Meridien's merry-go-round unlocks memories of the past and inspires new ones.
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Dentzel Carousel in Meridian, Mississippi
The circa-1896 Dentzel Carousel in Meridian, Mississippi, is a family favorite.
| Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Three years ago, I watched my mother get transported back to the early 1950s. Her vehicle for this time travel was not a silver sports car but the Dentzel Carousel in Meridian, Mississippi; the power source was not gigawatts but a memory harnessed in a hand-carved horse, its legs forever frozen mid trot. 

As my then 72-year-old mom went round and round astride a tawny filly, she moved in and out of view, followed by her son on a spotted pony; her husband on a white steed; and three grandkids swapping turns on a lion, a tiger, and a giraffe. She watched her giggling 4-year-old granddaughter, my niece Catherine Barrett ("CB"), and seemed to slip through a wrinkle in time.

I knew she was revisiting childhood moments spent at this carousel with her own grandmother, Mama Madge.

Unlike my mom's paternal grandmother, who was soft and plump and gave into grandchildren's whims, Mama Madge was no fan of childish frivolity. Yet during my mom's annual summer visits, she'd take one day away from working at her home-based beauty shop to devote to her granddaughter. They would dine on saltines smeared with peanut butter scooped from a crock and then trout amandine at Weidmann's, the state's oldest restaurant. Next came rides on the National Historic Landmark Dentzel Carousel. Today, it's the only operating stationary, two-row Dentzel Carousel that is still in its original housing.

Dentzel Carousel in Meridian, Mississippi
Dentzel Carousel in Meridian, Mississippi
Left: A lengthy restoration project from 1984 through 1995 returned the historic carousel's animals, chariots, and canvas oil paintings to their original magic. | Credit: Robbie Caponetto
Right: Credit: Robbie Caponetto

While those days spent with her grandmother left indelible impressions, they weren't what compelled our 2019 family trip to Meridian. That journey began with the book Carousels Abound, which chronicles the 2000 public-art project that commissioned Mississippi artists to paint fiberglass replicas of Dentzel horses to be placed throughout town. Local businesses sponsored the horses to raise funds for Hope Village for Children, a home for abused and neglected kids that was founded by actor and Meridian native Sela Ward. Crafted by German immigrant Gustav Dentzel in 1896 for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, the carousel was given a second home in Meridian in 1909. After years of use, it was revived by a decade-long restoration, and it still delights children after over a century. Hope Village provides a similar second chance to disadvantaged youth, so these two institutions pair well.

As my mom read the Carousels Abound book to my niece, she recounted pieces of her own story. The horses prancing off the pages fascinated the toddler. So did the fact that her grandmother was once a child too. It was CB's idea (and insistence) that led us to Meridian.

After we took several nostalgia-soaked turns on the carousel, we piled into my parents' minivan and made new memories on a search for the horses placed around town. With each sighting, CB raced to the horse and posed for a photo. We found 27 of them before her energy was sapped.

Meridian, MS Carousel Animals for Hope Village for Children
Meridian, MS Carousel Animals for Hope Village for Children
Left: Credit: Robbie Caponetto
Right: In 2000, replicas of the Dentzel Carousel animals were fancifully decorated by local artists and placed around town to raise money for Hope Village for Children, a Meridian nonprofit. | Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Two years later, on another summer day, my mom, dad, CB, and I traveled back to town to corral the rest. At the Meridian Little Theatre, we found one called Horseplay. Bellé Fleur, her flank festooned with flowers, bloomed at Lauderdale County Farm Supply. We spotted SleepInn Beauty welcoming guests at the Sleep Inn & Suites and the gleaming gold of Midas Mare shining at Meridian City Hall. Several hours later, we had found 22 more, leaving a handful for another hunt.

The art project is now over 20 years old, and on some of the horses, elaborate patterns have blurred and once-vivid colors have faded. But they'll never lose their luster for my mom or her youngest grandchild, just as the carousel never did for Mama Madge. 

My mom recently learned that when Mama Madge was in her eighties, she would ride the merry-go-round. Too frail to straddle or even sidesaddle a horse by then, she would sit on one of the carousel's two benches with a smile creasing her rouged cheeks. That's the charm of this ride for my family; it's a loop in time that connects our past with our present. But you don't need a historic carousel to create and continue a circle of memories. That's what stories are for.