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Slideshow: The Albany Carousel

Albany Carousel

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An orange-and-white striped quagga, a turquoise seahorse with rainbow-colored fish on its tail, a lion wearing a saddle with “peace” written in multiple languages — the large, open workspace held a menagerie of exotic animals and colors. And yet, the first thing that I noticed when our Oregon Art Beat crew walked into the Albany Brass Ring Historical Carousel & Museum was the number of volunteers.

It was a Wednesday morning when we showed up to film an upcoming story on the Albany Carousel, and the studio was bustling with more than 30 volunteers. Carving, scraping, sanding, painting — everyone was hard at work, chatting with one another and offering advice as they went. It didn’t take long to realize that this carousel project had created a community — a community of people from all walks of life, gathered together for one united purpose: to create the Albany Carousel.

This large-scale project began as just a seedling of an idea eight years ago, when Wendy Kirbey first proposed the creation of a carousel in Albany. Kirbey knew that the city was looking for anchor projects that would benefit Albany’s urban renewal plan, and the idea surfaced during a visit to Missoula, Montana when she encountered a community-built carousel. With all of the historic buildings and homes in Albany, Kirbey thought that a traditional Victorian-style carousel seemed like the perfect addition. She decided they should build one.

Wendy Kirbey in front of the Albany Carousel model

Tracey Whitney / OPB

When Kirbey started the project, she says, the group had only $150 to go on. “A $7-million project with $150… My husband says I’m the only woman in the world who would start a project like this with only $150.”

Now the carousel project has grown into an entire organization, filling up a whole building in Albany’s downtown historic district. More than 300 volunteers have logged over 120,000 hours working on the project, and operations manager Tyson Brown estimates that the museum hosts more than 2,000 visitors each month.

Each of the carousel’s 60 sculptures (52 animals, six alternates and two carriages) were designed by professional artists. To ensure consistency in the carving and painting of the animals, professional lead carver Jack Giles helps oversee the project. Many of the volunteers who assist with the carousel pieces have little to no experience with the craft. Each one receives their training on site and they all seem to learn as they go. But make no mistake, these volunteers are helping to create a world-class carousel. The quality of their work is extremely high and the animal sculptures that they are helping to create are nothing less than works of art.

To support the project, many families have pitched in by “adopting” and sponsoring the animals of the carousel. Many of the sculptures have been customized by the families who sponsor them. As Kirbey points out the various animals, she seems to know a story behind each one.

Not every part of the carousel is new. The mechanism itself is from 1909 and is being refurbished by volunteers. The piece was donated to the project by the National Carousel Association and the William Dentzel family of Santa Barbara. The Dentzel family hopes that Albany Carousel will be able to restore the machine back to its original glory. Rick Biernat helped assemble the mechanism when it first arrived, and he says with a proud smile that it did not come with an instruction manual. He and a group of savvy volunteers (many with backgrounds in engineering but none with experience working on carousels) spent hours and hours putting together the very complicated mechanical puzzle.

Go See It!

Albany Brass Ring Historical Carousel & Museum

  • 503 First Avenue, Albany
  • Open Mon through Sat
  • 10 am - 4 pm, Wed until 9 pm
  • Visit website

Many people are anxious to know when they’ll finally be able to ride on the Albany Carousel, and lead painter Gwenn Marchese often answers jokingly, “next Tuesday.” The truth is that it will take a lot longer than that, but the volunteers aren’t disheartened by the indefinite timeline. “We knew it was going to be a 10-15-year project and here we are in year nine. We may be past the point of no return!” Marchese laughs.

When the volunteers talk about why they participate, there is one recurring theme: joy. As volunteer Cliff Page carves away at the leg of a Griffin sculpture he says, “I like to see something emerge from the wood, and I like the people I work with, and I love to have people come in and look things over, and every once in a while you hear an ‘oooh’ or an ‘aah’ — that makes you feel pretty good!”

Whether the participants love carving the wood or love the sense of community, they all find joy in the Albany Carousel.

“It’s a project of love for about 250 people,” Kirbey says as she pets the smooth surface of a beloved carousel animal.

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