Sometimes you have to get off the beaten paths to find the real treasures in life. And if you happen to find yourself anywhere near Nederland Colorado, be sure to take that road less traveled. You’ll find the tiny town of Nederland, Colorado, tucked in the Rocky Mountains, just a half an hour west of Boulder. There are no stoplights in town, but there is a well used traffic rotary since three highways converge at that exact location. You’ll also find a small grocery store, an amazing locally owned pizza place and an alpaca store with the live mascot fenced in its front yard.
But the true treasure of Nederland is the Carousel of Happiness. It sits in the center of town, right past the rotary and if you don’t blink, you can’t miss it. It’s housed in a eco friendly building that is reminiscent of a circus tent, which should be your first clue that it’s housing something special.
The people who oversee the carousel, the small souvenir shop as well as the rotating animals, are kind and gracious. A ticket to ride is just one dollar but no one is turned away if they can’t afford to pay. The goal of the carousel, and its keepers, is the bring joy and happiness to all who wish to ride. It’s no accident that this specific carousel is giving rides to smiling children in this specific small town. It took a long road to get there.
At the turn of the century one of the great carousel makers, Charles Looff created a carousel for the Saltair Park, an amusement park that sat on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, just west of Salt Lake City. In its 49 years there, the carousel survived fires and wind storms. When the resort went bankrupt, the governor gifted the carousel to a state school in American Fork. The locals rallied together to restore it and made it possible for several more generations of children to enjoy it, for 27 more years.
In the mid eighties it was common for carousels to be dismantled and the individual animals auctioned off to collectors. The great Looff carousel seemed to be destined for this path. One by one its animals were sold.
But the carousel itself was not finished with its destiny. It would take a man who had dreamed about it since his days serving in the Vietnam War to bring it back to life. Scott Harrison often listened to a music box his sister had sent him, when was serving in the war. The tune, Chopin’s “Tristes” always made him think of a beautiful carousel spinning in a mountain meadow.
Years later he began hand carving the animals that would one day become the carousel he dreamed of. Then he heard about the abandoned Looff carousel. He quickly bought it and had it brought to Nederland, his hometown. With help from his neighbors and friends, he began the long 22 year process of restoring it, including saving the original electric motor and controller. Eventually fund raisers were held and building plans drawn up. Through the whole process, Mr. Harrison continued to hand carve and paint his menagerie of animals, each of the 38 unique in its own way.
Because most carousels are filled with horses, he made a deliberate effort to carve other animals. There is a fish and a mermaid, a kangaroo and a giraffe. There’s a racing pig and a frisky cat. There’s even a friendly gorilla with his arm around a spot that’s the perfect size for a wheelchair. Each animal has a story, which can be found on the carousel’s website. When the riding animals were finished, he started carving smaller creatures, to hang from the rafters and decorate the inside of the circus tent building.
Today the carousel brings happiness to every rider who passes through town. Some happen upon it accidentally and some come after hearing the story behind the carousel that just refused to retire.
Mr. Harrison still lives in Nederland. His dream is twirling every day, down in the heart of his tiny town. He’s still carving, still creating, still thinking of ways to make his dream bigger and better. So if you happen to be in Colorado this summer, or any time of year, make an effort to stop and take in the magnificent beauty that is the Carousel of Happiness. And I dare you not to grin from ear to ear as you clutch the reigns of your dancing alpaca.
Side note: Be sure to visit their new website, that plays carousel music and has spinning animals on its opening page.