SODDY DAISY, Tenn. • Bud Ellis, founder of Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School in Soddy Daisy, Tenn. (just north of Chattanooga), says with a smile that “if you can walk through the door of the studio you can carve a carousel animal, no previous experience or even any artistic ability necessary.”
That may sound like a bit of a stretch, considering the complexity of the steeds and other saddled animals on carousels. But Ellis, 79, isn’t joking. He’s proved the point around 700 times, that being the number of students who have crossed his threshold — and emerged with a masterpiece. Ellis, a retired high school and college art teacher and expert woodcarver, will make sure it happens, as he has for more than 30 years, ever since he came up with the idea of running the school, the only one of its kind in the country (he started it in Chattanooga, but moved a few years later to a bigger location in Soddy Daisy).
Ellis says he “fell in love” with carousels while growing up in Oakland City, Ind., near Evansville. Family entertainment often meant picnics at Evansville’s Mesker Park Zoo, he says, where “if he ate his dinner,” he was allowed to ride on the carousel, a special treat.
“I remember looking at those beautifully carved animals and thinking that somebody had gone to a lot of trouble for us kids — I never forgot that,” he said. “My dream was to one day build a carousel for a city.” Years later, his dream would become reality — in Chattanooga.
Ellis, with a bachelor’s degree in art and a master’s degree in art education, had taught at several schools in the town. “Always interested in three-dimensional art, particularly wood carving” (though he has also pursued silversmithing, oil painting and pottery making), he began sculpting wood at age 14, when his Sunday School teacher gave him an X-Acto knife set.
One day in the early 1980s a student, the grandson of a man who owned a local amusement park, brought a damaged carousel horse to class for Ellis to repair. That done, he saw an opportunity to build the carousel he’d dreamed of, and set about to find an antique to restore. After negotiating with the city and receiving a $250,000 loan, he located one at a warehouse in Atlanta, and began carving animals to stable it. He’d completed nearly two dozen before the city had decided where to install the carousel, he says with a smile.
Initially he intended to sculpt all 54 of the creatures himself, but as each one can take 300 hours or more, the plan was unrealistic. However, while he’d been carving, a number of people walking by his glass-front studio had observed him at work, and wondered if he might teach them the skill.
Thus, in 1985, Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School came to be with a student body of “about 12.” Since then, would-be sculptors have come by the dozens from around the country, even Canada, often as “repeats,” Ellis says. Many, my husband and I among them, learn about Horsin’ Around while visiting Chattanooga.
We had come for the history; the town is rife with it, as it played important roles in both the Trail of Tears and the Civil War. Nicknamed “Scenic City” for its elegant setting on the meandering Tennessee, Chattanooga offers numerous historical and other attractions including, as we found out near the end of our three-day visit, the first carousel Horsin’ Around had restored; it had taken more than a decade. (Since then there have been others, including an “endangered species” carousel at the Chattanooga Zoo.) We decided an appropriate way to wrap up a historical tour would be with a ride on the old-fashioned carousel.
It had been built originally, Ellis later told us, in 1895 in Philadelphia by German immigrant Gustav Dentzel, who around the time of the Civil War pioneered carousel-making in this country; they were already widespread in Europe.
Ellis’ 1895 carousel had operated in amusement parks in Massachusetts, New York and elsewhere before ending up in Atlanta’s Grant Park in 1966. It was restored, modernized a few times over the years, but was eventually shut down and put into storage in Atlanta in 1978, he said. That’s where Ellis found it in a state of disrepair in the mid 1980s.
Fortunately for those who love carousels, he and a few others are now saving a dying breed from becoming extinct. Ellis says in their heyday, roughly 1860 to 1920, some 4,000 carousels dotted the American countryside, created primarily by immigrants trained in Europe as synagogue or church carvers, trades for which there was little need in this country. But there was, however, a demand for carousels.
“Then came the Great Depression that took the money out of the system, and carvers could no longer make a living,” he said. Today about 500 carousels from the glory years remain, though on a small scale new ones are being made, he added.
We went to see Horsin’ Around’s first renovation at its home today, 13-acre Coolidge Park, where it was dedicated in 1999, the year the park opened as part of 15-mile Tennessee Riverwalk, a public greenway along the river with numerous attractions. But the carousel, a true work of art, is the park’s centerpiece. A fine large structure was built to house it, a dodecagon that’s mostly glass, with a clerestory and cupola topped with a prancing-horse weather vane.
Step inside the building, where children (and adults) perched on handsome animals bob up and down as the carousel turns and the music plays — and you might think you’ve stepped back in time as well. For a minute or two you might even feel like a kid again, entranced by the whirling lights and colors, the lively band-organ tunes.
Every one of the 54 animals gamboling on the carousel is an exquisite carving. There’s the expected array of horses in various dapper, animated poses, also a tiger with fanned claws about to spring, a whinnying zebra, a whimsical seahorse, a lion with a mane of wood so realistic you see every strand of “fur,” and many others, all bright and shiny in acrylic paint and polyurethane. They look to have been created by master carvers, but actually, so we were told, were done by “rank amateurs.”
Wanting to learn more about this amazing school that seemingly turns individuals of all ages with “no experience or artistic ability” into Michelangelos, we phoned Ellis at his studio in Soddy Daisy. He graciously suggested we come and observe work-in-progress. We went last fall — and what we saw was fascinating.
The 2,500-square-foot studio could be Santa’s workshop. Hundreds of carvings of everything imaginable in all sizes, many finished, others not, decorate shelves, tables, cabinets and every other flat surface. Up to a dozen students can work here at any given time, Ellis said. Many are Tennessee residents, though most come from out of state. Age-wise they span the spectrum, 20s to 80s, though because of the time commitment involved, more are retired than not, he said.
We were shown around by Larry Ridge, 65, of Soddy Daisy, a longtime friend of Ellis’ and also a master carver, who bought the studio about four years ago. Together, he and Ellis teach the exacting work of sculpture.
On this day, eight people, all Tennesseans, were on hand, and ranged in age from Linda Woolson, 50, of Georgetown, who has spent one day a week for the last dozen years at Horsin’ Around to 84-year old A.B. McRee of Soddy Daisy, who said that for the last three or four months he’d been working to finish the horse a cousin had started 17 years earlier.
All were engrossed in their work, chiseling, sanding or painting. Each animal was at a different stage of completion, so we were able to see the process from beginning to end — from boxy shape that vaguely resembled a horse to magnificently sculpted, finished equine ready for a carousel.
Ridge points out, however, that not everyone carves a carousel animal; some make animals for gifts or their own homes. Animals vary widely in degree of difficulty, from the simplest, dragons, penguins or porpoises that can be crafted in a couple of weeks, to the most complex, lions, that can take up to two years.
Once the wood is glued and the animal’s body is in “rough form,” a student’s work begins (the studio provides tools or students can buy their own). Ellis and Ridge offer patient supervision, help when needed and “repair of screw-ups.” Ridge insists that with “perseverance anyone can create a nice animal.” Smiling, Ellis adds that he tells students “all they need to do is cut away everything that doesn’t look like a carousel horse (or whatever animal they’re making).”
“Most everyone who comes here gets hooked,” he said. “It’s an experience that becomes more than the animal — lasting friendships develop.” He adds, “We’re a lot more like a community than a school.”
IF YOU GO
Where • Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School is located at 8361-A Dayton Pike, Soddy Daisy, Tenn.
How much • Cost for instruction and supplies depends on the animal’s size and complexity, and ranges from $1,300 to $1,800 ($200-$500 more if Ellis or Ridge provide most of the work).