Town Story: Burlington

With only 4,000 occupants, this eastern plains town may appear at first unassuming, but there's more than just a century-old secret swirling in Burlington's city center.



The Kit Carson County Carousel delights second-grader Alyssa McClellan, as it has generations of kids since its 1928 arrival in Burlington. The carousel, built in 1905 for Denver’s Elitch Gardens, boasts an exotic menagerie, including Alyssa’s hippocampus (half horse, half fish) and a camel.

Joshua Hardin

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(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)


Every town has at least one claim to fame. For Burlington, a city of around 4,000 on the eastern plains near the Kansas border, it’s the Kit Carson County Carousel. This thing is in a different league from your garden variety merry-go-rounds – it’s the Sistine Chapel ceiling of carousels, high art that you can ride on.

There is a thriving subculture of carousel fanatics worldwide, and as a girl, Mary Jo Downey never knew she would join them. Her childhood ambition was to own a real, live horse. That dream was never realized, but for more than three decades she has tended to an entire stable of wooden horses as one of the driving forces behind the volunteers that restored the historic carousel.

The Kit Carson County Carousel story goes back more than a century, Downey says. The Philadelphia Toboggan Co. built it in 1905 for Denver’s Elitch Gardens, which sold it to Kit Carson County in 1928 for $1,200. Citizens were outraged that the county commissioners would spend that much money on such an extravagance, ousting two at the next election and persuading a third not to seek reelection.

The carousel operated for a few seasons, but was mothballed when the Great Depression and “Dirty ’30s” dust bowl hit. It started running again when times got better, but as a shadow of its former glory: The carousel twirled in silence after its band organ broke, and layers of repainting and varnish muddied the animals’ vibrant colors and intricate decoration into a uniformly dingy yellow-brown.

“When we first started restoring it, people thought we were nuts,” Downey said. “Why would you want to spend money on that old merry-go-round?”

But residents of Kit Carson County, where Burlington is county seat, started calling it “our carousel” instead of “that old merry-go-round” when they saw what a spectacular success the restoration was in the 1970s and ’80s. With the help of Denver artist Will Morton, decades of grime was slowly removed, revealing the vibrant and intricate original paint on the 46 carved animals – horses, of course, but also giraffes, camels, lions, tigers, dogs and a hippocampus (half horse, half fish). Each animal has unique embellishments, and there’s a huge market for such carved animals as objects of art. A single dog from a similar “menagerie” carousel fetched nearly $200,000.

The soul of the carousel is the restored Wurlitzer Monster Military Band Organ, which recreates a turn-of-the-century brass band. You can feel the music reverberating in your lungs. The animals don’t jump up and down like later carousels, but they make up for it in speed; the Kit Carson County Carousel goes 12 miles per hour, compared to the 8 miles per hour of most models.

 

A TEAM OF Belgian draft horses, real ones, clop up to the carousel on summer weekends. They pull the Old Town Express, a wagon driven by cowboy Verlin Garner. People hop aboard and the wagon sets off down 14th Avenue, Burlington’s main street, to a reconstructed frontier village: Old Town. Along with the carousel, it’s the main thing that pulls in tourists from nearby Interstate 70.

Old Town has a museum, as well as the village assembled from 20-plus historical buildings moved from their original locations in the surrounding communities, along with some recreations.

Cheryl Jacobson, the Old Town Museum director who’s worked there from opening day, gave us a “quick” tour of the expansive village that takes easily more than an hour. Old Town seems to operate on the thesis that the best way to learn about people is to go through their stuff. The old pharmacy is well-stocked and seems ready to fill a prescription, and the attached soda fountain looks ready for the subjects of a Norman Rockwell painting to start posing. And in the summertime, the place really comes alive. You can actually order a banana split at the soda shop, or step into the Longhorn Saloon and see some authentic frontier cancan dancing.

The actual museum building is giant, and it tells of Burlington’s origins as a stop on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad and its rise as an agricultural community. In the gift shop, you’re greeted by Lavila Clark, who is playing a jaunty number on the piano. Her medleys are all played by ear.

“It could be honky-tonk into gospel,” Clark said. While she mainly plays for the fun, folksy charm of it, there’s an added benefit. “I’ve seen some people ready to leave, but when I sit down and play, they stay and shop some more,” she said.

 

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