Nederland, the little green town that could

Human rights activist Scott Harrison brings a carousel to Nederland

| Mar 30, 2010

Carousels are magic. The wheel that turn but goes nowhere, the silly animals, the constant laughter. So, what happens when that magic captures the imagination of an entire town?

Back in 1982, when Scott Harrison moved from San Francisco to the small mountain town of Nederland, Colorado, the first thing he did was build his family a house. For the next 26 years, the first floor would become home to Amnesty International (AI)’s Urgent Action program. The second floor was where Harrison and his family lived.

Scott Harrison and his carousel animals

Scott Harrison and his carousel animals

Over the years, more than 200 University of Colorado student interns and local volunteers came to the house in Nederland to work with Harrison and his wife Ellen Moore. Ellen managed the AI archives, which are now housed in New York at Columbia University.

In 1986, Harrison heard about a carousel in Utah that was going to be junked. It had been built alongside the Great Salt Lake in 1910, then moved in the 1950s to a state-run school for mentally ill and disabled students. Twenty years later, the state sold it to a businesswoman who, in turn, sold off the animals as antiques. Harrison bought the carousel frame, dismantled it and transported it home. In 1992, he bought a Model 125 Wurlitzer Band Organ whose 102 instruments were run by air bellows.

During the years before his retirement from AI in 2007, Harrison spent his “off hours” in a woodshop adjacent to his house. There he would carve fanciful wooden animals, the kind that would travel round and round forever, on a merry-go-round. Drawing upon the creative imagination of local cartoonist George Blevins, he carved a moose, a dragon, a zebra, a peacock, kangaroo, ostrich, gorilla and more. “Carving the animals,” he says, “Was a way to balance things out. On the other side of the wall was the real challenge: torture.”

When his work with AI ended, Harrison converted the first floor of his house into the nonprofit And volunteers, who once offered their skills and talents to heal a world in pain, now turned their attention to a single vision: to build a carousel that would bring laughter and magic to the town and its children.

Local landowner Jim Guercio helped get the ball rolling. Guercio, who managed the famous ’70s rock group Chicago and produced early albums for Blood Sweat & Tears and other bands, offered Harrison a 30 year lease on land in the commercial heart of town for one dollar a month. He also provided start-up construction costs.

Then, with a spirit reminiscent of a barn raising, the residents of Nederland came together to build the Carousel of Happiness. The carousel has a radiant heat floor and insulated roof panels. All labor, except plumbing and electricity, was donated. A crane to lift steel beams into place was offered for free. Boulder’s Lighthouse Solar contributed $40,000 in electric photovoltaic solar panels. And the NED Renewable Energy Project donated 400 LED lights. Working together, town residents created a living piece of American history.

This Memorial Day, the carousel animals in all their painted glory will begin their endless journey prancing round and round the building. With only $75,000 left to raise before the music starts, Harrison’s nonprofit has begun reaching out beyond the boundaries of his small mountain town.

The carousel has fairies throughout the building that can be adopted for only $200 each. Historic, restored paintings can be adopted with the donor’s name engraved on a plaque at the bottom. Plaques throughout the building will celebrate the largest donors. And the work of local artists and fair trade items from other cultures will be offered for sale, with the profits going to help people with special needs.

“Whatever brings happiness will be featured here,” says Harrison, smiling fondly at the circle of brightly painted animals. Seeing my camera, he paused for a photo next to the long necked goose, her wings spread wide for her first flight.

This article also appeared on Alexia’s blog on Huffington Post.