Few memories from my childhood are as vivid as riding the “Over the Jumps” carousel in Little Rock’s War Memorial Park. As a child, I wasn’t much of an amusement ride enthusiast since there simply weren’t that many around where I lived. There were rides once a year as what was then known as the Arkansas Livestock Exposition and there was the park at War Memorial. At the time we lived “out in the boonies” making it difficult for us to get to the park at War Memorial. So when we did go, it was quite a treat.
Of course, the merry-go-round (as we called it) was one of my favorites and I eagerly awaited the Livestock Show each year so I could ride it. Imagine my total disappointment when the carousel there wasn’t like the Over the Jumps. The horses went up and down on a pole. They didn’t ride over an undulating track like the War Memorial Park ones did, and to me even at that young age, the up and down ponies were simply no match for the others.
Fast forward to the early 80s. Now an adult, it is a goal of mine to make sure my young niece and nephew get to experience Over the Jumps while on a visit to the Little Rock Zoo next door. I have to admit that, even as an adult, I rode it with them. Of course, I tell myself it’s to make sure they’re safe since they are both small, but who did I think I was kidding? I wanted to ride it again as badly as they wanted to the first time. And sure enough, it was as much fun as I remembered.
The heyday of carousels in the United States was from 1887 to 1935. According to the Friends of the Carousel (FOC) Web site, approximately 8,000 were produced during this time, with less than 150 surviving today and even fewer having been restored. The Over the Jumps, also called the Arkansas Carousel by the FOC, is even rarer with its undulating track. It was constructed in 1924 as a traveling carousel by the Herschell-Spillman Engineering Corporation of North Tonawanda, New York.
According to Elizabeth Schutt, curator of the Herschell Carrousel (sic) Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, “Very few of the rides were manufactured, although it received a great deal of publicity when it was initially introduced. The Spillman Engineering Company created what they thought would be the next generation of carrousels when they introduced the ride.” Though people in Arkansas have always heard only four were originally built, Schutt believes that perhaps as many as 10 but no more than that and probably less, were made and that it was only in production for a couple of years.
“The Over the Jumps ride was a success in the public’s eye and proved to be extremely popular. It featured a new type of motion and really re-imagined the carrousel as a new type of ride with the moving, undulating platform creating a new thrill,” Schutt said. “The new mechanism, however, was the ride’s eventual downfall. The machine, although popular, often had the main mechanism break down. The new machine spent as much time being repaired as it did operating. It required a great deal more maintenance that a regular carrousel did,” she continues. “A ride owner wants a reliable ride; a ride that is not subject to breakdowns, malfunctions and accidents. The ride also debuted at a very inauspicious time, right before the beginning of the Great Depression, in the late 1920s. Although it was an initial success, the mechanical problems, high maintenance and initial priceyness of the ride combined with the tightening budgets of ride operators as the 1930s came about proved to be too much for the company. They discontinued the ride in favor of more reliable, easier to maintain machines.”
The Arkansas Carousel made its first appearance at the 1924 Arkansas State Fair as part of a traveling circuit of amusement rides. Little Rock resident Tom Fuzzell bought it in 1942 and housed it in a shelter constructed from one of the original state fair buildings. The purchase saved the ride from destruction and it continued to entertain Arkansans and visitors alike. It was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places as being of state significance in 1989. (Just recently it was added to the register because of having national importance.) In 1991 owners Mokie Shotes and Doc O’Kelley decided to sell.
At the time, there was no guarantee the priceless amusement piece would stay all together, much less in The Natural State. Little Rock and Arkansas were in real danger of losing it to out-of-state interests, including some as far away as Great Britain. Then Little Rock resident Marlena Grunewald and at the time Senator Mike Kinard, acting separately, decided something had to be done to save Little Rock landmark. The two eventually joined forces and formed the Friends of the Carousel group, which collected enough donations to make a down payment, keeping it off the auction block.
The initial plan was to restore the ponies, four chariots, and 24 large wooden wheels by just touching up the existing paint. Once the work began, however, it developed into much more as 40 layers of paint were discovered: it became a conservation project. There are 40 ponies, two of which were added at a later date and are not a part of the original carousel, though they were manufactured by the same company. These two, Smarty Jones and Ginger, will be restored at a later date. Smarty is named after the famous thoroughbred and was adopted by the real Smarty’s owners, Chappy and Pat Chapman. Ginger is named in honor of Ginger Murry of Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in Little Rock. All the original animals have one of two poses – heads up or heads down – and are either an inside or an outside horse. The exterior ponies are more ornately carved and bejeweled, while the interior ones are less decorated but are slightly larger in size. The majority of the restoration work on the horses and chariots has been done by well-known conservator Rick Parker of Gentry, Arkansas. The large wooden wheels were redone by an Amish wheelwright of Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania.
FOC Chairman David Martinous of Little Rock estimated the total restoration cost including the mechanicals to be around one million dollars. According to Little Rock Deputy City Attorney Cindy Dawson, who is a FOC board member and serves as legal counsel to the zoo board of governors, “It has been expensive to go the original restoration route, for sure. It would have been cheaper to have done the ‘dip and strip’ and paint route, but the decision to restore the original was made by the founding members of the group so the subsequent members have continued on the same path.”
When completed, Over the Jumps will be the focal point of a new entry complex at the Little Rock Zoo. The entrance will have an elegant Gay ‘90s feel with a gift shop, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, visitor services, formal gardens, and a replica of “Laughing Sally,” a coin-operated fortune teller long associated with the carousel when it was at Little Rock’s War Memorial Park. Zoo Director Mike Blakely says plans call for the carousel to be open during evening football games at War Memorial Stadium.
Needless to say, all of those of us who enjoyed this classic as a child are eagerly awaiting the unveiling of the final results. Blakely estimates the ceremony to be in May but with a great deal of luck and good weather, it might be April. In honor of this momentous occasion, the Clinton Presidential Center and Park in downtown Little Rock will have a temporary exhibit of the restored horses April 8-30 entitled “Over the Jumps: The Arkansas Carousel.” No matter when the grand unveiling of the totally refurbished antiquity takes place, I’ll hazard a guess there will be quite a few adults riding the Arkansas Carousel that day – and for many days to come.