How One Man’s Dream—and a Community’s Determination—Brought the Kingsport Carousel to Life

Updated: Sep. 14, 2022

They may not have been carpenters or mechanics by trade, but residents of Kingsport, Tennessee, had just the thing to make this special project come to life: Kingsport spirit

The happiest place in Kingsport, Tennessee, has horses, a tiger, a giraffe and even a dragon. It has chariots and a large buffalo that lets kids climb all over it. It has laughter that drowns out the speaker’s toe-­tapping music. If the Kingsport Carousel sounds magical, that’s because it is. Located in downtown Kings­port, it’s the crown jewel of this small city on the Virginia border.

But the real magic is how it came to be built and lovingly crafted by the people of Kingsport themselves, most of whom had no idea how to wield a chisel, let alone fashion a carousel.

How the Kingsport Carousel came to be

It began 14 years ago when Kings­port transplant Gale Joh wanted to give back to the place that had become his home. Originally from Binghamton, New York, the “carousel capital of the world,” Joh spent his youth riding the city’s half-dozen carousels. Kids in Kingsport should know the same joy, he thought.

So, in 2008, he proposed the pipe dream to a city ­alderman. She scoffed at the cost, declaring, “Kingsport will have a carousel when pigs fly!” That alderman happened to be his wife.

Undeterred, Joh turned to his ­local Kiwanis club. Reggie Martin, Milton Nelson, George Gibson and Ted Heilig—the “Four Horsemen”—shared Joh’s enthusiasm. They weren’t the carpenters and mechanics Kings­port needed, but they were the ­problem-solvers. The Horsemen attended woodcarving classes three-and-a-half hours away in Chattanooga to learn to carve carousel statues. Giving selflessly for the greater good is nothing new in Kingsport. In fact, they have a term for it: the Kingsport Spirit.

Kingsport was chiseled out of the Appalachian Mountains on the tail of the Industrial Revolution. People came from all around to make a new beginning for themselves. And with them they brought an old-school work ethic infused with a spirit of understanding and generosity—and the aim of improving everyone’s quality of life.

It's a symbol of both extraordinary gumption and fun for fun's sake.

“The carousel represents that so well,” says Jeff Fleming, Visit Kings­port’s relocation manager.

The Four Horsemen returned from Chattanooga as adept carvers, and the city gifted a facility to use as a workshop. The carousel project found its hooves. Then, suddenly, Gale Joh passed from Lewy body dementia in 2010.

The Kingsport Carousel carries on

Joh’s dream wouldn’t die with him. Instead, donations flowed. The Horsemen taught volunteers to sculpt (each statue takes about a year), and a local artist taught them to paint. Sculptures took on characteristics of their carvers. Valerie Joh carved several, including a pig with wings.

Next, they’d need a frame (a floor, poles, sweeps, rounding boards, gears and an electric motor) to house the statues. In 2011, word of the volunteer carousel effort reached a Connecticut zoo, which donated an old frame sitting in storage. And a Kingsport shipping company offered a free ride in an empty truck that just happened to be returning from New York. Two days and a truckload of neatly disassembled parts later, Kingsport’s carousel frame was on its way.

“When faced with an obstacle, we’d put it out to the universe and our community, and a solution would arrive,” says Bonnie Macdonald, Kingsport’s former cultural arts administrator.

Just as volunteer artists emerged, so did mechanics to reassemble the frame. Heilig, a chemist by trade, built flooring for the entire platform.

In 2015, after seven years, with the help of 300 volunteers and 700 sponsors, the Kingsport Carousel was ready to ride. A lilting, whirling work of art, it stands as a symbol of both extraordinary gumption and fun for fun’s sake.

High schoolers borrow the carousel as a photo backdrop every prom. It’s a favorite field trip destination for Girls Inc. of Kingsport, an after-school program. It’s the go-to for date nights, proposals and sunny afternoons.

“We’re not the carousel capital of the U.S.; that’s still Binghamton,” says Macdonald. “But when it came time to make a carousel, we had all the talents we needed right here.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest