Spokane's Looff Carousel
April 1, 2004
Based upon Teaching with Historic Places,
a program of the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places.
Completed by Don Griffith, V. Principal, Mead High School, retired.
This document is available on the Web at http://spokanecarousel.org.
Table of Contents
Lively, merry band organ music filling the air, bejeweled and brightly painted horses whirling around leaping and falling as they go, smiling children, their hair wind-tossed as they cling hard to their galloping steeds reaching for the elusive gold ring, happy adults filled with nostalgia, reliving fun filled times. These are the sights and sounds of a visit to Spokane’s Historic Looff Carousel!
If you live in or around Spokane or ever have in the last century, you have certainly heard about the carousel, or as earlier generations called it the merry go round and very likely you have enjoyed a ride on it. Few, however, really know very much about it except that it is old and has been around here as long as anyone can remember; some will mention something about Nat Park.
The purpose of this lesson is to illustrate how the history of the city of Spokane is in many ways intimately connected to the history of the carousel and hopefully spark an interest in it as an artistic treasure as well as a fun amusement ride.
The history of the city of Spokane and the history of the carousel are closely aligned. About the time the city by the falls was first being settled, pioneer businessmen having been attracted to the site as a power source for a sawmill, a young German immigrant by the name of Charles Looff stepped off a ship in New York harbor. This young man, trained as a furniture maker in his homeland, soon turned his woodcarving talents to the construction of carousels in his spare time. This sideline soon became his full-time enterprise. His business thrived and a few years later he became one of the foremost creators of carousels (and other amusement rides) in the country.
In 1907 while he was in Seattle contracting to build a carousel for that city he was persuaded to venture to eastern Washington where he was hired to build a carousel for Spokane as well.
He contracted to build a carousel for the local trolley company, a subsidiary of the Washington Water Power Company. In the early 1900s, many cities had street car lines in the days before cars became commonplace and to promote ridership on weekends trolley companies build amusement parks. In Spokane, one such park was Natatorium Park, so called because among its attractions was a natatoriam (actually a rather pretentious name for a swimming pool!) This park was located along the Spokane River in a beautiful wooded area and incidentally at the end of the Boone Street trolley.
In 1909 Looff completed the construction of the Spokane carousel, reportedly the last one he himself helped carve, and he requested payment from the trolley company. His asking price was $20,000, a sum the company felt was too high. This dispute over the cost of the carousel resulted in some negotiations between the parties and as a result, Looff's son-in-law was to become the operator of the carousel as well as the other park concessions on a percentage basis.
Louis Vogel, Looff's son-in-law, proved to be an able operator and business was so good that in 1929 he was able to purchase the park from the power company for $100,000. His son Lloyd worked at the park with his father and when Louis died in 1952 he continued park operations for another ten years.
By then the great age of city amusement parks had passed and Nat Park like so many in other cities fell on hard times and had to declare bankruptcy.
In 1962 the park was purchased by the El Katif Shrine for $75,000. Vogel however, did not include the carousel in the price. Two years later the Shriners decided to reopen the park and retained long time park employee Charles William (Bill) Oliver as its manager.
Oliver had a life long love affair with the carousel. Born in 1913, he had ridden it as a toddler, and as a young boy he earned free rides by retrieving tossed rings from around the carousel floor. As an adult, an electrician by trade, he worked on the park's rides, eventually becoming vice-president and manager.
Lloyd Vogel who was a good friend of Oliver willed the carousel to him when he died in 1964. Lloyd knew that the carousel would be well cared for by Oliver!
The Shrine, however, didn't have any better luck trying to keep the park operating in the black than Vogel. In 1968 the park was sold, the rides were dismantled and sold, the carousel was put in storage and the site became a mobile home park.
Oliver desperately wanted the carousel to remain in Spokane and not be sold off. He negotiated with the city to purchase the carousel and use it in the upcoming world's fair, Expo '74. After much discussion it was decided not to include the carousel in Expo because it was felt that with the numbers of people in attendance the excessive ridership might prove to be too much a strain on the old equipment and wooden animals. Instead a new pavilion structure would be built and used during the fair as a Bavarian restaurant and following the fair it could serve as a permanent home to the carousel. Oliver's efforts to sell the carousel to the city proved difficult. His asking price, $40,000, seemed too high to some, and various fund raising schemes had only limited success. Oliver was determined, however, that his beloved carousel remain in Spokane. The deal was finalized when Oliver agreed to extend to the city a $40,000 interest free loan to be paid over five years.
During this period Oliver was supervising the restoration of the carousel horses, giraffe, tiger and two chariots. Finally on May 8, 1975, Bill Oliver was on hand to ring the bell to start the carousel in motion in its new pavilion in Riverfront Park. His passionate dream fulfilled, a life's work completed, he could rest. Within the week Bill Oliver, the carousel's greatest friend and protector was dead of a heart attack.
Two years later in recognition of its historic and artistic value the Looff carousel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the twenty-five years since Expo the carousel has undergone on-going restorations, modernizations and maintenance. The ridership is far beyond what anyone had imagined. When you realize that the carousel is ninety years and still being used as it was intended to be, it is truly remarkable.
The Spokane carousel today consists of fifty-four horses, one tiger, one giraffe and two chariots on a three abreast machine.
The horses are all jumpers and make six jumps each revolution. The tiger is very rare, one of only three in existence, and the only one on an operating carousel. The 1907 Adolphe Ruth and Sohn band organ sits in the center of the enclosed façade with more than 300 pipes and is the equivalent of a 60-piece band. It recently underwent a complete rebuild.
During the past decade the carousel has been fortunate to have other individuals who value the carousel in much the way that Bill Oliver did. One such person is Betty Largent, resident artist and restorationist. She is able to keep these ancient creatures looking as splendid as the day they were delivered to Nat Park. With continued loving care the Spokane carousel should continue to delight future generations as it has in the past.
Provide a brief introduction to the lesson and an overview of what is to be taught. Explain the objectives of the lesson. On a city map, locate the site of the carousel in Riverfront Park and also its original site at the west end of Boone Avenue along the river. Note the close connection to the primary geographic feature of the city, the river. Present the content of the lesson through readings, explanations, brief lecture and discussion. Use the attached National Register Nomination form as a primary historical source.
Have students talk to parents, grandparents and others who may have lived in the Spokane area for many years about their experiences with the carousel.
Find out more about carousels by reading about them in the books listed below.
Arrange for a field trip to the carousel and a presentation by knowledgeable park staff and for a fun ride on the historic machine.
Fraley, Tobin. The Great American Carousel, Nina Fraley, 1994
Fried, Frederick. Pictorial History of the Carousel, Vestal Press Ltd, N.Y., 1962
Manns, William. Shank, Peggy. Painted Ponies, Zion International Publishing Co., N.Y. 1986.
Sweeny, Norene M., "The Sparkle of Spokane," The Carousel News & Trader, Nov., 1993, Vol. 9, No. 11.
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