Richard Brunton couldn’t help himself.
Every time he spun past the carousel’s ring arm, shaped like a salmon, he reached out his hand.
And nearly every time, he came back with a small plastic ring.
But then, near the end of his second ride on the Gesa Carousel of Dreams, something special happened.
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Brunton snagged the brass ring — worth bragging rights and a token for a free spin.
His face lit up in a wide, bright smile.
Even at 68, Brunton isn’t immune to the joy a carousel ride can bring.
For him, it’s about nostalgia.
Taking a spin on the antique ride at the Southridge Sports & Events Complex in Kennewick reminds him of happy days he spent as a kid riding a carousel in Spokane.
That ability to transport, to inspire laughter, smiles and wonder in young and old — that’s part of the magic of Gesa Carousel of Dreams, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month.
The inaugural year has been a success, officials said.
The carousel has seen 185,000 riders, generated $400,000 in revenue and been the site of more than 350 special events, from birthday parties to weddings — all far exceeding expectations.
And it’s close to being debt-free. The Three Rivers Carousel Foundation borrowed $354,000 to finish the building, with $75,000 left to pay off.
Officials said that should happen by the end of the year.
“Our goal has always been to be debt-free on the entire project,” said Garrick Russell, foundation board president. And, “as for the future, we want to continue to be a place for children and adults of all ages to enjoy. Whether that be a third birthday party, an 80th birthday party, or a corporate event utilizing our banquet room.”
He praised the volunteers and community members who have supported the project.
It cost about $4 million total, with donors large and small pitching in.
Gesa Credit Union provided $1 million, Toyota of Tri-Cities is paying $500,000 in monthly installments of $10,000 and Baker Produce kicked in $300,000.
The carousel dates to 1910.
Built by the Fred Dolle Company with horses carved by Charles Carmel, it entertained generations at Silver Beach Amusement Park in Michigan.
The park closed in 1971, but carousel champion Marianne Stevens saved the historic ride by purchasing it and bringing it to New Mexico.
It stayed with her until 2003, when the Three Rivers Carousel Foundation bought it with the dream of setting it up in the Tri-Cities.
The project hit roadblocks on its road to fruition, from issues with fundraising to where to put it.
But it gained renewed momentum a few years ago and the restored carousel opened to the public on Sept. 5 of last year.
With 45 horses, three chariots, a cougar and a husky; rounding boards featuring artwork by Tri-City photographer John Clement; and the salmon ring arm, the carousel is “a gorgeous piece of equipment,” said Eric Van Winkle, the executive director.
It’s something more too.
“When it comes alive with moms and music and kids, when you see two 90-year-olds holding hands riding the carousel — it will bring a tear to your eye,” Van Winkle said.
Dick English, a self-described “carousel nut” who volunteers at the Kennewick ride, put it this way: “I love the expressions on people’s faces. Whether it’s little kids who are reaching so hard to get a ring, or the adults — when they get a ring, the brass ring, in particular, they want everyone to know it. The seniors, they often sit on the chariots. You can tell they are reminiscing,” he said.
“If you’re in a bad mood, you just go out to the carousel. It’s just a happy, happy place,” English said.
As the carousel moves into its second year, its day-to-day management is changing hands. Van Winkle is stepping down as executive director, though he’ll remain on the board.
Parker Hodge, a manager in the Herald’s advertising department, is leaving the Herald to take over as executive director next month.
The carousel often is filled with young riders. But one afternoon last week, an older crowd showed up following the All Senior Picnic at the Southridge complex.
Taking a ride “brings back the happiest memories of your childhood,” said Nancy Lovejoy, 64, of Kennewick.
John Werner, 75, of Kennewick, boarded with his wife and mother-in-law. He couldn’t help but reminisce.
“Every carnival I’ve ever attended had a carousel. As a child in Southern Colorado, I used to help put up the tents for the circuses. They’d pay us $1 an hour or something as kids. I had a dog that got into a fight with a monkey,” he said with a laugh. “This is a beautiful carousel. It’s just gorgeous.”
After Brunton finished his two spins on the carousel, he stepped off onto solid ground, clutching his token for a free ride and still wearing that wide smile.
“It’s been years since I’ve ridden (a carousel),” he told the Herald. “That was great.”
IF YOU GO
What: Gesa Carousel of Dreams.
Where: Southridge Sports & Events Complex, 2901 Southridge Blvd., Kennewick.
Hours: Fall and winter hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Cost: $3 for an individual token, four tokens for $10 or 10 tokens for $20.