WILMORE -- Ernie and Christy Griffin are fair-weather Kansans.
Six months out of the year, when Kansas is in the depths of either extreme hot or cold, the Griffins are basking in San Diego. But come fall and spring, the Griffins are back in rural Kansas living their dream as carousel operators.
“For several years, I wanted to have a carousel,” said Ernie Griffin, 73. “You can’t just put a carousel in San Diego.”
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“We’ve been married 54 years,” his wife told a visitor to their carousel last week. “He’s a different kind of guy. I told him he could do this but he couldn’t use any of the retirement money, because I need to retire and know I’m OK.”
Located in Comanche County, which is on the Kansas-Oklahoma state line, the area is best known for big ranches and hunting. Tree-lined dirt streets run through Wilmore, population 53, which is about 125 miles southwest of Wichita.
Ernie Griffin is originally from San Diego, but Christy Griffin’s father was born on a farm in Comanche County. Her mother moved to Wilmore in 1947.
The Griffins first bought a vintage Sears and Roebuck house on Wilmore’s Main Street and restored it. Next came Ernie’s desire for a carousel.
“When people ask me why I wanted it in Wilmore, I tell people I looked at all the problems,” said Ernie Griffin, a retired geography professor from San Diego State. “I’ve been living in the community and figured a carousel would resolve most of them.
“A lot of what you read about little towns in Kansas is that they are dying. But this is a pretty prosperous little place, and it is our gift to the community.”
How did he come to buy it?
“I found it online, like everything else,” he said. “I just thought it would be something unique for the community to have.
“I like the incongruity of it. At least once a day and as many as several times a day, people drive by here and come to a crashing stop and pull out their cellphones and take pictures of it.”
Ernie Griffin said the carousel was made in 2002 in Venice, Italy. It operated in shopping malls in Minnesota and Texas before being dismantled and stored in a Texas warehouse.
He would not reveal what he paid for the carousel but said he sold two Porsches and a small house to finance the purchase. He then rented a semitrailer truck to haul the carousel pieces to Wilmore.
Two years ago, he began building a concrete slab on the city lot next to the couple’s property. Neighbors pitched in.
In Wilmore, he discovered a community where zoning regulations were a bit less restrictive than those in the big cities of California.
“We don’t have a building inspector in Wilmore,” he said. “You can build what you want, but you need to build a good building.”
He then added a gazebo. Neighbors pitched in again.
“It was a community project,” Christy Griffin said. “We had to get a forklift to get that center pole up. Then electricians came in.”
Then came the hard part – putting the carousel together.
“We didn’t have instructions, except for: ‘Put up the center post, assemble the top, assemble the lower portion.’ Literally, those were the instructions for hundreds of parts,” Ernie Griffin said.
“They were numbered, but we didn’t know how they were numbered until we got it done.”
Again, locals helped. Then came the electricity.
At the carousel’s official grand opening in June 2013, more than 150 people showed up. But the Griffins discovered they didn’t have enough electricity to power the huge carousel, which features 688 lights. No problem.
Residents hand-pushed the carousel to turn it. A few months later, the carousel was properly wired and ready for service.
Bonnie Brown of nearby Protection was the first person to climb aboard the carousel at the grand opening.
“I think it is wonderful that a little town like Wilmore has something that everybody can enjoy and the people enjoy doing,” said Brown, 100.
“It is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Oh, it is a smooth ride.”
The carousel has continued turning whenever the Griffins are home. All visitors have to do is honk, and if the Griffins are home, they will come out and fire up the ride.
If children are the riders, Ernie Griffin challenges them to ride all of the carousel’s 13 horses.
If it is older people, he encourages them to remember the joys of childhood.
Rides are free. People often find out about the carousel through word of mouth.
“The kids say thank you so much for not making us pay,” said Christy Griffin, a retired pre-school teacher.
“We have had a couple of incidents where children get out of the spinning teacup and are dizzy. He (Ernie) encourages them to go in there.”
Ernie plays a disc of carousel music as people pull up and park in front of the carousel. The old train depot sign saying “Wilmore” hangs on the gazebo. A painted yellow-brick sidewalk leads from the street’s edge up the slope to the carousel.
The couple use a Swiffer mop and regularly dust the floor and horses on the carousel, keeping it in immaculate condition.
“It is our gift to the community,” Ernie Griffin said. “It is kind of nice to have something to give uniqueness to the town.”
To ride the Wilmore carousel
The carousel is open now through June 15, then again from Sept. 20 through Dec 10. The Griffins can be reached at 620-738-4420.