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Volunteers recently installed the 28 restored horses on the 1911 C.W. Parker carousel that has been in Waterloo’s Firemen’s Park since 1925. The carousel was damaged by a flood in 2008 but the 1915 band organ, center left, was spared because it was undergoing restoration in Merrill.

WATERLOO — A carousel ride really is not that comfortable.

The horse, or in some cases a frog or giraffe, is hard to mount, the height of the stirrups makes your knees ache and the saddles are hard.

The music, for a few minutes, is tolerable.

Yet, we love the round machines, their colorful animals and blaring music boxes.

On July Fourth, what's believed to be the state's oldest operating carousel will be back in motion after a three-year hiatus and a $259,489 restoration and moving process.

The historic C.W. Parker Carousel at Firemen's Park here was saved from ruin by firefighters during the floods of 2008. Since then, the 28 horses and two chariots adorned with dragons have been dried out, 12 broken legs repaired and, in some cases, reattached, with each horse sanded and repainted.

The wooden floor of the city-owned carousel has been replaced and the whole thing, including its mushroom-shaped building, was moved to higher ground, away from the Maunesha River. The ride's new home is next to a T-ball field where some of its most cherished customers are learning the American pastime in the shadow of an American treasure.

"It's safe now," said Sean Hennessy, president of the Waterloo Friends of the Carousel. "It's a work of art."

Wisconsin is blessed with a number of art pieces that go round and round, two of them in Madison.

A 1927 Parker carousel has called Ella's Deli, 2902 E. Washington Ave., home for about the past 20 years.

The Henry Vilas Zoo opened the Conservation Carousel in 2006. The ride features 36 hand-carved wooden animals — all endangered species. Rides are just $1.

There are more within an hour's drive of the State Capitol.

Circus World Museum in Baraboo has a 1917 Herschell-Spillman, while Little Amerricka Amusement Park in Marshall has an Allan Herschell built in 1959.

House on the Rock in Spring Green has the largest carousel in the world. It features 269 animals, 20,000 lights, is 35 feet tall, 80 feet wide and weighs 36 tons. However, it's only to be looked at. Rides are not offered.

Other working carousels in Wisconsin can be found at the Milwaukee County Zoo, Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, Menominee Park Zoo in Oshkosh and Marathon Park in Wausau, according to the National Carousel Association.

The carousel in Waterloo has had quite a life, a near-death experience and now a rebirth.

Constructed in 1911, it was purchased from the Cuba City-based Curtis Brothers Carnival in 1925 for $1,365.

It had been a fixture at the Waterloo park, but by the late 1980s was only sporadically used and had gone into disrepair.

When Waterloo resident Arthur Setz died in 1987, his will included money for the carousel's restoration. It was bolstered by thousands of dollars raised by the community and some speculate that the carousel might now be now worth more than $1 million. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Everything was good until the rains of June 2008 came. Almost 4 feet of water flooded the carousel, covering its floor and partially submerging the horses and chariots.

"When you get wood wet, water gets inside the cracks," said Bob Hanson, a member of the carousel friends group. "It was too late for most of them."

The horses were laid out in the city's utility building to dry, but it became apparent they would need major work.

So, Lisa Parr, who did the first restoration, was called upon to again restore the horses, which were shipped four at a time beginning in late 2008 to her suburban Chicago studio. The last of the horses were finished in late May and the two chariots were completed by Parr a few weeks ago.

"Since there was water damage, all the unstable paint had to be removed because it's wrinkled, pulled and cracked and in some areas just plain flaked off," Parr said. "I haven't seen flood damage as extensive as this."

Each horse and chariot was sanded, primed twice, decoratively painted and received two coats of varnish. Work ranged from 30 to 68 hours for each piece, which also had to be bleached to rid and prevent mold, Parr said. The leather reins were replaced but the real horse hair tails were saved.

The carousel was dismantled, cleaned and painted, the building, after much debate, was moved in 2009 and the carousel reassembled.

The project was paid for with $41,000 in donations ranging in size from $2 to $5,000 with the remainder covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Wisconsin Emergency Management, said Mo Hansen, city clerk/treasurer.

Restoration of the horses cost $58,000, with $161,000 spent on dismantling, moving and reassembling the building and carousel, he said.

Fortunately, the 1915 band organ from the North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Works was undergoing a $15,000 restoration in Merrill. Had it been on site, the machine, purchased in 1996 for $18,800, would have been destroyed, Bob Hanson said.

The finished horses were stored in a climate-controlled room of an old Waterloo shoe factory. They were carefully moved and reinstalled on the carousel over the last few weeks.

Hennessy used cushions from his basement sofa and old blankets to make sure the horses weren't scratched during their slow ride in an open-air trailer from the old factory to the park, less than a mile away.

"I get so nervous whenever anyone else is moving them," Hennessy said. "We've come a long way in three years."

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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