International Museum of Carousel Art

International Museum of Carousel Art good for kids and adults alike

By Patrick Johnson
For Oregon.com

Even though it was built in 1917, the Wurlitzer Band Organ still fills the International Museum of Carousel Art with the sounds of the circus.

The museum, located in historic downtown Hood River, is the clearinghouse for all things carousel - and while the gift shop is modest, their collection of antique and one-of-a-kind carousel animals is something you absolutely should not miss.

When you enter the museum you can do a self-guided tour, or have Eldon McCaw, curator, give you a tour. McCaw's tour is filled with the history of carousels and each exhibit has a story.

"We get anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 people per year coming in," McCaw said. "There is a lot of history about carousels that people don't know about. It's really fun to tell people about this art form and show them some of the history."

Even during a weekday, people funnel in and out of the museum, taking in the old carousel art and reading the plaques that explain who carved them and where they came from. Ironically the closest operating carousel to the museum in Vancouver, WA and there is also a carousel in Salem, Oregon.

But people from all around want to visit and see some of the antique animals, from pigs to horses to half-horse half-dragon carvings.

One of the displays, which has never been on a working carousel, is a lion and tiger from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The eyes in both of the wooden cats are first of their kind - using a special gemstone - and they were made in the 1890s. One of their brother tigers is also on display that was used, and you can tell the difference in the wear and tear.

"These have been on display for 90 years," McCaw said. "Many people really like coming just to see these."

The museum has more than 120 carousel animals on display, each with their own distinct story and history. With the hour tour, you will learn about the history and how the museum procured the exhibits. Most of the animals are made from bass wood - McCaw has an uncarved piece to show visitors how each of the exhibits started.

"Everyone has a piece of bass wood in their house and doesn't even know it," McCaw said. "It doesn't buckle, sweat or crack and it stays the same shape. That's why they use it in carousel horses - and rulers."

The IMCA is a non-profit organization that uses the admission and donations to keep carousels and their history alive. They are committed to improving their displays and restore and preserve carousel art throughout the world and to keep carousels running. Memberships are also available which also go to help fund the organization.

"There are a number of carousels we operate in California and New York," McCaw said. "We have over 800 pieces in storage that are in different states of restoration. So the collection is growing and we are happy to keep this part of history alive."

The highlight of the collection, however, is the 1917 Wurlitzer Band Organ, that makes adults and children alike feel like they have entered another time.

"I turn it on and the kids always want me to turn it on again after it's done," he said. "The adults do too."

About the International Museum of Carousel Art: Started in 1983 as the non-profit Portland Carousel Museum, the International Museum of Carousel Art was opened in 1999 in Hood River. The highlight of the collection is the items on permanent loan from Duane and Carol Perron. The museum in a non-profit and has more than 120 items on display with more than 800 in storage. They are committed to keeping the tradition and history of all-wood carousel art alive.

Tips: Photography is allowed in the museum, so be sure to bring you camera and flash. Give you self plenty of time, as the tour is as informative as you want it to be. Make sure to take the tour from McCaw, as he has a wealth of information about the collection.

Season: The museum is open year round. Winter hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12 to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Summer hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12 to 4 on Sunday. Admission is $5 adult, $4 for seniors 65 and older, $4 for students ages 11 to 17 and $2 for children 5 to 16. Children four and under are free.

Getting there: Traveling east from Portland/Vancouver or west from The Dalles/Boise, take Hood River exit 63. Turn south at the end of the ramp and you will be on 2nd Street. In just a few blocks turn right on Oak Street and we are on the right side at the next corner (3rd Street) in the large red brick building. Watch for the historic 4-sided clock on our building.

For further directions, call 541-387-4622

Story and photos by Patrick Johnson, a free-lance writer based in Canby, OR.