An Ohio carousel carver is keeping Mansfield’s merry-go-round history alive
The heart of Mansfield, in north-central Ohio, isn’t a city hall or a sculpture or a fountain. It’s a carousel. Made locally in the '90s, it’s long been a cherished part of the community.
Kids clamor with excitement as the distinct ditty of the merry-go-round revs up and its figurines begin to float. A toddler grips to the mane of a roaring lion. Parents bob and bounce on tall ostriches.
Each animal on the ride has its quirks, and – thanks to Richland County Carousel employee Donna Matten – its own name.
“That’s our lead horse right here … Nellie,” Matten said, gesturing to the flower-studded steed standing mid-trot.
The carousel is a remnant of the business that put Mansfield on the map.
Mansfield’s famous merry-go-round
Each of the 52 animals at Richland County Carousel ride was carved, painted and designed by Carousel Works, a Mansfield based merry-go-round manufacturer – who built the downtown attraction in the 1990s.
It was the first hand-carved wooden carousel to be created since the Great Depression. And, Matten said, it helped revitalize a part of the small city.
“They changed the whole scenery of downtown and it became the Carousel District,” she said. “So I think it brought in a lot of businesses that weren't here before.”
Its impact went beyond Ohio, said Patrick Wentzel, president of the National Carousel Association. He said Carousel Works helped usher a renaissance for the attraction and elevated Mansfield’s reputation as a maker of merry-go-rounds.
“It was a hub for carousel carving in the world,” Wentzel said.
A new beginning
Despite its role in that revival, the company hit hard times. In 2021, Carousel Works filed for bankruptcy and disbanded.
When former employee Eric Tomlinson heard that the company’s equipment and artwork were going to be auctioned off in 2021, the painter and carver couldn’t help but step in. He bought it all.
“I was able to save their legacy from being either sold off and used for scrap wood, or possibly just lost in the wind to private collectors that would do nothing with it,” he said.
Tomlinson started his own carousel creation and restoration business the next year: All Around Carousels. In his Mansfield studio, he pieces carousels back together, in hopes of preserving the history behind each figurine and frame.
On a recent day in his studio, Tomlinson worked on restoring a wooden horse that’s more than 100 years old. He chiseled at the cracks through its hooves and sanded down the splintering wood on its mane.
Tomlinson said it’ll take around four months to bring this stallion back to its original state.
“Just the sheer history of carousels, and the artwork that goes into it,” he said, chipping away at a wooden horse. “A lot of people think if they call for a figure they can get it in a week or something like that. And it's like, ‘No, it's not that easy.’”
It takes around five weeks to carve a new creation, according to Tomlinson. It’s this time-consuming nature that’s made wooden carousels largely a thing of the past, he said.
Carousel Works was one of only a handful of businesses nationwide that created full wooden carousels. According to the National Carousel Association, only around 100 merry-go-rounds in operation have a wooden frame or figurine carved after the 1980s. Carousel Works had a hand in almost half of those.
Each figurine that makes its way into Tomlinson’s studio is like an endangered species.
“You figure it’s a dying art and stuff nowadays. Not a lot of people can do it,” he said. “And that's the reason why I want to see it survive.”
And, Tomlinson isn’t the only one who cares.
Since he started taking on clients late last year, Tomlinson said he’s had calls from all over the country asking for his help to restore fragments of bygone merry-go-rounds – including one at Kings Island outside of Cincinnati.
He said he’s been pleasantly surprised by the high demand. And even more shocked that he already has a contract to build his very first full carousel.
He said it’s the first step in filling the gap Carousel Works left behind.
“Look at the people’s faces when you go around a carousel,” he said. “Everybody will remember those days when they're riding with their grandmother and the chariot and or riding with daddy sitting beside him on a horse or a cat or bunny rabbit. So it's like you're building memories.”
The next step is to bring young people in to learn the trade, he said. That way – down the line when he’s ready to retire – it won’t be all up to him to preserve this piece of Ohio history.
Maybe by then, Tomlinson said, someone else will be ready to give it a whirl.