Destination NY: The Carousel Circuit

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BINGHAMTON, NY – This week’s destination is close to home and actually involves 6 separate destinations around the Triple Cities.

The historic Carousel Circuit is a living legacy of the philanthropy of George F Johnson and his family.

Pat McGinnis turns on the Wurlitzer Military Band Organ and then, with the push of another button, the 1925 carousel comes to life. And so do the smiles on the faces of young and old alike.

“Pure joy and happiness. It’s something really neat and unique to this area. As a kid growing up, you don’t realize how lucky you are until you go somewhere else and all of a sudden it’s $5 to ride the carousel,” says McGinnis.

There are 2 carousels located within the city, one here at Recreation Park and the other at Ross Park, adjacent to the country’s 5th oldest zoo.

The carousels operate from Memorial Day until Labor Day.

It’s tradition that the city’s mayor take an annual first spin with students from nearby Horace Mann Elementary.

Mayor Rich David grew up in the Rochester area but has fond childhood memories of visiting his great uncle in Binghamton.

“I remember coming up to Binghamton, 4, 5, 6 years-old, going to visit him. And my mother walking me over to this park, Recreation Park, and riding the carousel,” says David.

There are a total of 6 functioning carousels spread across Binghamton, Endicott, Johnson City and the Town of Union. They were all gifts from George F Johnson and his family.

Johnson was founder of Endicott-Johnson Shoes which employed thousands of workers in the early 1900’s.

The carousels were installed between 1920 and 1934, all traveling fair models built by the Allan Herschell Company of North Tonawanda, New York.

All of the hand-carved horses are jumpers, meaning they move up and down as the carousel spins.

And Johnson insisted that they all remain forever free because, as a young child, he could not afford to ride the carousel near his hometown in Massachusetts.

“In Binghamton, it was very important that these carousels remain free and open to the public so that entry was not denied on any basis, for anyone, for any reason,” says David.

And while the municipalities take primary responsibility for maintaining the carousels, local civic groups pitch in as well.

Endicott Rotary recently purchased an original Wurlitzer organ for the one in West Endicott.

Rotarian Jim Leonard recalls an 82 year-old woman boarding the carousel not long after.

“I thought she was going to sit in the chariot. Instead, she looked at the horse in front of her, threw the walker down and she climbed up on that horse and nobody was going to help her. She was an 8 year-old girl all over again, it was great to watch, it was amazing,” says Leonard.

The carousel in Rec Park was recently renovated to include images from classic Twilight Zone episodes.

Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling grew up in the neighborhood and rode the carousel as a child.

It’s all part of a legacy that the community maintains.

“It’s incredible that not only have they been here close to 100 years, but all 6 of them are still up and running and they’ve been taken care of all this time,” says McGinnis.

Riders who collect an “I Rode The Carousel” card from each location can turn them in for a button proclaiming they’ve completed the Carousel Circuit.

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