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Carousel spinning again at Sound View

Old Lyme — The carousel is turning again in Old Lyme after the painted horses were halted last summer for the first time in 72 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Owner Jerry Vowles sat in the middle of the merry-go-round last week, before the ride was set to open for the season, tinkering with a new computer.

"Let's see if this baby goes a little faster," he said, pressing a button to make the old wooden structure come to life.

The 20 horses on the 1925 Allan Herschell carousel, sporting fresh coats of paint, moseyed beneath the brass ring dispenser.

But they didn't go faster.

This particular merry-go-round has been at Sound View since about 1976, though a carousel has been in the same spot since 1948.

Jerry's wife, Dee Vowles, suggested he read the user's manual like the customer service representative had suggested. Jerry's daughter, Jennifer Lathrop, wryly demonstrated she could walk faster than the horses were spinning. But his 2-year-old granddaughter, Olivia Lathrop, just smiled from atop one of the yellow horses as she went around and around.

Jennifer described Jerry and Olivia as best friends.

"They have the same sense of humor, they like to do the same things. And now dad has a reason to play with kids' toys," she said.

Jennifer was just a few months old when her parents bought the carousel and the adjacent building in 1987. She took her first ride once she could hold herself up, with Jerry's help. Ten or so years later, she was scooping ice cream at the Carousel Shop. The guy she met at the snack bar around the corner? She married him.

"It was a summer romance that lasted forever," Jennifer said.

Now Olivia is riding the carousel, and her 6-month-old brother John isn't far behind.

Dee still finds it all hard to believe.

"Thirty-three years," she said. "That's a long time to be someplace."

It started as a fluke, according to Dee. She and her husband had the vague notion of finding a "place at the beach" when they came through Old Lyme for the first time. They certainly hadn't planned to buy a merry-go-round, but that's what happened when they stopped there to put their 2-year-old son, Jay, on for a ride. Their place at the beach became the living quarters over the Carousel Shop, where they lived each summer while spending the rest of the year in West Hartford. Now, the couple splits time between Old Lyme and Florida.

The Carousel Shop Too, which is on the other side of the main store on Hartford Avenue, was purchased by the family in 1999, and the main store was renovated in 2007 to cover the alley between the ice cream shop and the beach shop.

Dee called the carousel an institution on Hartford Avenue. She described the street as a work in progress, though said it has improved since its notorious days in the middle of the last century.

"This is a jewel," she said. "The town way back when should have made this a focus point."

She said the lack of parking and public bathrooms can be an issue, which makes it hard to run a business.

"We keep plugging away," she said.

There've been other challenges, too. Hurricane Sandy didn't stop the carousel from turning, but Jerry said water drained from holes drilled into the undercarriage of the horses for quite some time.

Then came 2020. Pandemic restrictions imposed by the state made reopening an impossibility until late in the summer. By then, Dee said, it didn't make sense to start it up again for the brief remainder of the season.

Instead, they made do with running the Carousel Shop from the front door, where they'd take customers' orders — for things like beach items and toys and Old Lyme shirts — before retrieving the items from inside and delivering them to the waiting beachgoers.

Dee and Jerry said people have been stopping by to share old stories about the carousel, some of which predated the Vowles' ownership. Others have expressed excitement about the coming season.

"They're really happy we're here and that we could get back to normal," Dee said.

When asked how long they expect to stay on as proprietors of the carousel and the shops, Dee just laughed.

"They'll probably have to carry us out of here," Dee said. "Who else wants to do it?"

e.regan@theday.com

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