Empire State Carousel:
The Empire state Carousel story was a topic that immediately sparked my interest. While many are motivated by income, Gerry Holzman worked 20 years to complete a profitless project, strictly driven by passion…
This article was organized by a series of impactful quotes stated by Holzman himself.
The Empire State Carousel
It took more than 1000 volunteers working over the course of 20 years to complete a humble woodcarver’s dream of building the Empire State Carousel. Now, creeping in on its 10th anniversary being displayed in Cooperstown, the carousel stands as a monument symbolic of Gerry Holzman’s hard work, passion, and pride for the history of New York State.
The project, which started on Long Island in 1984, was completed as a full sized operating carousel built through the joint efforts of volunteer artisans, woodworkers, painters and quilters. Its features include portraits of prominent figures such as Jackie Robinson and Theodore Roosevelt.
Holzman’s Initial interest in the project surfaced after receiving a disappointing job offer. In 1983, the woodcarver responded to a magazine advertisement, looking for a carver who would move to Alaska and build a carousel representative of Alaskan culture. Although Holzman was offered the position, it was later revealed that the job would be unpaid.
“My wife who had developed a habit of eating food and wearing clothes and living in a house decided that we really couldn’t go to Alaska,” Holzman said jokingly. “Then about five to six months later I got the idea of taking the concept and applying it to New York state. “
Unfortunately, Holzman underestimated the difficult process of building a carousel. At 51 years old, he found himself traveling around the state, publicly speaking to companies and trying to convince people to join his efforts. Over the two decades he worked on the project, Holzman was able to painstakingly fundraise close to a half million dollars in cash and equipment.
The process of raising money was extremely difficult. He compared the unpleasant experience to the movie, “The African Queen.” Holzman explained that in the movie, Humphrey Bogart had to exhaustingly pull a boat through the marshes of Africa where he was welcomed into the water by a family of blood quenching leaches.
“He looks back into the water and he has to go back in…knowing the pain and discomfort of being covered by leaches,” Holzman explained. “That’s pretty much the way I felt.”
However, by the late 1980’s, almost every organization that dabbled in artistry became familiar with the carousel. It was then that volunteers started swarming to Long Island to inquire about the project. Although this solved one problem, there were many other issues involved.
Donors started to expect recognition in response to their involvement with the carousel. Politicians who didn’t receive the proper acknowledgment turned vindictive in hopes of sabotage. In addition, communities fought over the carousel and it proper placement after completion.
But after years of fighting off politicians, and foraging money, Holzman and his volunteers finished the project in 2003.
“I felt like it was my wedding day,” Holzman reminisced while talking about the completed carousel. “I was standing under the alter waiting for my bride, and she walked out and, I didn’t realize how beautiful she really was.”
Although the Carousel had been completed many years ago, New York’s history never ends. Holzman appreciates the fact that the carousel represents the continuity of New York culture and expects volunteer involvement for the remainder of its days. He hopes that there will always be people interested in updating the information on the carousel.
In efforts to sum up the entirety of the experience, Holzman quoted Teddy Roosevelt when he said, “It was my last chance to be a boy again.”
Also looking for a moment of youthful adventure, was Steve Meltzer, who aided in the creation of the Empire state carousel. Now in his 60’s, Steve reunited with the masterpiece during an emotional visit to the Farmer’s museum in 2013.
For a brief moment, he illuminated adolescence while riding the carousel for the first time with his very own children. As the carousel spun and the music played, tears welled up in Steve’s eyes as he reflected on his involvement with such a grand piece of art.
Meltzer taught himself how to carve at a very young age. Once he realized that he wanted to make a career out of wood working, he knew that being skilled in carving would attract employers. However, Meltzer was unaware that his new talent would play such a large role in documenting New York’s Culture.
As a member of the Long Island Woodcarvers Club, Meltzer heard about the Empire State Carousel and was immediately consumed with its historical importance.
“I knew that there hadn’t been a hand carved wooden carousel since the turn of the century,” Meltzer said. “I thought it was a really cool project.”
He willingly jumped on board and worked over the course of two years to complete his folklore panel of John Darling, a teller of tall tales who lived in the Catskill Mountains. When Steve finished the carving, he traveled to Islip in search of Holzman’s approval.
In a weekly newsletter, Holzman described the panel as, “unusually crisp and clean…which provides a strong sense of depth.”
After receiving positive feedback, Meltzer returned home, proud of his contribution. Yet, uninformed about the carousel’s permanent placement, Steve was neglected a chance to see the finished product.
About 25 years later, Steve was judging a woodcarving show with Greg Krockta, a fellow volunteer. Having a casual conversation, Krockta spoke of his visit to Cooperstown. While in the area, Krockta coincidentally saw the carousel while driving down the street.
Finally aware of its location, Steve took his family to visit the Empire State Carousel, a project that had remained a prominent part of his life since its start.
The working staff at the museum welcomed the Meltzer family with open arms.
“The way they treated me and my family was amazing, “Meltzer said. “It was like I was a celebrity.”
Meltzer spent hours simply circling the carrousel, and caressing it crevices to analyze the meticulous detail. As he stood there, staring at 20 years’ worth of hard work, Steve was reminded of his love for wood carving.
Steve said, “As long as I have my health, there will be a chisel in my hand.”