'There is something magical about carousels': Volunteer meticulously restores Lambs Farm horses

It was chilly and raw as the last five of 16 restored carousel horses were delivered March 23 to Lambs Farm, but David Hamel was reminded of warm, sunny days and special memories associated with an iconic ride.

“There is something magical about carousels,” says Hamel, a Glenview resident and retired do-it-yourselfer who volunteered for the painstaking task of restoring the horses 18 months ago.

“The eyes of each person who has learned that I'm doing this sparkle with childhood memories,” he added.

Hamel spent untold hours at a makerspace in Libertyville meticulously sanding, repairing, priming and painting the Fiberglas horses that have been a staple on the carousel at Lambs Farm for about 30 years.

The nonprofit opened in Chicago in 1961 and moved to a 51-acre dairy farm on Route 176 next to Interstate 90 in Green Oaks in 1965. It's dedicated to helping those with developmental disabilities, who live and work there, lead productive and happy lives.

Lambs Farm has been a popular stop for generations of visitors for the many attractions and activities and an opportunity to support the work.

So it is with Hamel, who began volunteering at Lambs Farm after retiring from a more than 40-year career at various agencies creating advertising.

“I'm pleased that I've been part of an effort that not only helps Lambs Farm serve its community, but brings memories to youngsters who will recount that thrill when they are my age,” he said.

Angela Ramert, volunteer coordinator, said bringing children to Lambs Farm and riding the carousel is a rite of passage for many families.

“It's a huge gift for Lambs Farm to bring joy and happiness,” she said of the carousel work. “It really is a big difference. It also promotes people giving of themselves.”

The horses are a Fiberglas shell over a metal frame. After decades of use, they were cracked and broke, and the paint was worn and peeling.

The carousel “was very well-loved, obviously, because it needed an upgrade,” said Marisa Rademaker, marketing and communications manager. The ride features 16 “jumpers” — horses with all four feet off the ground.

Reviving them had been on Lambs Farm's to-do list. Hamel had worked on the miniature golf course and was asked if he knew anyone who could help. He connected with Lisa Parr, who owns and operates Old Parr's Carousel Animals in Highland Park.

Her specialty is restoring original paint on 19th-century carousel animals for museums, collectors and other entities. Carousels have a long history and were introduced in the U.S. in the late 1800s, she said.

“It was a place for the whole family to gather inside or outside and share a situation,” she said.

Fiberglas didn't come into use for carousel figures until much later, according to Parr, who focuses on wooden figures. Hamel's research showed the carousel was made by now-defunct Venture Rides of Greenville, South Carolina, likely in the mid-1980s.

Lambs Farm couldn't afford Parr's services for the entire restoration so she proposed working with volunteers on the two horses in worst shape and creating color sketches as a road map for the rest.

“They all needed much more than a paint job; they needed repair,” Parr said.

Hamel apprenticed with Parr for three months.

“She was the artist,” he said. “I'm really just the technician.”

Hamel said another volunteer helped for a short time with the first two horses, but he mainly worked alone on the remaining 14.

Each horse took 50 to 60 hours to restore, with much of the time spent sanding the old paint off, making repairs and adding two coats of primer before applying colors and allowing them to dry one at a time.

“I didn't intend to do this,” Hamel said. “There were no volunteers. It was the intersection of my availability, enough skills to fake it and an interest in helping.”

Parr said there is a science behind the color selection for carousels. Too much contrast on the animals caused some people to faint as they spun around, she said.

“It wasn't just painting a lot of cute horses. There was a plan how they were produced,” she said.

The entire figure is painted, but there is more detail on the mane, tail and features on the “romance side” that faces spectators, Hamel said.

“Just the passion and workmanship brought them to life,” Ramert said. “They're beautiful.”

Ten of them already were back on the carousel. The full herd of restored horses is scheduled to be unveiled and open June 2.

Because of internal structural damage, one of the 16 can't be ridden and hasn't been re-installed. A replacement from the same type of carousel is being sought, but there aren't many around, Hamel said.

  James Ventrella, left, and Gary Delgarn reattach a restored horse to the carousel at Lambs Farm in Green Oaks. Mick Zawislak/
David Hamel spent 18 months repairing and painting the "jumping" horses that make up the carousel at Lambs Farm near Libertyville. Here are before and after photos of one of the 16 horses that were restored. Courtesy of David Hamel
  A pattern and description of the paint scheme used during the repair and restoration of 16 horses on the carousel at Lambs Farm in Green Oaks. Mick Zawislak/
  David Hamel at the makerspace workshop in Libertyville with three of 16 horses he repaired and repainted for the carousel at Lambs Farm. The volunteer from Glenview did the painstaking work over the last 18 months. Mick Zawislak/
David Hamel, left, and Erica Meyer, repair a Fiberglas horse to be repainted and returned to the carousel at Lambs Farm in Green Oaks. Photo courtesy of David Hamel
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