By CATHY SECKMAN
MANSFIELD, Ohio -- If you have fond memories -- and who doesn't? -- of riding the merry-go-round at the local fair, waving to your mom and dad on each revolution and hoping your horse would never stop, Mansfield is the place for you.
Mansfield loves carousels, and rightly considers itself a center of the carousel industry. Right in the middle of town is Richland Carrousel Park, home of the first new, hand-carved carousel to be built in the United States since the 1930s. Just down the street is Carousel Magic, a factory where customers can either buy a custom-designed carousel horse or learn to carve their own.
The Carousel News and Trader, a leading magazine in the industry, has its home base here. Carousel horses pop up all over town, in the gift shops, on the flags, and on street signs. One can even buy a delectable Carousel Salad at the Walnut Street Lounge.
Revitalization: Mansfield was like many other small Ohio towns in the 1980s -- tired and old and in need of revitalization. A group of business people formed a committee and took drastic action to save their downtown, buying and razing two square blocks said to contain nine bars and four massage parlors.
They gambled on carousels as the magic ticket that would bring tourists to the area, and the gamble has paid off in a big way.
Tourist attraction: Today, Mansfield's downtown is a charming red brick oasis filled with gift shops, restaurants, a children's learning center and the carousel itself. The town is a mandatory stop on the tour circuit, drawing six to eight tour buses per week in the summer. Annually, a quarter-million people ride the carousel.
Richland Carrousel Park opened for business as a nonprofit agency in 1991. The 80- by 80-foot brick pavilion that holds the carousel is lined by large doors that can be raised in good weather for open-air riding. A gift shop, restrooms and lobby are inside. The 52 carousel figures were designed, carved and painted by Carousel Works of Mansfield in the style of G.A. Dentzel, a renowned early 20th-century carver. Antique rounding boards, mirrors and mural frames were used.
Eighteen scenery panels atop the carousel depict area attractions like Malabar Farm, the Kingwood Center, Lyons Falls and the Mid-Ohio Race Track.
The carousel includes 30 horses and 22 menagerie figures, including bears, ostriches, cats, rabbits, a lion and a mythical hippocampus (part horse, part fish). A Stinson Band Organ made in Bellefontaine, Ohio, provides music. There are also two chariots on the carousel, which can flip up for wheelchair access.
Events: Special events at the carousel park include school and summer programs for area elementary students, and Family Nights on Wednesdays. For a Shop Hop the first Friday of each month, the carousel and all the shops in the district are open until 9 p.m. with special discounts. The park is available for rent, and is a popular place to hold birthday and anniversary parties, reunions, corporate events, even weddings.
In the summertime, when the doors are open and the unmistakable tinkling of merry-go-round music drifts through the busy city streets, Mansfield's business owners can smile, knowing how well their gamble paid off.