Fun Eastern Colorado Day Trips: The Kit Carson County Carousel

My husband and I often joke that, except for the folks who commute to Schriever Air Force Base, most Colorado Springs residents probably think the world ends east of Marksheffel Road. We live in a nice middle/upper middle-class subdivision off Highway 94, just twelve miles outside of town, but I sometimes imagine our house is off the edge of one of those old flat-earth maps, where dragons awaited to devour sailing ships that fell into the abyss.

Come to think of it, we do have a dragon out here: Dragon Man, that is.  Mel Bernstein is proprietor of the well-known Dragon Arms shooting range. You can even pay to fire his .50 caliber machine gun if you’re inclined. Here he is on his tricked-out dragon motorcycle.

Our area isn’t necessarily the most fashionable real estate in Colorado Springs. Indeed, a lot of people consider eastern Colorado and western Kansas pretty boring, without anything that even remotely resembles civilization, at least until Wichita. Being a High Plains drifter is only cool if you’re Clint Eastwood–or maybe Dragon Man.

That said, we’re glad our area isn’t really popular. Mike and I are content with our mountain and prairie views on 35 acres. We have plenty of space between us and our neighbors. We hope all the frenetic development stays in town, away from us. If only Ellicott had decent-sized grocery and hardware stores, we could probably greatly limit our trips into the Springs.

While tourists and hipsters may prefer Colorado’s busy city life and crowded ski resort towns, I suspect that a few people tired of the hustle and bustle might enjoy an occasional low-key family outing to someplace east, like Burlington, Colorado, home of the Kit Carson County Carousel. About thirteen miles from the Colorado-Kansas border off Interstate 70 (Exit 437), the carousel is only about a two-hour drive from Colorado Springs.

Mike and I found the carousel quite accidentally in the summer of 2014. We had driven to Burlington to locate a few of his distant relatives, some of whom operate a jewelry store in town. Afterwards, we drove around sightseeing. I can’t remember our precise conversation, but I’m sure I was declaring what a great retirement place Burlington would be for us, and I’m sure Mike was saying, “Are you nuts? It’s extremely hot in the summer, and very cold in the winter.” I’m not exactly certain how we ended up at the Kit Carson County Fairgrounds (maybe we were looking for a field suitable for a doggie pit stop), but the volunteers who operate the carousel were just opening for business. They explained the history of the carousel and let us take a ride.

It’s no ordinary merry-go-round. Manufactured in 1905 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the carousel was purchased that same year by Elitch Gardens in Denver. In 1927, the amusement park decided to buy a more modern carousel and sold the original, along with a 255-pipe Monster Band Organ, to Kit Carson County for $1,200. Residents criticized the Kit Carson County commissioners for such an “extravagant” expenditure, and the politicians paid the price for their fiscal indulgence. Two were defeated in subsequent elections, and one chose not to seek office again.

During the early years of the Great Depression, the carousel was not in use but began running again in 1937.  During the 1970s, restoration efforts began in earnest. In 1987, the carousel was recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

The carousel features 46 exquisitely hand-carved, hand-painted animals, including a dog, tiger, zebra, and numerous horses. The animals themselves are stationary, unlike those that move up and down on more modern carousels. The interior contains 45 oil paintings on muslin cotton that were also touched up during the restoration process.

Despite the initial complaints over the carousel’s cost, the town of Burlington values its beautiful historic showpiece, especially after the infamous “carousel caper.” In May of 1981, Burlington was shocked to learn that thieves had stolen three horses and one donkey from their beloved carousel. Fortunately, the horse rustlers–part of an antique theft ring out of Kansas–were caught and sent to jail. Elated that the animals had been located, members of the carousel association traveled to Salina, Kansas–with a horse trailer, according to the carousel’s website– to retrieve them. In October of 1981, Burlington held a parade down Main Street in the animals’ honor, then returned the steeds back to their rightful places on the merry-go-round.

The Kit Carson County Carousel is one of Colorado’s off-the-beaten-path treasures and a source of pride for Burlington’s small-town community. Whether you plan a day trip/picnic to see it or simply veer off the interstate for an hour or two on your way someplace else, it’s worth a look.

The carousel is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.