I’m still somewhat amazed by the hidden gems I uncover around Maine, even after all these years of writing about this state. Case in point: the one-of-a-kind object that’s housed at the Curran Homestead in Orrington.
Why is there an old-fashioned Victorian carousel at this museum in Orrington?
Amid the cider presses, maple sap boilers, blacksmithing forges, steam-powered tractors and other old-fashioned rural technology at the living history museum the Curran Homestead in Orrington, there’s one item there that might surprise you.
Inside a custom-made round barn-style building, there’s a fully functional antique carousel — a traveling carnival ride from the 1890s decked out with colorful fresco paintings and hand-carved wooden ponies, and powered by an air compressor. In the past, however, it would have been powered by steam.
The ride, built in 1894 by the Armitage-Herschell Co. in upstate New York, is one of the oldest remaining traveling carousels in existence. It was carefully preserved by the now-defunct Willowbrook Museum Village in Newfield, Maine, before that museum closed and most of its holdings were transferred to the Curran Homestead in 2017.
The carousel is far bigger than you might expect for a small museum like the Curran, and is able to accommodate around 30 riders at a time. Bob Schmick, executive director of the Curran Homestead, said it was one of many buildings, machines and other things that were laboriously moved from Willowbrook, in far western Maine, to Orrington between 2017 and 2020. Other buildings moved include the machine shop and the old country store.
“It’s truly been a labor of love to bring all of this stuff to the Curran,” Schmick said. “It’s very much still a work in progress.”
The carousel was first owned by carnival impresario Ivory Fenderson of Saco in 1894. He toured it around New England over the years, alongside his other expositions of new-fangled technology of the era, like movie projectors and gramophones. By the 1920s, however, it was sitting in pieces in a barn in Maine. Staff at Willowbrook acquired it in the 1970s, and began the restoration process. Now, it belongs to Curran.
When in operation, the horses move back and forth like real horses might, rather than up and down, as you might see on a more traditional carousel, and an organ grinder automaton plays music. In 2011, Maine authors Jean Flahive and Judith Thyng wrote a children’s book about it, called “The Galloping Horses of Willowbrook.”
When it’s operating, the carousel moves surprisingly fast, and since it’s housed indoors, it can operate in all sorts of weather.
“It’s what would have been a thrill ride in the 1890s,” Schmick said. “It’s the kind of thing you’d have been really excited to see come to town back then.”
The Curran Homestead aims to showcase what life was like in 19th century rural Maine farms and villages. It has regular programming throughout the year at its 31-acre property at 372 Fields Pond Road in Orrington, including popular blacksmithing and woodworking classes and baking and pickling workshops. For more information, visit curranhomestead.org.