ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – In the heat of the summer, kids and adults alike can be seen on the historic Eldridge Park Carousel reaching to get their hands on a brass ring as the machine spins. The significance of these rings has a history even longer than the carousel itself, dating back to medieval times, according to a Park Board member and carousel expert.
Walt Kowalski is on the Board of Directors at Eldridge Park. He began working at the carousel in 1967 when he was 16. He’s been working with the machine ever since, helping see it through the flood of ’72 and when the ride had to shut down in the 1980s. He came back on board in the early 2000s to help refurbish the ride.
Kowalski was a “front boy”. His job was to help people on the ride and then, once it was running, hop on and collect tickets.
An integral piece of the Eldridge Carousel experience is the chance to grab a brass ring from the outside row of horses. Whenever the ride’s running, kids and adults can be seen reaching far to get the ring, and in turn, a free ride.
But what’s the history behind these rings? Using one of the wooden horses, Kowalski explained the centuries-old roots of the tradition.
“This is an armored horse,” he said. “An armored horse was ridden by knights. Knights jousted.”
He went on to explain that knights would practice jousting with their lances by aiming to stick the lance through a ring. Fast forward to today, and riders use their hands instead of a lance, riding a carved horse instead of a real one.
“Back in the 50s and 60s, there was between 50 and 100 people at a time,” Kowalski recalled. The ‘ring boys’ would load steel rings into the feeder, and eventually, a brass ring would drop down. Whoever was lucky enough to grab the brass ring would get a free ticket from the ring boy.
Kowalski said the ring boys were quick to hop onto the fast-running machine (a self-proclaimed one of the fastest in the country) and get their personal brass ring back. Eventually, when the ring boys got older and passed away, many were buried with the rings in their caskets.
“I have a love for the carousel of yesterday,” Kowalski said after a long pause. He recalled names like the Long family, specifically Robert Long, and their deep connection with the ride. “Robert long put his whole heart into this ride, and that’s where I feel my memories are going to be.”
Still, Kowalski said he’s grateful the children of today can still experience such an iconic piece of Elmira’s history.
“I came here at 16, and it was my college. There was 53 horses, a lion, a tiger, a goat and two benches. That was my college class,” Kowalski said. “It taught me how to deal with people. It taught me how to public speak… and it ended up I got a great job, was a manager within a company… all because of this ride right here.”