The Carousel of Happiness – Nederland Colorado

by Jim Harrington

Round and round we go with no where to go. Silly animals to be seen, music and laughter to be heard. Don’t delay smiling, there is magical joy in the Carousel of Happiness.

Up high and a yonder just 17 miles west of the Boulder Inn is the happy, hippie, groovy mountain town of Nederland, CO. In a mountain meadow beyond the Barker reservoir below the Arapaho glacial  peak you will find her twirling. A whiff of mountain mist and a soft song of enchanted times will guide your way to whimsical delightful spins around and around for a few minutes of bliss with nowhere else to go. The ride is brief, the joy is deep and the story of the  Carousel of Happiness far reaching. Take a spin. Let magic unfold.

Back in time. Needing to think differently. Vietnam 1968 Scott Harrison, founder of the Carousel of Happiness, was a grunt with the US Marine Corps. He was on a mission walking around ‘Nam, constantly on the move, hurry up and wait, backpacking, living in the mud. “Frequent fire fights, shoot, back off, shoot. Bullets whizzing by, seeing people die, adrenaline pumping, the need to calm down between. Some soldiers meditate, others smoke, look at pictures that reminded them of better days, joke… always you don’t know what will happen next, and such desperate need to think of something different.” Scott carried around a picture of a BSA Victor 441 motorcycle he planned to buy when he returned home. But unexpectedly his desires changed.  He got a letter, so precious and dear it came with a small package. Not sure why but his sister back home sent him a little note and a small music box that played the Chopin classic Tristesee.   The tough Marine Corps grunt would stifle a little tear when he held his sisters music box to his ear and in his brain leave the scene of ‘Nam for a spell. As he heard the music play he would leave the jungle and go somewhere else. A mountain meadow, perhaps a band pavilion, a merry go around on the grass, kids running around,  picnicking families… it became like a meditation practice.  Scott said, “I had no particular fascination with carousels from childhood.” Nonetheless this image associated with listening to the music box stayed with him and provided life long inspiration.

Back in the United States and physically healed from combat wounds Scott sought new ways to help make the world a more peaceful place. In the mid 1970’s Scott fell in love with his future wife Ellen Moore a dedicated anti war activist that had discovered new meaning while doing human rights work. Scott and Ellen were deeply in love and shared a common mission. In the face of suffering they both had an intense need to do something different. They found sanctuary for their activism in the arms of Amnesty International  one of the largest grassroots human rights organizations in the world.  Amnesty International letter writing campaigns shed light on the plight of political prisoners and let oppressors know the world is watching. The action may start small at first with just little post card sized letters but even short letters can become very significant to the fate of imprisoned people all over the world.

In 1982 Amnesty International was expanding and Scott  and his wife Ellen moved from San Francisco to somewhere else called Nederland CO to create Amnesty International’s Urgent Action Network program.  Housing was then more affordable in Nederland and it was still close enough to a metropolitan area with a university and a major airport. All necessities for an emerging international social justice enterprise. It was in the right time zone to interact with both the west and east coasts. It was also a small close knot mountain town. Windy as heck so mountain people always dressed a certain way that flatlanders never quite understand. Neighbors keep an eye out for one another. Any thugs sent by international dictators to silence local peace activists would likely stand out in town enough to give Scott and Ellen time to take even more necessary safety precautions.

Scott built a house. It was different. The first floor was for 26 years the offices of Amnesty International, the second floor home for his family. More than 200 interns and volunteers came to the house over the years to help manage Amnesty International Urgent Action program. So many deadlines so many lives saved. In addition to her activism work Ellen now manages and curates the Amnesty International archives which now reside at Columbia University in New York. Forty percent of the time Amnesty could improve the lives of political prisoners facing torture. That is pretty good and still for sixty percent of the cases life did not get much better. It was an around the clock operation to watch dog the plight of political prisoners around the world.  Scott and Ellen would work different shifts while also raising their kids. To relax in his off hours Scott desperately needed to do something different.

Scott returned to the wood shop not to build a house but to carve fanciful wooden merry go around animals inspired by a music box he received in Vietnam. He had never carved before and learning that he could was a happy surprise.  He pursued his new hobby with determination, inspiration, whimsy and idealism. According to Scott, “Carving the animals was a way to balance things out. On the other side of the wall was the real challenge: torture.” In the wood shop was the sanctuary he needed to let the creative imagination play as he carved first a rabbit, then a giraffe, cat, panda, moose, a dragon, a zebra, a peacock, kangaroo, ostrich, gorilla and more. Each animal took months to carve.  At first Scott did not know that he was going to build a carousel but over time the 60 animals he carved wanted to have a place to play.  They were scattered around the house, garage and property. Individually such uniquely crafted animals are more joyous when merrily dancing together around the carousel of happiness.

In 1986 Scott found a real carousel. It was a combination Loof creation with a Mangels mechanism. Named respectively for carousel designer Charles Loof and  and engineer William Mangels.  An antique collector had sold off all the animals and was going to junk the frame. Scott bought it on the cheap, dismantled and transported it home to store under his deck for years until he could give it his attention. No idea what to do with it really but there it sat while he carved to relax. He needed to go to that other place.
The carousel frame he bought had originally been built in 1910 for the famous Saltair beach and amusement park near the Great Salt Lakes in Utah. See video

The Saltair amusement park had three carousels in its heyday and this was the big one. It was moved in the 1950’s to a state run school for mentally ill and disabled students. This history worked well with Scott’s vision to have the carousel accessible to all. In 1992 he also purchased a 1913 Model 125 Wurlitzer Band Organ whose 102 instruments were run by air bellows. Music box inspired visions from years ago were starting to take real form. Scott carved 60 plus animals to merrily dance upon the southern yellow pine floors but high above them all you might miss the one girl he carved to twirl them all. She is called the Twirling Girl  and you can find her at the top of the carousel center pole conducting the animals as they spin below her. Scott found her dancing on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. An extraordinary picture  of a little girl dancing on the Pearl Street Mall was taken by the local paper. Scott said, “The look on her face is one of sheer joy and I just knew she had to be part of the carousel.”  The iconic picture of her exuberance overflowing with ecstasy was well known in town but who the girl actually was was a bit of a mystery. Scott carved her joyful dancing likeness anyways. Later the girl in the photograph was found living with her family in Switzerland and going to college in the Netherlands. Via letters she agreed to her child likeness being on the carousel of happiness.  She said, “I love being the Twirling Girl”. There is another connection to the twirling girl no one anticipated. In the famous picture of her dancing on the Pearl Street Mall  she is wearing braces on her legs that are covered with leggings. She was born with a genetic condition called Tethered Cord Syndrome. One of the missions of the Carousel of Happiness is to help and honor children facing developmental disabilities. It was a pleasant shock for carousel volunteers to find out that their Twirling Girl, an inspiration of joy to many, had been bravely coping with a physical challenge of her own.

In 2007 Scott retired from Amnesty International. He converted the former offices of Amnesty International in the first floor of his house into a new nonprofit the Carousel of Happiness. The whimsical animals he had carved for years were starting to take over the house and nearby warehouse. Now with the help of friends these real animals of Scott’s creation could finally have a real life of their very own. Over the years Scott’s dream also became Nederland’s dream. Volunteers who had used their talents to help heal the tortuous pain of political prisoners around the world now turned to a new vision. To build a carousel that brings out laughter, smiles and magic to children of all ages. This activity could not be done by one man alone. It required the community support of a town barn raising and fun raising to house the magical wild critters on the carousel of happiness.

Local land owner Jim Guercio helped to get the ball started by offering the carousel a 30 year lease for one dollar a month on land in the commercial heart of town. Jim was the manager of the famous 1970’s rock group Chicago  and the past owner of the nearby Caribou Ranch and Recording Studios which produced a number of hit albums in the 1970’s for other artists like Micheal Jackson, Dan Fogelberg, Joe Walsh, , Elton John, John Denver, John Lennon, Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, U2 and many others. The Carousel of Happiness sits right next to the Train Car and Yogurt Company which is composed of three train cars. The Pullman Coach  which was one of the last plush wooden coaches to be built, a old circus car used to announce the arrival of the circus to towns on the rail line years ago and a caboose.

Much of the labor for the carousel was donated by local craftsmen and women. There is a radiant heated floor and insulated roof panels with donated photo-voltaic solar panels on the outside. The crane to lift the beams in place was offered for free. The carousel had once been in a park called Fairyland, and so fairies were added to help recognize the contributions of donors through their adoption fees. There was never enough money in the bank to have a real advance budget for the project. Which was scary for fiscally minded board members rightfully afraid the building they started would be abandoned half done. Somehow donations of cash, peoples expertise, labor and materials showed up just in time to take the construction forward just one more day. And then another and another.  Contractors who were normally in competition with one another jumped in and helped to raise a carousel often for free or for substantially reduced fees.

On May 29th 2010 the Carousel of Happiness opened. It took the ingredients of artistry, craftsmanship, attention to detail, and  hefty amounts of pure love to create the magic found in the Carousel of Happiness. Scott dedicated the first ride to Christian Langenfeld and Paul Christian the two young men who died by his side in Vietnam on January 27th 1968. After which Scott explained briefly why he made the carousel in the first place. Then cracking a huge smile he declared to a large crowd wrapped around the parking lot it was time. “Let’s ride.” And so we do.

Everybody rides the Carousel of Happiness. The price to ride is kept low at $1. Scott told the volunteer operators of the carousel “you will be able to tell who are the people struggling. Keep them riding.” People may have saved up for only just one ride but the operators take Scott’s suggestion and keep them riding whether they have that dollar or not.  Admission does not really cover costs so the gift shop is a great place to show more monetary support for the carousel.

Operators let certain kids ride until they don’t want to ride anymore. Teachers say it means so much to the severely handicapped kids some in wheelchairs to be able to ride without being kicked off, or stared at and be able to truly take their time and relax.

Hearing the connection between the inspiration of the carousel and Scott’s war experiences a number of veterans make a special trip to enjoy a spin for a spell. Some recent veterans leave letters and pictures of departed comrades under rocks near the carousel as part of their own healing journey. Memorial Day and Veterans Day are honored with a silent ride for fallen heroes and free rides for veterans. Veterans are always welcome and it is important to Scott that the carousel not become a symbol or monument of war.  We all share the experiences ranging from happiness to grief and so much more.  Scott added more animals on a new Somewhere Else Wall in the building as a spiritual setting the carousel animals go to when resting at night. Even carousel animals need the opportunity to think differently. Round and round the animals go on their daily routines, just like us, but there is this portal to a place called Somewhere Else. A place of happiness for carousel animals. Some may call it heaven, others the rainbow bridge, another dimension or simply a place of imagination. Here the carved animals have cavities that allow them to carry messages too deep and personal to share with kids present to Somewhere Else. Veterans no longer need to leave their letters under rocks outside. People are encouraged to leave little letters during the day for departed loved ones, the future they dream of or even the animals they love at play. Letters can make a huge difference in the lives of us all.

Entering this mystical machine we drop our momentary cares and are transported away by the twirling girls infectious smile, the music, the spinning of all these lovingly carved creatures and return once more to the bliss of a childhood once forgotten to discover anew the bliss of ever lasting joy. Don’t delay take a spin on the Carousel of Happiness today.