Photo by Peter Simon.
The Martha’s Vineyard Historical Preservation Society Inc. this week formally announced the launching of its campaign to raise $740,000 by Dec. 8 to purchase the land, building and business of the historic Oak Bluffs carousel, the Flying Horses.
 
As part of its agreement with the present owner of the carousel, James Ryan of Osterville, the society has managed the Flying Horses since its opening on the Memorial Day weekend. It is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
 
The Flying Horses, handcrafted by Charles W.F. Dare between 1876 and 1878, consists of 20 prancing horses, two abreast, and four chariots. It is one of only two Dare carousels still intact in the United States today, and one of only a handful of carousels that still has the brass ring.
 
The Flying Horses will be one of 10 carousels nominated this fall to National Landmark status by the federal government, the society said in its announcement this week. This is the highest recognition that can be given to historic sites that are not government owned.
 
The Martha’s Vineyard Historical Preservation Society is a tax-exempt and nonprofit organization funded entirely by private donations. It was formed in 1975 to preserve key architectural and historical buildings on the Island.
 
The society’s first acquisition was the Dr. Daniel Fisher House (1840) in Edgartown, one of the Vineyard’s finest examples of Greek Revival architecture. The society has since acquired the 1796 Ritter House in Tisbury, which now houses the Tisbury Museum; the Vincent House, which may be the oldest house on the Island; the Old Whaling Church (1843) which has been restored and now houses the society’s Performing Arts Center; and this summer, the Old Schoolhouse (1829) in Vineyard Haven.
 
The society is governed by a board of 33 trustees. Its executive director is Jane C. Tomassian of Edgartown.
 

Historical Preservation Society Gives Story of Flying Horses

 
Editors’ Note: This story of the Flying Horses Carousel was prepared by the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Preservation Society, which is leading the effort to save the Oak Bluffs landmark for future Island generations to enjoy.
 
The Flying Horses Carousel, located on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard in the town of Oak Bluffs, is the nation’s oldest operating platform carousel. Adding to  its historic significance is the fact that for well over 100 years, it has been operating on the same site. It is one of two known carousels built by Charles W.F. Dare, most likely between 1876-78. Sometime before 1884, the Flying Horses was brought to Martha’s Vineyard. It may have been operated on Coney Island before this time, according to an inscription “Coney Island #4” found on one of the decorative panels.
 
Carousels originated in Europe in the 1800s and emerged in the latter part of the century in America. Three loosely-defined styles have categorized the American handcrafted carousels: the Coney Island, the Philadelphia, and the County Fair. Charles W.F. Dare was the forerunner of the latter style, characterized by lightweight and relatively simple carvings, designed to be transported from fair to fair. Dare’s company was in business in New York city from 1866 to 1901, making hobbyhorses and other amusement devices. Only a handful of Dare’s carousels were built in his New York firm, and we are fortunate to have one of the two known Dare carousels to have survived intact.
 
The Smithsonian Institute has several individual pieces of Dare’s carvings, and others can be found in private collections. Dare’s horses are known for their innocent expressions, plump faces, flat nostrils and static poses. To complete the toylike quality, Dare gave his figures marbles for eyes, alternating between swirls and clear glass sulphides containing small animal motifs.
 
The Flying Horses so far has escaped the fate of the majority of handcrafted carousels in our country which have fallen victim to fires, theft, disrepair and, that of a relatively new but equally damaging threat, collectors, both public and private. Once numbering in the tens of thousands, today, intact handcarved carousels still operating have fallen to about 200, with numbers steadily decreasing each year. Carousel auctions are held many times throughout the year, both for entire carousels and individual animals. The majority of these auctions result in either the dismantling of the intact carousel into individual auctionable animals or in the removal of the entire carousel from the community. Although there are occasional ‘success stories,’ most are not. The increasing value of the handcrafted carousel has made these one of the most valued collectors’ items in today’s world.
 
Less than two years ago, in October, 1984, the famed Idora Park carousel of Youngstown, Ohio, was auctioned off for $385,000, after the city declined to meet the $200,000 asking price. It now sits in Brooklyn. In December of this past year, the community of Hull, Massachusetts fared much better. With only a 30-day notice given, the Paragon Park carousel was put out to public auction. Individual pieces were auctioned fist, with the entire carousel offered at individual total price plus 20 per cent. Although two communities (one from Ohio, one from New York) and many collectors were present, the three local men met the final price of $600,000. Thanks to this most unusual display of private generosity on behalf of the community, the town has retained its carousel, having overcome seemingly unbeatable odds. This story is the exception, however. For example, on May 3, 1986 in New York city, an auction of individual carousel animals brought over $500,000, with one animal alone being sold for $32,000. The carousels that have survived intact today can truly be called members of a dying breed.
 
Recognizing the importance of the handcrafted carousel, the Department of the Interior and Congress have decided to include this category in their National Landmark program. This is the highest recognition given to any historic landmark, the acknowledgement of its exceptional importance on a national level (rather than on a state or local level, as is seen in the National Register Listings.) The Flying Horses of Oak Bluffs is one of the only 10 individual carousels in the country to be nominated for National Landmark status and, of the 10, is considered one of the premiere candidates. Official designation is expected in October, 1986.
 
In early 1986, the present private owner of the Flying Horses contacted the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Preservation Society, indicating that the carousel - along with the land, building and business - would be sold. After months of deliberation, the preservation society decided to undertake this project that would insure the perpetual preservation of the Flying Horses on the Vineyard.
 
Under the agreement reached between the preservation society and the owner, the society would lease and operate the business during the summer of 1986, while signing an option to purchase for the land, building, business and carousel. The option will give the society until December 8, 1986 to raise and/or finance the total price of $750,000. If this cannot be accomplished by December 8, the owner will be free to sell to anyone.
 
Because the society believes this is the most important project it has encountered to date, and because this is the only project of national importance, the society is appealing to the Vineyard community and beyond.
 
Tax-exempt donation will be solicited across the nation in the effort to meet the December 8 deadline and the society hopes for donations large and small from persons who wish to contribute.