Magical Menagerie

Nederland's Carousel of Happiness springs from veteran's wartime vision



A friendly wooden gorilla spends quality time with creator Scott Harrison.

Joshua Hardin

Colorado Life Magazine likes to bring happiness to Coloradans, too. A 1-year Colorado Life subscription (6 bimonthly issues) is just $21 – that’s 40% off the newsstand price. Subscribe today using promo code “CH17” and we’ll throw in the September/October 2017 issue featuring the full Carousel of Happiness story as a FREE bonus issue. Call us at 800-777-6159 or click here to get this special offer. 

 

AS THE TERROR OF a firefight subsided and relative calm returned to the rolling hills of Vietnam, when many of his fellow Marines lay low in their dugouts and gazed at photos of their girlfriends, 19-year-old Scott Harrison would pull out a tiny music box, a gift from his sister, and hold it close to his ear, listening to its tinkling song play loud enough for only him to hear. 

The smell of soil permeated his shelter while mortar rounds continued to burst close by, but Harrison’s mind was far from the fighting. The music box’s chimes playing Chopin’s “Tristesse” seemed to transport him to an imaginary carousel in a mountain meadow surrounded by smiling people. 

Half a century later and half a world away, that imaginary carousel is real. Harrison spent 26 years creating it, carving dozens of carousel animals by hand in the Colorado mountain town of Nederland. He calls it the Carousel of Happiness.

THE CAROUSEL OF HAPPINESS is tucked between the local grocery store and diner in quiet, quirky Nederland. After purchasing a laminated ticket in the animal-stuffed gift shop, riders enter a lofty, round room that houses a magical menagerie. 

A zebra shows its true colors with rainbow stripes; a llama wearing pointe shoes, also known by its punny nickname Ballet Llama, strikes a pose; and a rooster draped in a pearl necklace boasts its fashion sense. There is only one traditional horse – every other animal is unique and has its own eccentric personality. 

The mermaid used to be bare breasted, but Harrison’s wife, Ellen, set him straight. “This is Nederland,” she conceded, acknowledging the town’s free-spirited reputation, “but maybe you shouldn’t put that mermaid on a kid’s ride.” So Harrison carved her two shells, and now she is a favorite among little girls.

A steady flow of visitors keeps the animals company. Boys fight over who gets to ride the moose, and a girl steps into the room, immediately shouting, “This is my kind of place!” Harrison stops by once or twice a week to catch up with his carved friends. He circles the carousel, waving to riders, reminding them to have fun. His white hair pokes out from under a well-used baseball cap. As he flashes a big smile to his guests, none of the sadness that inspired his first vision of the carousel is evident in his cheerful eyes. 

TWO WEEKS BEFORE his high school graduation in Dallas, Harrison joined the Marines and studied to be a Vietnamese interpreter. Military leaders hoped these translators would befriend Vietnamese villagers, but demand for combat soldiers required Harrison to drop that mission and join the fight as a machine gunner. 

During the Battle of Mike’s Hill on Jan. 26, 1968, just days before the Tet Offensive, Harrison’s unit got caught in a deadly firefight near the Demilitarized Zone between Khe Sanh and Dong Ha. Two of his closest friends were killed, and fragments from a grenade ripped into Harrison’s knee. He was removed from the combat zone and sent to a naval hospital in Japan. He lost all his personal belongings, including his music box. “That music box helped me a lot,” Harrison said. “It was a good memory of Vietnam, if you could call it that.”

When Harrison returned stateside, he moved to California, where he met his wife and got a job working for Amnesty International’s Urgent Action Network, an organization fighting against torture. With the advent of portable computers in the early 1980s, Harrison was able to take his work anywhere, so he began searching the map for rural, mountain communities where his two kids could grow up playing outside. He stumbled across Nederland and built a house there for his family.

While building the house in 1985, a pile of scrap wood inspired him to carve his first animal. Three months later, he completed a 70-pound bunny named Rabbit. Enjoying the peace of his work, he began his second animal, a giraffe. 

“The carving was very serene,” Ellen said. “He just did one animal at a time. When he finished painting one, he started planning the next.” 

When he would close up shop every night, Harrison played classical music on the stereo for his wooden friends to keep them company. With the completion of two animals, Harrison realized that his dream of a carousel could be a reality.

To view more photos of the Carousel of Happiness, click here.

Wooden animals began inhabiting every room in the house, except the bathroom. Harrison’s boss, a big-time New Yorker, came to visit Harrison at his home. When he entered Harrison’s office, he was startled to see a large gorilla casually sitting on a bench.

However, he quickly became enamored with the carving, and he enjoyed a cup of coffee next to his new friend. Harrison’s kids loved climbing on the animals, especially the giraffe in the living room. His daughter, Colleen, enjoyed helping her father by sitting on the animals, allowing him to measure out the size of each saddle. Ironically, more adults ride the carousel than kids; Harrison jokes that he should have fitted the saddle for someone his size. 

WITH HIS ZOO in the works, Harrison needed a carousel frame to house his animal posse. In 1986, he stumbled across a $2,000 carousel base from the Utah State School, which used to give rides to handicapped people. The frame previously resided in a Salt Lake City amusement park named Saltair, where the carousel survived fires, windstorms and the impact of a roller coaster that once crashed into it.

The Carousel of Happiness, with 56 animals that he spent 26 years carving, opened to the public on Memorial Day 2010.

Keeping up with the frame’s historic service for the disabled, Harrison designed the Carousel of Happiness to be inclusive. It is wheelchair accessible, and the gorilla invites guests to join him on his throne. A man with cerebral palsy once joined the gorilla, and by the end of the ride, his caretaker was in tears. Harrison asked her what was wrong. She replied that her patient was usually unresponsive and had never focused on anything before; however, he was interacting with the gorilla, watching him. “Every animal has a respectable gaze, but only the gorilla is looking right at you,” Harrison said.

Every Memorial Day, the carousel hosts an observance for veterans and those killed in battle. Harrison honors his two friends who died at the Battle of Mike’s Hill; the pictures of Paul Christmas and Christian Langenfeld hang across from the carousel. When the event begins, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts perform a flag ceremony, and everyone circles the carousel. Harrison passes a microphone around, giving everyone a chance to share the name of someone they have lost. After everyone speaks, a bugler plays taps. “There’s not a dry eye,” Harrison said. 

When taps ends, Harrison turns on the carousel, and it slowly rotates as people watch. Then the scouts and veterans climb aboard and ride it together. Suddenly, the somber mood becomes joyous as the carousel picks up speed. “The sadness comes without effort, but it’s best to remember those we lost with a smile,” Harrison said.

To help raise funds to pay for the construction fees, Harrison built Somewhere Else, a wall where people could, for a donation, deposit treasures that memorialize dead loved ones. Noticing an empty space adjacent to the carousel, Harrison built a panel protruding six inches from the wall, leaving a hollow space in between. He painted it with an ethereal mist and decorated it with otherworldly light fixtures that twist and turn. Sculpted animals seem to walk between realms. A giraffe pokes its head out from the plaster and peeks out the window, and a polar bear passes a baby bear through the portal.

Another animal featured at Somewhere Else is Oberon the Wonder Dog, who was known to many in these mountains as an intelligent, singing and talking canine. Oberon’s humans arranged for the pup’s 12th birthday to be held at the Carousel of Happiness, and the birthday boy loved meeting each of the animals. The fun-loving dog died three months later, and Harrison immortalized him by carving him stepping into Somewhere Else, sweetly looking back, as if saying goodbye. 

Somewhere Else is home to many memories of those who have died. A young man who lost his wife to a motorcycle accident wanted to remember her in an extraordinary way, so he asked Harrison if he could house her urn behind the magical wall. Harrison agreed, and he even hosted her funeral service at the carousel. Now that the construction fees are paid off, anyone can contribute something special to Somewhere Else free of cost.  

Harrison recently began another project: the Council of Kindness, a circular bench where those in need of comfort can find refuge among a wolf, a donkey, a giraffe and a gorilla. “Kids have teddy bears,” Harrison said, “but adults need quiet time with animals, too.”

Harrison carved his way through grief and found happiness beneath the wood’s surface. The carousel has become part of the identity of his mountain community, bringing happiness to people of all ages. “Families here make it a regular part of their routine, just as you would with a supermarket,” Ellen said. Though he has created so much joy, Harrison still tears up when talking about his memories of the war. “When I was a teenager, I always wondered why soldiers still cried after so many years,” he said. “But I still cry.”

Memories of war might have built the carousel, but the happiness Harrison has since discovered keeps it turning. 

 

To view more photos of the Carousel of Happiness, click here.

Colorado Life Magazine likes to bring happiness to Coloradans, too. A 1-year Colorado Life subscription (6 bimonthly issues) is just $21 – that’s 40% off the newsstand price. Subscribe today using promo code “CH17” and we’ll throw in the September/October 2017 issue featuring the full Carousel of Happiness story as a FREE bonus issue. Call us at 800-777-6159 or click here to get this special offer. 

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