Ruth Bass: New people needed to take reins of the Berkshire Carousel

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RICHMOND — You don't have to be a kid to love a carousel, often called a merry-go-round on this continent. From Barcelona to Disney World, beautifully painted horses start to gallop and riders' faces light up. For people holding an infant or octogenarians who can't quite mount a horse anymore, an elegant chariot awaits.

For a dozen years, the anticipation of a Berkshire County carousel grew. Volunteers learned to carve horses and paint them, some putting in hundreds of hours on a new and absorbing skill. They gave time, and they gave money and received donations to support their horse. It was a community project envisioned by Pittsfield native Jim Shulman and his wife Jackie. And now Shulman, president of the nonprofit organization, is hoping to transfer responsibility to someone new.

"Is it open?" more than one kid asks, including my visiting granddaughter, who thinks a day in Pittsfield is perfect if it includes the Hot Dog Ranch, Berkshire Carousel and the Berkshire Museum. And the joy on her face was indescribable the day one volunteer at the carousel told her to stay on for a free ride. Around and around she went, ecstatic.

This year, the music doesn't play. The horses stand still. The door is locked. From a reported 39,000 riders in 2016 and a promise of being open daily, the carousel has ground to a halt after only three years of operation. No one really explains what happened, aside from a lack of volunteers, but plenty of people are disappointed. And those like Phyllis Kingsley of Richmond, who has a horse in the race, say she and her carving partner are "absolutely devastated."

She and Doug Cowan put about 1,000 hours and some of their own money into a horse sponsored by Relay for Life when that nonprofit couldn't finish financing the project. So when a Pittsfield plumber said last week that he might consider taking over the carousel and putting it on a lot he owns next to Wahconah Park, Phyllis rejoiced. "It was heart-warming," she said. "We'd love to see something happen."

The question of moving the carousel has been brewing for some time. For this observer, at least, the shabby lot on Center Street is hardly ideal, but Shulman owned the property, so it was available. It's apparent that no funds were set aside for landscaping or paving or a big sign identifying the rather nondescript building as marvelous entertainment.

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But happenstance is a lovely thing. Mayor Linda Tyer was sitting next to Ernest Weider at a ballgame at Wahconah Park when she said something about the park being an interesting place to put the carousel. "This could take all of us to make it happen. Are you in?" the mayor asked. The Pittsfield plumber was obviously intrigued. And he did have that vacant lot.

"They put the bug in my ear, and now I want to go with it," he told a reporter last week. What could be better than combining a traditional merry-go-round and a vintage ballpark, both of them still loved in an age of video games and cars that drive themselves? What could be better than kids getting hot dogs and carousel and baseball all at once?

But people immediately popped up with alternatives. That's what Pittsfield does. Those who always wanted Berkshire Carousel at The Common are talking about that again. While The Common is lovely — and near a popular ice cream store — it has a huge access problem: no parking.

Those who suggest The Common will immediately point to parking lots across First Street. Two of those are private — at a restaurant and a business building. Reserved spaces consume part of the city lot. But the big issue is First Street: If the Berkshire Carousel became a big destination again, hundreds of eager children and their parents would be crossing that busy street, not necessarily at the crosswalk.

Thirty-six gorgeous horses, plus Kevin O'Hara's Irish donkey Missy, all lovingly carved by Berkshire people, need a new, stable home. On traditional carousels, like the one at Martha's Vineyard, riders lean far out of the saddle and try to grab the brass ring, with the reward of a free ride. The mayor's suggestion may put a brass ring in Pittsfield's future and start the carousel on its rounds again — if Berkshire people embrace revival and put some money on their favorite horse.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.


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