The iconic Mitchell Park carousel has delighted visitors to Greenport Village for more than two decades.
But its history dates back much farther and officials estimate it’s now 100 years old.
The origins of the carousel have been shrouded in mystery even before it overlooked Greenport Harbor. A 1995 New York Times story noted Northrup Grumman, the carousel’s prior owner, had “cloaked its carousel in a mantle of mystery befitting a military secret.”
Marjory Stevens, a member of the Greenport Village Carousel Committee and early carousel volunteer, said no one knows for sure the exact year it was built. It is known, though, that it was built by Herschell-Spillman in North Tonawanda, N.Y.
“We’ve tried to trace the history before Grumman and we’ve not been successful,” Stevens said. “The factory had a fire, and records were burned back when. So they have no record of [the carousel’s] serial number.”
Though its origins are a mystery, it’s believed that the ride was constructed around 1920 because of different aspects and the serial number, Stevens said. It’s also thought that it was most likely used in a traveling carnival, because of its easy disassembly.
The first recorded history of the carousel begins in the 1950s, when Northrop Grumman purchased it for company picnics and community events at its Calverton plant. When the plant was decommissioned in 1995, the company offered to donate the carousel to a local community.
“What ensued for the next close to a year was a competition ultimately,” former Greenport Mayor Dave Kapell said. “Word got out that we were interested in it. And then the next thing you know, everybody was interested in it.”
Greenport faced competition from Riverhead Town, an amusement park in New Jersey and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, all of whom expressed interest in the ride. Third and fourth grade students at Greenport School helped the cause by sending letters to Northrop Grumman. One of the letters read:
“Dear Grumman, how are you today? May Greenport have this carousel? We need it! Please. There is nothing in this town for kids and it would be nice. I’d love a carousel. If you let us have it that would be nice. Please! From the desk of Mark DeLano.”
Kapell and the elementary school students won over Grumman’s hearts, and in July 1995, the carousel was gifted to Greenport. Kapell and a crew of about 40 volunteers went down to Calverton with a flatbed truck provided by the Town of Southold to transport the carousel themselves.
“A couple of our volunteers had educated themselves on how to disassemble and reassemble this carousel,” the former mayor said. “And we went down, we took it apart and we put it on the truck.”
The team then moved the carousel temporarily onto Carpenter Street, into a manufacturing facility at STIDD Systems. The ride was then moved again into a steel barn built on the southeast corner of Front and Third streets, where The Menhaden Hotel stands today. It stayed there until the completion of Mitchell Park in June 2001, where it would find its permanent home and become the centerpiece.
“[The park], for me, is what has made the Village of Greenport,” Stevens said. “Lots of people can’t afford to live on the water, but they can all afford to wander down to the park in the evening, sit out back, enjoy the view and chat with their neighbors, like you would in your backyard. So I’ve always thought of it as Greenport’s backyard.”
The original caretaker of the carousel was Jess Owen, for whom the carousel house is named.
He maintained the carousel through its two temporary homes and died just before the completion of Mitchell Park.
“The pay is lousy, but this is the best job I ever had,” Trustee George Hubbard quoted Owen as saying in The Suffolk Times story covering the grand opening of the park on June 29, 2001.
Today, the carousel is maintained by 89-year-old Bob Wissmann, who began volunteering there in 1995, according to Kapell.
More recently, in 2016, the ride gained some new life when 14 rounding boards replicating scenes of the village’s history were installed after an effort from the Greenport Village Carousel Committee.
“The most important thing about that carousel is the excitement that it generates for young kids,” Kapell said. “It ensures that when, 20 years from now, they have their own children, they’re going to bring them back. So it’s a self-sustaining joy.”
• The carousel is one of 11 pre-1960 classic carousels that have an operating ring machine in the United States, according to the National Carousel Association.
• The carousel has 36 Jumping Horses and two chariots.
• Eighteen of the horses are hand-carved Herschell horses and may be original to the ride.
• The four small horses on the inside row are carved in the style of Charles Dare, one of the early carousel manufacturers in America who carved very simple carousels with marbles for eyes. They may have been carved around the turn of the last century.
• The mechanism for the ride’s ring bar was designed and created by Fred Schoenstein of North Fork Welding, who was also one of the volunteers who helped move the carousel to Greenport.