Noted industrialist and philanthropist George F. Johnson (1857-1948) lived a commitment to both work and recreation.
George F., as he was known, was a partner in the highly successful Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company, which established the Triple Cities of Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott in New York. At its peak of production, the company employed more than 20,000 workers and produced 52 million shoes a year.
The folks worked hard for low pay, particularly during the Great Depression, but Johnson instituted his Square Deal system of making up for the dismal wages by providing generous and innovative worker benefits. The amenities, many of them available to the community without charge, included parades, libraries, theaters, swimming pools, parks, a golf course and his most endearing legacy: carousels.
The Triple Cities area, recently redubbed Greater Binghamton, is a 12-mile stretch of municipalities along the Susquehanna River in southern upstate New York consisting of the principal city of Binghamton, population 43,376; 25 towns; 13 villages; five hamlets; and two census-designated places.
Binghamton represents the area as the “Carousel Capital of the World,” courtesy of Johnson’s endowments of half a dozen of the festive mainstays dotted across the metropolitan area. He donated the carousels between 1919 and 1934.
“Johnson’s commitment to recreation was always more than just good business,” reads the carousel brochure available at www.visitbinghamton.org. “He felt carousels contributed to a happy life and would help youngsters grow into strong and useful citizens.
“Because of his own poor childhood, ‘George F.’ believed carousels should be enjoyed by everyone and insisted that the municipalities never charge money for a magic ride.”
Technically, however, there is a price of admission. Visitors are asked to deposit one piece of litter into a trash barrel before climbing aboard a carousel.
Each carousel has been renovated and is situated prominently in one of the area’s parks. They operate from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
Visitors can earn an “I Rode the Carousel Circuit” button by turning in a card validated by park attendants at each of the carousel locations.
The parks, their addresses and a description of the carousels are listed in the brochure produced by the Greater Binghamton New York Convention and Visitors Bureau:
- C. Fred Johnson Park, Johnson City, hosts the largest of the carousels. Installed in 1923, the carousel features 72 figures, four abreast. The original scenic panels and beveled mirrors have been preserved. The carousel is bedecked with holiday lights between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- George W. Johnson Park, Endicott, hosts the last of the six carousels to be installed. It operates in its original pavilion — a glass enclosure was added in 1999 — and consists of 36 horses, three abreast, and two chariots. The carousel is host to “Halloween at the Scarousel” in October and “Little Italy Christmas” in December.
- Highland Park, Endwell. Originally located in Endicott, the carousel, donated in 1925, is the only one of the six to be relocated. It features 36 animals, three abreast, including a pig and a dog.
- Recreation Park, Binghamton. The carousel includes 60 jumping horses, four abreast, and chariots. Also included in the pavilion is an original two-roll frame Wurlitzer military band organ with bells. The carousel is host to “Holiday Rides at Rec Park” Saturdays in December.
- Ross Park, Binghamton. The first of the carousels to be donated, it was installed in 1920 and features 60 jumping horses, four abreast, and two chariots, one with carved monkeys. Rides are accompanied by tunes from an original 51-key Wurlitzer organ.
- West Endicott Park, Endicott. The carousel was installed in 1929 and features 36 animals, three abreast, including a pig and a dog. The park is adjacent to the Endicott-Johnson factories.
All six carousels are listed on the New York State Historic Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
The carousels captured the attention of famed native son Rod Serling, who was born on Christmas 1924, in Syracuse, N.Y., and grew up in Binghamton since the age of 2.
The Recreation Park carousel inspired Serling to write “Walking Distance,” the fifth episode of the iconic “Twilight Zone” series (1959-1964).
The episode stars Gig Young as an overworked ad executive who yearns to return to his childhood and finds himself in his hometown exactly as it was when he left 20 years earlier.
“Walking Distance” was “the most personal story Serling ever wrote, and easily the most sensitive dramatic fantasy in the history of television,” wrote Paul Mandell in American Cinematographer magazine.
In 2011, the carousel was outfitted with “weirdly spectacular” panels painted by artist and filmmaker Cortlandt Hull, depicting scenes from “Twilight Zone” episodes “To Serve Man,” “It’s a Good Life,” “Walking Distance,” “Time Enough at Last,” “The Howling Man,” “Living Doll” and “A Stop at Willoughby.”
A bronze plaque on the gazebo floor commemorates Serling. Documentarian Jonathan Napolitano produced “The Carousel,” which chronicles the history and restoration of Serling’s object of inspiration.