How many Lions does it take to set up a carousel? Nearly 20.
That’s the amount who showed up at Taos Plaza on Saturday (July 25) morning. Seventy years after the Lions Club first restored Tío Vivo, the antique “flying jenny” is still delighting fiesta-goers.
It also received extensive maintenance before making its latest appearance at the Taos Fiestas, where children could ride the unique merry-go-round at no cost.
“We just finished reworking the whole thing,” club member Wayne Rutherford said. “It’s been a challenge.”
He said nearly 400 hours of work was put into cleaning, painting and restoring the machine over the past six weeks.
“It needed every bit of that and more,” Rutherford said.
According to a history of Tío Vivo compiled by the Lions over the years, the carousel first came through Taos in 1896. It was abandoned in a Peñasco barn during the 1930s until club member Ernie Martínez bought it for $90 and donated it to the club, which restored Tío Vivo in time for the 1939 Taos Fiestas.
Named “uncle lively” for the mechanical minstrel that used to accompany it, the carousel was cranked by hand until the 1950s. Rutherford said the Lions are continuously collecting historical information about Tío Vivo and have begun an oral history-gathering project with the help of University of New Mexico anthropology professor Sylvia Rodríguez.
“The stories are endlessly fascinating,” he said. “I wish I didn’t have a job, ‘cause I could just do this all the time.”
Several of the Lions who helped set up Tío Vivo on Saturday had been doing it for years and knew all the tricks, such as leveling the machine after it had been set up. Jerry Laughlin has been helping to set up the carousel since 1983, and he said it went quicker when they used wooden shims. Club member Rich Sanders said new adjustments and innovations come into play every year, making Tío Vivo’s setup and operation a little easier each time.
“These guys have been very, very creative,” Sanders said. “You have to see it assembled to really appreciate it.”
Sanders also said the carousel was a hit over the weekend.
“Saturday we only had two guys working it,” he said. “They just couldn’t handle all the people.”
He said out-of-towners were interested in Tío Vivo’s history and impressed that their kids could take a spin on it for free. He said some children rode a half-dozen times in a row if there wasn’t a line.
“It went really well,” he said. “It was packed every minute.”
Rutherford said he has more hopes for Tío Vivo’s future, including finding it a home where it can be set up yearround and making fiberglass molds of all the horses.
“Sooner or later, wooden horses wear out,” he said.
Rutherford also said decisions about Tío Vivo are made by stewards rather than a board of directors that is subject to change, in order to keep the carousel free from politics and short-sighted whims.
“This is a Taos tradition, and it’s going to stay like it is,” he said.