Burlington, N.C. grabs brass ring of Genoa history

Lou Hebert

Earlier this month, a piece of Genoa history was celebrated. Not in Genoa, but in Burlington, North Carolina.
In the spring of 1948, Carl Utoff, owner of the Forest Park Amusements on Woodville Road near Genoa, was closing down the once popular amusement center after 20 years. Carl had an old carousel (merry-go-round) that he was trying to get rid of and happened to see a notice in a trade magazine that the city of Burlington, North Carolina was looking for a merry go round for its city park.
Carl wrote a letter offering his carousel and all of the ornate hand carved animals. He said it was the “most beautiful merry-go-round” he'd ever seen. Within weeks, Burlington officials drove to Genoa to get a closer look. They liked what they saw and within a few more weeks, and an agreed on price of $3,500, the carousel was being loaded up and shipped to Burlington.
The rest is history and prologue.
The carousel Carl sold was a special one. A rare wooden Dentzel carousel, built by German craftsmen and wood carvers for the Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia. This particular model is a three- row carousel, with 48 hand carved animals that was probably built somewhere around 1910. No one knows for certain, but while its exact origins are a bit of mystery, Burlington city historians say it first operated at Locust Point Beach at Oak Harbor, and later by 1924, the carousel found its way to Forest Park Amusements in Genoa.
It remained there until 1948 when the amusement section of the park was closed down. Today, 75 years later, it resides in its own custom built pavilion in the Burlington, North Carolina City Park where it has been since 1948.

Still creating smiles
Over the last seven decades this “Forest Park” merry-go-round has become the symbolic identity of Burlington and a valued legacy. Few cities have one. It is one of only 20 vintage Dentzels in the United States that are still in motion and still putting smiles on the faces of children. And this past weekend, thousands of kids, of all ages, were smiling again as the city of Burlington held its annual Carousel Festival. As it was in other years, it was a magnet, drawing thousands to the park. A few of those lured there included a few folks from the Genoa Historical Society: Gaylord Sheldon, the president of the society and his wife, Chris, and this writer. It was a special treat for us to see this treasured icon that once lived on Woodville Road and to see how it is still being used and cared for by the citizens of Burlington.
Made of wood and moved by lots of mechanical widgets, vintage carousels can be fragile. At more than 100 years old, this one needed a major overhaul. In 2019, it was shipped to Marion, Ohio where it underwent an extensive four-year rehabilitation. The rare Dentzel was inspected, cleaned, repainted, made new again and ready to ride. And while this multi-million dollar reincarnation was underway, a special all-weather pavilion was being built in Burlington to house the prized Dentzel upon its return. In 2023 it did return and so too did the Carousel Festival.

Popular as ever
One of the remarkable attributes of a carousel is its timeless appeal. This one has provided enjoyment for generations of kids, starting more than a century ago. Whether at Locust Point, or Genoa's Forest Park or for the past 75 years in Burlington. It is said that when the Dentzel was first opened in Burlington in 1948, more than 12,000 people took a ride on the so called “Hobby Horses” that weekend, at a nickle a ticket. The enthusiasm never waned. Seven decades later in 2023, kids appear no less excited to climb aboard their favorite animal and go for a ride. The big Dentzel carousel was busy all weekend at the festival.
The City of Burlington has not forgotten that the roots of its iconic symbol are found in Genoa and Oak Harbor. A display of special panels featured in the pavilion tells the story of the carousel, and how it left Genoa and found a new home in North Carolina. A story that perhaps is a tad bittersweet for this writer, knowing that Genoa allowed the coveted Dentzel to slip from its grasp. On the other hand, we can thank the good stewards of Burlington for not only saving this artifact of Genoa's story but for nurturing and preserving it, so that it has more than just a history, but also has a future.


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