young man ahead of me performs those lightning isometrics that net the rider four or five steel rings at a time. Vineyard kids learn how to do this early on.
Then, lo and behold, this one-ring-per-circumlocution reporter holds the shiny brass band in her hand. A teen employee comes over and asks if I’d care for a complimentary second ride. I shake my head no, a quick fantasy playing in my head: I’ll send the free ticket to my son, along with a second. On his next visit with a girlfriend, he can take her for a romantic ride. With any luck, she won’t see him burst into tears at the absence of black horses.
“Would you like to give it to a small child?” the boy asks with a smile disclosing a mouthful of braces.
What kind of curmudgeon turns down a deal like that one?
“We’re captive on the carousel of time,” Joni Mitchell sings about a metaphorical merry-go-round: “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game.”
The Flying Horses carousel is open weekends 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. until Memorial Day weekend, when it will be open daily through the summer. For details, call 508-627-4440.