Heather Young/Atascadero News • Andy McMean rides on his carousel at the Atascadero Lake Park on the Fourth of July. Money the carousel raised that day went to the Charles Paddock Zoo.
The carousel is at once the simplest of carnival rides and also, arguably, the very best. Over the years, rides have gotten more and more complex and expensive, but there’s something about a carousel’s simplicity that gives it a timelessness and universal appeal.
That seems to have been the case for Sue and Andy McMeans of Atascadero. They purchased a used carousel in 1991, and it has brought them more joy over the years than they can estimate.
And that’s saying something since the pair rode motorcycles together for years.
Actually, Sue said, she began riding while she was in college. When she married Andy, he was not only uninterested in riding himself, he discouraged her from doing it.
“If you want to ride a motorcycle,” he told her many years ago, “you need a divorce first.”
But they both got a couple of small Honda 250s and rode for years, both with groups and with just the two of them.
Along the way, they said, they began collecting stuff.
“If it’s collectable, we collect it,” Andy said.
So they began collecting carousel items such as small table-top carousels and animals one might ride on a carousel began to decorate their home. Then, in 1991, an ad in a carousel periodical caught the couple’s attention. A 1955 Mangels carousel was for sale for $25,000.
Actually, research done later would reveal that the carousel could have been manufactured any time between the 1920s and 1950s, though its gearing makes folks lean toward the 1920s.
Sue said that in 1991, $25,000 could have bought them two new motorcycles or one full-sized carousel animal. So they jumped at the chance to own not just one animal, but 24 that were ridable. The rest of the carousel was in good repair, though heavily used. Since then, the McMeans have rebuilt the deck and done an enormous amount of work to the animals and machinery. Andy said that it has 24 horses with 24 color schemes and 24 names.
When they brought the carousel home from Iowa, they set it up in their yard and went to the city to get the required permits. Andy said the city had no idea what to do with it.
“They asked, ’you’re not starting an amusement park are you?’” Andy said with a laugh. “Our plan was to set it up in the yard.”
They did indeed set it up in the yard, and for years, friends and neighbors enjoyed it at the McMeans’ Halloween party. Along with Andy’s scale-model locomotive big enough to ride on top of, it was a hit.
But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the couple took it out. The carousel’s first public appearance was at San Luis Obispo’s centennial railroad party. Andy said that people were immediately enamored with it.
“Everybody asks how we can do it and not charge any money,” Andy said. “I say, ‘look at that kid’s face.’ Lots of riders have never even seen [a carousel].”
It’s true. The McMeans have brought the carousel to many local children’s events and fundraisers for children’s organizations, and they never charge a single cent for its use. And while they’ve had many a request to bring it to a birthday or retirement party, they frequently decline. Breaking down, moving, and setting up a carousel is a lot of work, and charities seem to be the only worthwhile reason to do it.
“That’s our primary focus, doing stuff for kids,” Andy said.
It’s actually on beyond a point of pride for the couple. They make the carousel available for free, but let child-oriented nonprofits use it as a fundraiser. So there may be a suggested donation to ride, but they insist with no room for arguing that if a child wants to ride but can’t afford the suggested donation, the child rides.
“At Winter Wonderland, we put a tip jar up for the Kinship Center in Templeton,” Andy said. “They work with abused kids.”
Getting the carousel from place to place is pretty hard these days. A few years ago, while getting the ride into position, the truck the McMeans used to move it around caught fire. Before that, all they needed was a truck driver. Now if they want to get it from A to B, they need both a truck driver and a truck.
They got both a driver and a truck to get the carousel to the Atascadero Lake Park for the Fourth of July celebration, so that was good.
“Our two grandsons, Billy Fair and Jaligh Patterson, and Chris Clay, Jerry Clay’s grandson, set it up last time,” Sue said. “It’s fun for us if we can get some young guys to help.”
“It doesn’t have to be all about you,” Andy agreed. “You can do things for other people.”
If all goes well and they get the muscle and transportation they need, the McMean carousel will be at Winter Wonderland in the Sunken Gardens this December. And like every time before that, they’ll be the smiling couple surrounded by hundreds of smiling children with their smiling parents. Just the way they like it.