It's a serene November morning in Upstate New York and Bob Yorburg is standing in front of a massive, unfinished wooden lion.
Yorburg, 61, is one of the last professional carousel carvers in the U.S. He puts down his chisel, picks up a remote control, and scans through a CD of carousel music, band organ arrangements, and amusement park songs from the early 1900s, searching for the perfect track. The silent room suddenly erupts in a fantastic clamor as pipes, cymbals, and bells trot out of the speakers. The lion seems to spring to life, and Yorburg — his rosy cheeks puffing out with a smile — tosses the remote on his workbench and throws up his hands. "If that doesn't get you going, I don't know what will," he says, laughing. "You just gotta carve to that."
During America's carousel "golden age," which lasted from the late 19th century until about 1930, there were more than 4,000 handcrafted carousels made by famous carvers like Gustav Dentzel and Marcus Illions. In the last century, many of the period's iconic horses, chariots, and carriages have become more mechanized and technologically advanced. They've also drastically decreased in popularity. Yorburg says he knows of only about a half-dozen independent American carousel carvers like him. According to Patrick Wentzel, chairman of the National Carousel Association (NCA), there are just a couple dozen others employed by the few remaining companies that specialize in carousel carving and restoration. They all work to maintain the 200 antique American carousels Wentzel monitors in an ongoing NCA census project.
In fixing and sometimes recreating old carousel horses, menagerie pieces, and band organs, Yorburg aims to make sure this number doesn't drop further, preserving a sliver of Americana for generations to come. His clients say what sets Yorburg apart is his unique understanding of design. "There are many cavers who are technically excellent," says Bob Stuhmer, one of Yorburg's clients and a band organ composer, "but most of them don't know how to breathe life into the creatures they carve."
A row of garishly colored puppets with black, beady eyes, patterned suits, and pointy, Pinocchio noses lines a shelf in Yorburg's home library. They belonged to a Coney Island magician and puppeteer who taught Yorburg, when he was a little boy, how to do magic. That skill ultimately led to Yorburg's interest in the history of the amusement arts and carousel carving. "I became fascinated with the props and the goodies," Yorburg says.
After graduating from Wesleyan University where he studied psychology, sociology, architecture, and theater, Yorburg auditioned to be the Magic Burger King, representing the fast food chain, at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. "I stupidly had no clue it was the largest ad agency in the world," Yorburg remembers. "My friend said, 'Oh you should go. You'd be great at that.' So I did it." Yorburg landed the role, performed around the country and appeared on TV commercials. But he never lost his interest in carousels. While on tour, he sought out master carvers to teach him their craft.
On any given day, Yorburg is working on one of about 10 projects. A hand-built train set winds around his backyard, where he has several woodshops and sheds. "There are people who do one thing at a time, but that's not me," he says. "If I'm carving and find that I reach a dead end, I'll jump to a different project before I come back, and usually when I come back to it, I find, 'Aha, here's how to approach it.'"
One of Yorburg's workshops, which he named Maplebrook, is filled with handmade train cars, cabooses, and work supplies. A train whistle that Yorburg sometimes pulls before entering or leaving the space hangs outside the door. Several steps away from Maplebrook stands another shed where Yorburg is restoring a Dentzel carousel horse, made circa 1890, for a private collector. The horse has a wild expression and a flowing mane that shines with gold leaf paint, giving it the effect that it's actually racing with the wind blowing through its hair, adrenaline gleaming in its eyes. Aside from the golden mane, the horse is stark white, having only been retouched and primed thus far. It's not nearly finished, but Yorburg says it looks much better than when it first arrived.
Because he is most interested in carving, Yorburg doesn't always do the painting himself. Sometimes he passes that duty along to a friend or to his wife, Laura, 64, who is also an artist. They met in 1978 while he prepared a magic act for a Pathmark annual sales meeting. "The gal who had been rehearsing with me, who was supposed to turn into a lion, got cold feet when she met the real lion," Yorburg says. A friend suggested Laura to take the girl's place. "In an hour or two, Laura learned everything she needed to know, which the other person was working on for a couple of weeks," Yorburg says. "I thought, 'Whoa, that's incredible.' So we got to know each other more and more, and we got married."
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.