A horse of every color beckoned local children to the first carousel that stood on the grounds of Mesker Park Zoo. Built in 1923, the attraction didn’t start its life at the zoo and its purpose has not ended since it left Evansville.
The hand-carved carousel featuring 68 horses and two chariots came to Evansville shortly after its construction. The attraction was built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co. and crafted by the company’s master carver John Zalar. Philadelphia Toboggan (founded in 1904) has produced 87 carousels in its 116-year history — Mesker’s carousel was No. 67 in that list and is one of 35 still in operation today.
While many residents remember taking a spin on one of the horses while the carousel was in the zoo, its original home when it arrived was at Pleasure Park (formerly Cook’s Park) along Maryland Street. The carousel spun there for 13 years before it was moved to Mesker Park in 1936. During the following 37 years, the horses and chariots grew bright and colorful with new paint and details. Even the horses’ teeth and hooves adorned gold paint and decoration.
Henry Kersting managed the ride while it was at Pleasure Park. In 1937, he sold it to his brother-in-law George Schmitt, who would continue operating the ride until his death in 1945. The carousel would continue to spin thanks to George’s wife Katherine, who passed it to her daughters Irene Kelly and Babe Shagaloff in 1950. Irene’s twin Irma Koenig joined her sisters after 1961.
In 1972, Babe would sell the carousel to a F.C. Shafer of Shafer Enterprises. He kept the ride going for a year before he announced at a Mesker Park board meeting on Aug. 10, 1973, that he had sold it. The carousel was set to pass on to Family Leisure Centers, but Evansville fought to keep it. City Parks Director LaMoine Torgerson contacted a Family Leisure Centers official to purchase the carousel back — he was told no. On Oct. 1, 1973, it was dismantled and on Oct. 2, trucked out of town.
The carousel found new life in 1979. After a $75,000 renovation, it was placed in Carowinds, a theme park in North Carolina. In 2018, park officials gave the carousel a little facelift and renamed it The Grand Carousel.
“It’s important for us to be good stewards of this ride,” Carowinds Director of Maintenance Steve Jackson said at the time. “There aren’t too many of these left, and they’re part of history.”
Though many Evansville residents still lament the departure of such an icon, the carousel stays alive and welcomes riders — new and old — to take a spin!