Dale M. Brumfield
The Dentzel Carousel in downtown Burlington and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel in Burlington, Colorado, may have been built by competitors, but they have more in common than just a common city name.
While an obscure little company named Dare built a few carousels (or “carousells”, to use the original spelling) from the Civil War, it was Gustav Dentzel who, after immigrating to Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1864, launched an American amusement revolution in 1867 when it switched from cabinet making to building carousels. He fondly remembers how in the 1850s he traveled with his father Michael Dentzel to southwest Germany during the summer months on a portable merry-go-round that proved popular wherever they went.
His idea quickly became a success, and the GA Dentzel Steam and Horsepower Caroussell Builder became firmly established, producing three or four “menagerie carousels” per year. Then, in 1904, after 37 years of operation, the Dentzel carousel monopoly in Pennsylvania ended when Henry Auchey and Chester Albright founded the rival Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) to build carousels, just a few miles from the company. Dentzel.
While Dentzel was founded and run by master sculptors and artists, who designed and created their pets, chariots, and richly painted panels and columns, Auchey and Albright were businessmen. But since their factory was established in an area where many immigrants were employed in local furniture factories as woodcarvers and painters, they hoped to attract experienced artisans and craftspeople to work for them.
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One of PTC’s first master sculptors was John Zalar, who established the characteristic design and style of carousel horses for this period. Zalar came to America from Austria in 1902, and first carved carousel animals at the Looff factory from 1911 to 1914 before joining PTC in 1916.
The sleek horses on the PTC carousels in Kit Carson Park in Colo. And Carowinds in Charlotte epitomize Zalar’s style. He sculpted boldly, with fierce facial expressions, smooth muscular legs and a flowing mane. Decorative saddle covers were other trademarks of Zalar.
Two of the sculptors who worked for Dentzel and PTC were Daniel Muller and his brother Alfred. The boys’ father, John Heinrich Muller, was a friend and employee of Gustav Dentzel, and when John died in the 1890s, Daniel and Alfred were greeted and treated like family by Dentzel, offering them work in his factory. Daniel quickly became a gifted artist, so Dentzel sent him to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to hone his skills.
During his time at the Dentzel factory, Muller’s realism style and finicky attention to detail and proportion created some of the most beautiful and sought-after carousel horses ever sculpted. A horse sculpted by him in 1928 grossed over $ 63,000 in 1988.
Around 1901, Gustav Dentzel started to get angry when the Muller brothers began freelancing for other carousel companies such as Looff and Herschell-Spillman. Finally, in 1903, the boys separated from their employer and benefactor, creating the DC Muller Brothers Carousel Manufacturing Company. Dentzel would have been “enraged” to have lost his two charges.
The Mullers devoted their time and talents to their business, and by 1910 they had produced a dozen carousels. However, they spent so much time tweaking the details of each horse that they couldn’t keep up with the more streamlined and efficient operations of larger carousel makers, such as Looff, PTC, and their former employer Dentzel. They finally closed their operation in 1914 and Daniel went to work at PTC.
Only four years later, in 1918, Daniel was drawn away from PTC by Gustav Dentzel’s son William, who took over the business after his father’s death in 1909, marking the start of what is considered ” the golden age ”of modern carousel manufacturing. This age continued until 1928 when William died, and the last Dentzel wooden carousel left the store for Rock Springs, W. Vir. All remaining inventory has been sold to PTC.
Muller semi-retired after the original Dentzel factory closed in 1928, only carving horse heads from his home on Long Island. He eventually moved in with his grandson Robert to Marietta, Ohio, and died in 1952.
The machine in Burlington, NC, Dentzel was built between 1906 and 1910, and the machine in Burlington, Colorado, was the sixth carousel built by TPC in 1905. It is fortunate that they still exist – of the more than 4,000 carousels built in America between 1885 and 1935, many were victims of fire, neglect and dismantling for sale, leaving only 150 machines still operational in 2021. Indeed, the 12-sided building of the Colorado carousel has was used in the 1940s as a grain silo, and the whole route was suggested to be cremated at one point.
Today, the Dentzel company continues under the leadership of William Dentzel III, a fifth generation carousel builder. It has been located in Port Townsend, Washington, since 1983.
Dale brumfield can be contacted at [email protected]