March 2, 2009

C.W. Parker Carousel Museum - Leavenworth, KS

A few more miles down Highway 7/73, also known as Fourth Street, I came to the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum. The museum tells the history of the carousel and of C.W. Parker, who made his fortune designing and building carnival entertainment. It also features an exhibit about freak shows - something that intrigues my morbid curiosity.

The opening of the museum tour is a short film about the history of the carousel and the life of Parker. No one knows who invented the carousel or when, but according to the film at the beginning of the tour there are drawings of carousels that date as far back as 500 B.C. It's current form - a spinning platform with horses - was originally designed for military training. Eventually, of course, they fell out of favor as a martial exercise and became a more popular form of entertainment.

C.W. Parker started out at the age of 17 when he purchased a high striker machine for cowboys to test their strength on in Abilene, Kansas. He continued to expand his carnival enterprise by acquiring a shooting gallery and then built his first factory in 1894 in Abilene, Kansas. By the early twentieth century, he had four traveling carnivals and was supplying other carnivals with equipment - needless to say, he had become a very wealthy man. But after a falling out with the town about the location of his second factory, he built his new operations in Leavenworth in 1911. (Fun fact: Although the factory was only two stories tall, Parker advertised the Leavenworth factory in pictures as six stories.)

But the good times would not last forever. After Parker's death and the Great Depression, Parker carousels were doomed. At the height of their popularity, there were 5,000 working wooden carousels in the US but now only 160 remain. Of the thousands of carousels made by Parker, two are restored in the museum. One was made between 1850-1860, making it the oldest known working American carousel.

After the educational video, Bill W. was kind enough to show me around the museum. It was fascinating! You can see the development of the carousel horses, the intricate wood carving, the painstaking restoration process and artifacts from different times in the carousel's history. You can look into the workshop where the horses are restored and see them in different stages - from the replacement of lost limps to the detailed painting of the saddles. (Fun fact: Carousel horses are actually hollow inside! That is to prevent moisture from building up and rotting the wood.)

At the end of the tour, I got to ride one of the carousels. Initially, I was very self-conscious. I was the only rider so I felt like some creepy twenty-something trying to be a kid again. In the video at the beginning, the narrator said, "The carousel places no limit on fantasy." I think that is absolutely true. As soon as the ride started and Scout (that was the name of my horse) and I took off, I wasn't a creepy twenty-something any more. I was five-years-old riding the carousel in Tulsa, Oklahoma waving to my grandfather. It is funny how something so simple can take you back. My grandfather has been gone a long time, but I miss him still. Riding the carousel was something fantastic, it brought some beautiful childhood memories that I didn't just get to think about - I got to relive all over again.

The C.W. Paker Carousel Museum was a great experience, but I'm not done telling you all about it! There's still one more bit to cover - the FREAK SHOW exhibit!

Special thanks to Bill W. for being an awesome tour guide!


  1. As long as you didnt cry out "WEEEEE..." then it wasn't creepy.


  2. D you know the address of the Parker Museum? I have an early name plate from the center section of a Parker carousel and would like to find out more about it. It almost looks hand made.