Pasco man who rode carousel as a child back in saddle as attraction prepares to open in Kennewick

KENNEWICK -- Riding on a horse on Kennewick's Gesa Carousel of Dreams, James Chicouris went back in time.

As the carousel spun, the 87-year-old Pasco man leaned back like he was on a bucking bronco and pretended to lasso a steer while his horse gently moved up and down.

"This brings back memories," Chicouris said.

A lifetime ago, in 1936, Chicouris was one of many children who rode on those same horses at the Silver Beach Amusement Park in St. Joseph, Mich.

He felt stunned last week as he examined the 45 restored horses, carved in 1910 by Charles Carmel. They were already weatherworn when Chicouris, then about age 10, rode the carousel.

The Gesa Carousel of Dreams is much more elaborate than the version he enjoyed as a child, he said.

By the time Chicouris rode it, 16 of the standing horses on the carousel had been replaced by jumpers also carved by Carmel. Those original horses were lost, burned in 1948.

Like Chicouris, Tri-Citians young and old will get a chance to try out the Gesa Carousel of Dreams starting Sept. 5.

Chicouris, a pictorial artist who still paints regularly, recalled summers when he, his mother and younger brother and sister would take a boat across Lake Michigan to get to the amusement park. The carousel was outdoors then, not indoors as it is now.

Chicouris didn't have a favorite horse -- all of them seemed the same to him then -- but he remembers the magic of riding the carousel.

"I think I lived the best of times," he said.

Sometimes his mother would ride with them on one of the chariots, but he and his siblings always went for the horses, he said.

Rides then were in the nickel and dime range. Those days are over. Tokens -- each worth one 2.5-minute ride -- will cost $3 for one, $10 for four tokens and $20 for 10 tokens.

Tiles hold memories

Chicouris is among a handful of Tri-Citians who rode the carousel at its original home at the Silver Beach Amusement Park.

Look closely on the engraved tiles encircling the metal fence around the carousel and you might find more memories from its heyday.

One tile is in memory of June Davidson Hansen, who rode the carousel as a child in the 1920s and 1930s, and saw her children and grandchildren ride that same carousel from the 1950s to the 1970s. She died last year.

The carousel was sold in 1972 to carousel champion Marianne Stevens and it made its way 840 miles to her hometown of Roswell, N.M. Stevens, who died in 2012, wanted to make sure the carousel stayed together, instead of having the horses separate and disappear.

Chicouris moved to the Tri-Cities in 2002, the same year Stevens told carousel foundation founder Ken Johanning that Kennewick would be the carousel's new home.

Chicouris, who then lived in La Grange Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, came here to be closer to his only daughter, Cynthia MacFarlan, her husband, Mark, and his 15-year-old granddaughter Genna, a cheerleader at Chiawana High School.

Unbeknownst to Chicouris, his childhood carousel made the more than 1,400-mile journey to Kennewick in 2003 in the care of Phil Slusser and Johanning.

Chicouris discovered his childhood carousel was in the Tri-Cities only a few years ago when he was reading the newspaper.

"It's a small world really," he said.

'A great investment'

It's been a long road for a carousel that Kennewick city officials worried would never make its way out of storage.

They invested $830,000 to buy the carousel 13 years ago, only to see the restored horses sit idle and the Three River Carousel Foundation lose momentum.

"The current council was committed to getting this project done for our children and for tourism," said Kennewick Mayor Steve Young. "It shows what can happen when you bring the right team of citizens together."

In 2012, the foundation was given one last chance to get the carousel running -- or city officials would consider selling the horses to recoup the public's investment. The city council was adamant that no more tax dollars be spent on the project.

The volunteer group and the community made it happen. The tide turned that year after Gesa Credit Union stepped up and donated $1 million for the naming rights, adding dollars to the volunteer energy behind the project. Other donors jumped in, including Toyota of Tri-Cities and Baker Produce of Tri-Cities.

"It's a great investment for this community," Young said.

The carousel far exceeds any expectations the volunteer board members had, said Eric Van Winkle, the foundation's chairman.

"We are stunned -- and we hope the community is too," he said.

If you go:

-- Opening: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 5, Southridge Sports & Events Complex off Highway 395 in Kennewick.

-- Regular hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday.

-- Cost: 2.5-minute ride $3, $10 for four rides or $20 for 10.

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