This story was origionally published in our Jan. 26, 2024 column at online newspaper Gig Harbor Now.
For this week’s column, I’m going to tell you fun facts about the Paul Titus Carousel at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma. Why? Because its history is fascinating. And because the kids love it. I like it, too. But … I’m also the Debbie Downer who gets mercilessly ill on anything that dips, tilts and spins. So I decided to look into its history in order to like it more, haha. And it worked!
Luckily, by the time Clara and Wyatt discovered the magic of carousels (without any help from me), they were old enough to sit unassisted on the backs of the richly decorated steed, frog or bear of their choosing (with the little lap belts, of course). I find a mega mom-dose of gratitude in that because their big-kid-ness has allowed me to remain happily snapping pics from the safety of the sidelines and not standing green-faced and queasy next to them on what would surely be known as the Paul Titus Barf Mobile in our house. And no one wants a name like that!
Because, really, it’s such a pretty carousel. And it was hard work getting those animals carved. In fact, according to the Tacoma News Tribune, two Tacoma residents in particular spent more than a decade hand-carving and painting most of the animals at their house!
OK, now for the fun facts:
The internet tells me that the modern carousels of today evolved from training mechanisms related to jousting in Europe and the Middle East. Apparently, even the word “carousel” comes from the 12th century Italian and Spanish word carosella, which means “little battle.”
So now we know those gleaming smiles our kids have on the backs of cool wooden animals boppin’ up and down means they’re just little jousters in training. 🙂
The vintage Paul Titus Carousel is a wooden carnival-style attraction originally built circa 1917 by craftsman Charles Wallace “C.W.” Parker of Abilene, Kansas.
C. W. Parker
- C.W. Parker got his start by buying a used carousel in 1892. Thus began his passion for fixing up and eventually building his own carousels for carnivals across the country.
- It’s said his company produced approximately 1,000 carousels in its lifetime.
- There’s a whole C.W. Parker Carousel Museum dedicated to his work in Leavenworth, Kansas.
- Today, a plaque displayed inside the zoo’s pavilion states that in the 1990s, Tacoma businessman Keith Stone thrifted the carousel at a Montana antique store to use at his mall — but it didn’t fit. At that time, the carousel horses were gone and all that remained of the 77-year-old ride was its mechanical structure.
- Knowing it was special, he donated it to the Washington Antique Carousel Society and Friends.
Parker’s circa-1917 model
- Parker’s original two-row traveling carousel came with 30 horses, a sled and a lover’s tub on a circular wooden base. It was hauled across the Midwest to be set up and torn down at carnivals for entertainment.
- The finished carousel was debuted at the zoo in 2006, restored to its original splendor – and more! It features 30
large and four small animals, a sled, and space for wheelchair riders.
- The carousel’s modern day namesake, the late Paul H. Titus, was not another carousel designer, but a zoo society member! His widow, Joanne Titus Thompson, donated about $475,000 to the project.
- Paul Titus, a longtime Tacoma resident, ran a Ford and Toyota dealership in town until he died in 1995 at age 64. He was very much involved in the Point Defiance Zoo, traveling with zoo staff to Alaska to bring home its musk oxen and to California to transport a saeven-gilled shark. How cool is that?
- Washington carousel society volunteers spent 12 years from 1994-2006 re-creating the carousel mechanism, replacing rotted wood floors and rounding boa
rds; and carving new mirrors and mural frames, according to the zoo.
- The animals are themed: Washington state styled horses line the outer ring while designs for endangered species and native Northwest animals reside on the inner ring.
- From a pink pig named Puyallup after the Washington State Fair’s hometown to a cold-weather Husky for the University of Washington, Clara and Wyatt each have their own fave animal to ride. Can you guess which one(s)?
- Did you know all of the carousel animals have names? They do! I wouldn’t have known it because as far as I can tell, the name plaques aren’t up anymore. (I know there were at least a few signs because I spied through a temporarily open door to the pavilion office the last time I was at the zoo and saw some for “Rusty” and “Starbrite.”) #superspy
- Some of the animals are nods to Point Defiance zoo residents past and present: a polar bear named Frosty to honor all of the zoo’s tundra-loving bears, a spotted leopard named Raja after the zoo’s endangered clouded leopard male, a Sumatran tiger named for the zoo’s female named Jaya, ET the walrus named the zoo’s hefty Pacific walrus species, a big ‘ol tapir named Olivia carved in the likeness of the zoo’s 750-pound herbivore friend, and Cindy named after everyone’s favorite zoo Asian elephant pal who died in 2002. (Note: Other than miss Cindy, I haven’t confirmed whether these particular namesake animals are still living at the zoo today or just were at the time the carousel characters were carved).
Kris Sherman of The News Tribune, wrote a fantastic piece with all the carousel details for its 2006 unveiling at the zoo in the newspaper’s July 9, 2006 edition. I went ahead and included transcribed versions of their 2006 page layouts and name text for this post, and all credit for the two graphic pages and grey text goes to the Tacoma News Tribune’s July 9, 2006 edition crew, gathered from Newspapers.com.
Ps. Who else votes that the zoo should make this 2006 newspaper into a giant wall print for everyone to read all the cool names and reasons behind each animal’s decorations??
LILLIE BELLE — She’s bejeweled, sports an intricately carved golden peekaboo mane and is named for a woman. Originally designed in 1914, a Lillie Belle pranced on all subsequent C.W. Parker carousels. Carved by Joanne Sessions and Sandy Koughn. Alicia Jennings painted her.
DESTINY — Carved and painted by Joanne Sessions. He represents Tacoma, the City of Destiny, and the state of Washington. He wears the state seal on a green field; a goldfinch, the state bird; and a rhododendron, the state flower.
PRECIOUS — Carved in the C.W. Parker Abilene style by Connie McTighe. Painted by Joanne Sessions. Abilene-style horses, named for their construction in Parker’s first factory, show thoroughbred characteristics.
HOPPY — The Hoppes family donated money for the horse’s materials, thus the name. Carousel operation was in the family history. Carved in the Abilene style and painted by Joanne Sessions.
SEAWEED — A fanciful hippocampus. The front half of the body is a Parker-style horse; the rear is a fish or mermaid- style tail. Carved and painted by Joanne Sessions.
LIBERTY — A miniature horse festooned in red-white- and-blue. The Waller Road Grange donated the money for the wood. Carved by John Fourier, painted by Joanne Sessions.
STARBRITE — A Parker stargazer – meaning he’s looking at the sky – miniature horse. Carved by Nancy Smalley. Painted with the sun, the moon and the Milky Way by Joanne Sessions.
ZAK — A small zebra, carved and painted by Joanne Sessions, who has an affinity for the animals.
RUSTY — Carved by Phyllis Ley in the C.W. Parker Leavenworth style and painted by Joanne Sessions. Leavenworth-style horses feature elongated bodies and wear pony shoes. His name is derived from his rust-colored armor.
NIMROD — A Leavenworth-style “Hunter’s Pride” horse. He features a roached mane; an upside-down rifle is carved below his saddle; a rabbit rides on his right thigh; and a hunting dog lies at the rear of the saddle. Carved and painted by Joanne Sessions.
CHINOOK — Created in the Leavenworth style and carved and painted by Joanne Sessions. The fish and sea otter adorning his body testify to his name.
BUCK — He carries a bedroll with a rattlesnake wrapped inside behind his saddle and a canteen to represent the Ellensburg area. Done in the Leavenworth style, and carved and painted by Joanne Sessions.
VANCOUVER ROSE — Carved by Gary Schonberger and Joanne Sessions in the Leavenworth style. “Flower horses” were coveted carousel rides. Sessions painted and named her with the Portland Rose Festival in mind.
ZEPHYR — Daffodils and tulips on his right thigh honor Western Washington. An apple, grapes and a pear behind his saddle pay homage to Eastern Washington. Carved in the Leavenworth style by David Butts and Joanne Sessions. Painted by Joanne Sessions.
MARIAH — She’s a black-and-white painted Indian pony and thus has no horseshoes. Carved in the Leavenworth style by David and Karen Butts and Joanne Sessions. Painted by Joanne Sessions.
ROSEBUD II — Carries roses on the saddle and copied from an original carousel horse owned by carver Howard Jones. Painted by Sooz Myrdahl and Judy Fagan.
PATRIOT — A Leavenworth stargazer with American flags on thigh and shoulder, representing C.W. Parker’s patriotism. Carved by Joanne Sessions, painted by Alicia Jennings.
SPIRIT — With a saddle formed by a cougar pelt, carved eagle feathers flowing from his bridle and prairie roses on his side, he represents the Republic, Ferry County, area. Tacoma carvers helped restore a carousel there. Carved by Joanne Sessions and painted by Sue Wilson of Republic.
COMMANDER — An eagle is folded against itself at the back of his saddle and another eagle stands at attention on his right thigh. His body is navy blue, his mane is gilded in 23-karat gold leaf and he’s bejeweled in red-blue-and- gold. He represents the Navy . Carved by Fred and Sandy Koughn and Joanne Sessions, painted by Alicia J ennings.
FROSTY — Honoring the zoo’s long succession of polar bears. Carved by Frank DePalma and Joanne Sessions. Painted by Beau and Connie McTighe.
OLD CROAK — A Panamanian golden tree frog carved by Thursday Carvers of Salem, Ore. Judy Fagan painted his bright yellow-and-black spots and bugged-out eyes.
PUYALLUP — A barnyard pig, named for the Western Washington Fair. Carved by David and Karen Butts, Bill Childers and Joanne Sessions. Painted by Joanne Sessions.
RAJA — A clouded leopard named for the zoo’s endangered species male. A gibbon rides his rump, and leaves in the deep greens of the tropics embellish his saddle. Carved by Frank DePalma and Joanne Sessions. Painted by Alicia Jennings.
JAYA — Sumatran tiger named for the zoo’s tigress. A snarl is frozen on her snout, and carved peacock feathers flow from her saddle. Carved by Joanne Sessions. Painted by Alicia Jennings.
ET — Named for the zoo’s 3,400-pound Pacific walrus. Carved by the Missoula, Mont., Pony Keepers group. Painted by Marlise Brochard of Missoula, Mont.
OLIVIA — A tapir representing the zoo’s 750-pound female. Carved by Bill Childers. Painted by Joanne Sessions.
COLUMBIA — A husky in University of Washington purple and gold. Sponsored by Columbia Bank. Carved and painted by Joanne Sessions.
PUDS — This Washington State University cougar wears his school’s crimson-and-gray colors, and a rare pygmy rabbit rides his rump. But he’s a puddy tat at heart, named Puds for the family pet of the donors. Carved by the Salem (Oregon) Friday Carvers, and painted by Alicia Jennings.
SIR DUKBAYTE — Every Washington carousel needs a slug, Missoula, Mont., carver John Thompson decided. Joanne and Dale Sessions named him Dukbayte after watching muscovy ducks slurp up the slugs in their backyard.
STILL TO COME CINDY: Created in memory of the zoo’s beloved Asian elephant, who died in 2002. Joanne Sessions is still carving the pachyderm, who is expected to take her place on the carousel later this year.
A LION AND A RED WOLF: Still to get names and be carved by Joanne Sessions. They’ll be the spares that can replace an animal injured from use, or one who needs touch-ups.
See ya there!
Pps. Clara’s favorite is the husky and Wyatt’s favorite is the tiger. He’s also a fan of the tree frog. He told me to tell you guys that unfortunately the frog is missing an eye and that he feels bad for it.
Tonya Strickland is a Gig Harbor mom-of-two, longtime journalist, and Instagram influencer in the family and travel niche. Her blog, Two in Tow & On the Go, was recently named among the 10 Seattle-Area Instagram Accounts to Follow by ParentMap magazine. Tonya and her husband Bowen moved to Gig Harbor from California with their two kids, Clara (9) and Wyatt (7) in 2021. Find them on Facebook for all the kid-friendly places in and around town.