Kingsport Carousel: A dream carved into reality

Tri-Cities Original

The Kingsport Carousel is a one-of-a-kind work of art.

Situated along Clinchfield Street next to the Kingsport Farmer’s Market, just $1 will buy you a 3.5-minute ride.

The carousel was the dream of Gale Joh since 2008. At that point, he was dealing with the onset of dementia, but that didn’t stop him from remembering his youth – or the carousels. 

Gale Joh

“Gale had taken dates to carousels, he’d ridden since he was a kid and he loved them,” said Valerie Joh.

She still remembers what her husband said one morning in 2008.

“I was in the kitchen making breakfast and Gale walked in and said ‘Kingsport needs a carousel,'” Valerie said. “I said ‘that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, we don’t have the money for that.’ I said ‘we’ll have a carousel in Kingsport when pigs fly.'”

Gale wasn’t deterred. He pitched the idea to his friends and soon had four committed volunteers.  None of them had ever carved a carousel.

“They were a teacher, a banker, an engineer, and a chemist,” Valerie said. “Anyway…we called them ‘the four horsemen’…carving in basements and garages.” 

The Four Horsemen: Milton Nelson, George Gibson, Reggie Martin, and Ted Heilig. Pal Barger, founder of Pal’s Sudden Service, is pictured in the center. Barger sponsored the carousel’s roundhouse.

Over time, they were joined by more volunteers. Most didn’t have experience but they did share a love for the Model City.

“We had people who never carved before and they came and did this project for years,” said Hannah Powell, Kingsport Cultural Arts Coordinator. “Everyone came together as a community to develop and sponsor this and make this actually happen.”

An old school was turned into a carousel workshop. Hand-carving just one of the wooden creatures took about 1,000 hours of work. Each one weighed about 120 pounds.

When a zoo in Connecticut found out about the project, it donated a 1956 carousel frame.

Finally, on July 10th, 2015 Kingsport got its carousel – the centerpiece of a new city park.

Gale Joh didn’t live to see it. He died in April 2010. But Valerie says, in many ways, he’s there every time the music starts up.

“I think he’d be tickled pink,” she said. “And I think he’d be down here every day greeting everybody.”

And it turns out pigs do fly. “Pickle the Pig” is Valerie’s tribute to her late husband. 

“Pickle the Pig”

“The pig means a lot,” she said. “We have so many people who love the city and are willing to do this…just for the city. I think the spirit of Kingsport is alive.”

Click here to learn more about the Kingsport Carousel. 

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Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, Josh Smith has been a member of the WJHL team since 1999. His family roots go deep in the region, and he’s traveled through almost every part of it covering news on local TV since 1995. When he’s not on the job, he’s with his wife, two sons, and daughter.   “They’re the best part of me,” he said.   You may run into them biking on the Tweetsie Trail, hiking around Bays Mountain Lake, or browsing the shelves at the local public libraries.

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