Ridge and Ridge: Carousel Animal Carving

Larry Ridge was born and raised in Chattanooga and is an experienced woodcarver in several styles. Larry is the master carver at Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School, the only full-time school in the United States that teaches carousel animal carving. He began working with Bud Ellis, founder of Horsin’ Around, thirty-four years ago. Before the school moved to its current home in Soddy Daisy, Horsin’ Around first opened in Chattanooga with only three students. Since 1985, over 700 people have passed through the school’s doors. In 2013, Bud handed over the reigns, and Larry took over as owner and master carver. The transition from Bud to Larry was seamless. Larry explained, “I had been working with Bud part time for years. I was familiar with the place and people and stories.” In addition to his exquisite carvings, Larry provides the maintenance, upkeep, and consulting for the Coolidge Park Carousel and the Chattanooga Zoo Carousel. Back when he apprenticed under Bud Ellis, he carved several of the animals that now sit on the Coolidge Park Carousel. In fact, all 54 animals at the carousel were carved by former students at Horsin’ Around.

Carousels are disappearing in the United States. In 1959, there were 4,000 carousels in the U.S. Today, there are less than 200 left. By teaching students how to carve animals by hand, Larry keeps a centuries-old tradition alive. Whereas many carousel animals nowadays are made out of fiberglass, Larry teaches students how to carve animals out of basswood–the old-fashioned way. “You start with a tree and you end up with another type of living creature in a finished carousel,” says Larry. “And then people ride those things for years. The ones that we have at Coolidge Park, they’ve already been there 20 years. If they’re maintained, they’ll last 100. My great grandkids can come and read my name and see who carved it and when. When I’m long gone they can see what I did way back in the day.”

“You start with a tree and you end up with another type of living creature in a finished carousel.”

As part of the 2020 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Larry taught his son, Jason Ridge, and his grandson, Luke Ridge, the steps required to build and carve a carousel animal in the same tradition that began in the 1800s. “It is also our goal to continue the family legacy and appreciation of this skill that the master artist has started.” Jason explains. “We believe it is important to our area because someone has to be trained to carry on the maintenance, replacement, and restoration to the animals in our Chattanooga Carousels. Additionally, someone needs to be trained to create new animals.”

Field Notes, February 2020––

Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School is one of the many businesses that dot Dayton Pike, the main drag through Soddy Daisy. As you drive down the pike, you will see a singular carousel horse towering in front of the otherwise nondescript warehouse that Horsin’ Around calls home. The business’s mailbox still bears an index card with the signature and phone number of its founder, Bud Ellis. Larry Ridge, the man in charge since Bud’s retirement, greets visitors at the door. Apart from a small kitchen to the left, the building is one, capacious room with high ceilings. Falling somewhere in between a workshop and museum, the space is filled to the brim with wood, tools, and animals in various stages of construction. The walls are lined with artillery racks, holding gouges and mallets. There are shelving units stacked high with paints and varnishes. Large sheets of butcher block paper reveal drawings of horses yet to be made. And then there is one wall with dozens of very old looking tools, perhaps for display or for easy access or all of the above. 

At a work table near the front door, Larry’s son and grandson, Jason and Luke, sat working. Three generations of carousel animal carvers under one roof. Luke had a horse leg in front of him and was applying a gouge chisel to what resembled a kneecap. His father Jason was working on a leg of his own. He paused occasionally to examine his progress or place the leg in between two wool-covered blocks affixed to one side of the table. 

Larry walked to the back left corner of the shop where dozens of half carved animal bodies were stacked close to each other. Larry explained that this area is called the “boneyard.” These animals are in process. At some point, their owners will return and they will get worked on again. Larry explained in a jocular tone that “it looks like a train wreck of the circus train. All the pieces and parts.” His face turned a bit more serious, as he said, “Everyone of those is a story of a person. Somebody that’s come through the doors and has shared an experience here with us.” It is this connection with students and the promise of their return year after year that keeps the boneyard from becoming a graveyard. 

Larry explained that between 100 to 120 pieces of wood compose a bigger horse’s body. Holding a horse form in his hands, Larry said, “The bodies are all hollow. There’s a slab on the bottom that goes across. This is stacked up with footer blocks, and we have the top and bottom pieces which hold the pole. The legs and everything are attached to here. The head goes on the top side here and there’s another panel that goes on this side to close everything up. It’s lighter that way, and it’s stronger. You don’t have to worry about it cracking. But the first thing you have to start with is the drawing.”

In addition to the drawing, Larry taught his son and grandson the fundamental carving techniques required to create a carousel animal. These techniques are tried and true, just like his tools. He pointed at several augers in a tool box and explained that they were over 100 years old. “Muscles come after skill and technique.It’s not a power thing,” Larry said as he modeled a technique for his grandson. “But once you do it long enough, you get power.” Larry carves all of his carousel animals out basswood, also known as American linden. He explained that, “We use northern linden because it’s tighter grain and cleaner growth. Southern Linden is kind of grainy and rugged and coarse if you want to call it that. We get it from Pennsylvania, Canada, and Minnesota. Places like that.” Larry is committed to carving carousel animals “the old way,” a way that produces work that lasts for generations. Watching three generations carve together at one table is an incredible thing to witness. From the stories Larry told, however, it was clear that he treats everyone who passes through the doors of Horsin’ Around like family.

Folklife staff visited Horsin’ Around in February 2020. View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day.

*This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.

Media:

Further Reading:

  • Bronner, Simon J.. The Carver’s Art: Crafting Meaning from Wood, University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
  • Brown, Fred. “The Gleam of Dentzel Greatness Lives in Bud Ellis’ Carousel Creations.” News Sentinel, Jun 22, 1997.
  • ————–.  “Area Native Brings Carousel Animals Back to Life in Chattanooga.” Evansville Courier, Jul 22, 1997
  • Carter, John. “School Keeps Students Chiseling Away.” Florida Times Union, Aug 16, 1997.
  • Ellis, Bud. Carousel Animal Carving: Patterns & Techniques, 1998. 
  • Fraley, Tobin, and Nina (foreword by) Fraley. The Great American Carousel: A Century of Master Craftsmanship. Chronicle; distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books, Vancouver, 1994.
  • Fry, Martha J. “Woodworker Builds Life Around Passion for Carousels.” Tampa Tribune, Aug 24, 2003, pp. 3
  • Henderson, Nancy. “Kingsport Residents Carve Their Niche for Community Carousel.Tennessee Home and Farm. November 4, 2019. 
  • Lam, Bourree. America’s Last Carousel Craftsmen. September 12, 2014. 
  • Manns, William, Dru Riley (Editor), Marianne Stevens. Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art, 1987. 
  • Selbert, Pamela. “Horsin’ Around a Carousel Carving School in Tennessee.” St.Louis Post – Dispatch, Mar 06, 2016.Stacy, Smith S. “Hobby Turns `big Hunk of Wood’ into Herd of Horses.” The Leaf Chronicle, Jan 28, 2005.
  • WIlliams, Michelle. “Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School Revives Old Art Form.” News Sentinel, May 31, 1994, pp. B8