At Lake Accotink Park in Springfield, 26 horses are raring to get out of the gate.
The horses are part of an antique carousel on the bank of Lake Accotink, which will open again starting May 3 for the park’s summer season. The wooden steeds were built more than 80 years ago, but each one is gleaming and ready to go thanks to Donn Grover.
Grover, 68, has meticulously restored and hand-painted the carousel since September, when he came to Lake Accotink Park as a volunteer. On Monday, he brought his paints out to the park for a few finishing touches.
Grover grew up in Lorton and remembers coming to the lake as a teenager after the park opened in the 1960s.
“I used to come here and fish and the whole 10 yards,” Grover said. “This whole area is developed beyond recognition now, but not this park.”
Grover lives in Alexandria now, but said the Fairfax County park is still the closest park to his home, and the retired federal government worker still loves to come spend time by the water.
In the fall, Grover decided to offer his time as a volunteer to the park, offering to do “anything and everything,” he said. “I just wanted to get out of the house.”
But when Grover told Julie Tahan, the park supervisor, that he had experience in painting and carpentry, she knew exactly what project to give him.
“My eyes lit up, because I knew it had been a few years since our horses had had their touch-up coat, even,” Tahan said.
The horses, and the carousel they call home, came to Lake Accotink Park in 1978, after the Fairfax County Park Authority purchased it from an antiques dealer.
At that point, the carousel already was more than 30 years old, having been built by the Allan Herschell Company between 1937 and 1945. The horses were hand-crafted even before that, between 1926 and 1931.
The Park Authority does not know the ride’s history before it came to Lake Accotink, but it was built as a portable carousel that could travel with carnivals or fairs. Now, though, it has a permanent home under a giant protective tented roof at the Lake Accotink marina.
“Carousels like this aren’t coming off the assembly line these days,” Tahan said.
The 26 horses which circle the 36-foot-diameter carousel used to get a fresh coat of paint each season, but budget cuts to the park have slowed the maintenance cycle.
The ride had last received a refresh in 2010 from students taking art classes at the park. And though the horses had started to look “a little shabby” at the end of last summer, there was no money in the budget for another restoration, unless it was again volunteer-powered.
“Donn was really a godsend,” Tahan said.
Throughout his life, Grover has given most of his free time to painting and craftwork, and so he delighted in the opportunity for a new challenge - he has never had a project on such a large scale.
Soon after the carousel closed for the year in October, Grover started taking the carousel’s horses in sets of three to the park’s maintenance workshop. The bodies are hand-carved from wood, and the head and legs are cast from aluminum.
Each set of three horses took about a week and a half of full-time work to complete, according to Grover. He first sanded each horse down and repairing any holes in the aluminum or cracks in the wood. Some horses had rotten wood that needed to be dug out and replaced.
“I sort of fixed ‘em up from where they used to be, did a lot of repairs on ‘em,” Grover said. “It’s been a job, I’ll tell you that.”
Then Grover got down to painting. He lived with paint somewhere on his hands and clothes for months. The oil-based paint used on the carousel wears well, but does not come off easily.
Tahan said she gave Grover free rein in designing the horses.
“Once I saw the first horse he completed, I had complete trust in him and just let him have at it,” Tahan said.
Grover stuck with no particular theme but whimsy.
“I’m an artist, so just whatever strikes my mood, that’s what I did,” Grover said.
One horse is decorated with flowers, another with sunbursts, yet another with planets, but now back in their place on the carousel, all are ready for riders starting next weekend.
“It’s really running good now,” Grover said. “The mechanics were out this week, greasing everything and running the motor. All we’ve got to do is open it up.”
And Grover will be there to help. Earlier this month, with his volunteer work coming to an end, he was hired officially hired to assist in cleaning and maintaining the park throughout the summer.
The carousel and other attractions at Lake Accotink Park’s marina open for weekends and holidays from May 3-June 20, and starting June 21 are open every day through the summer. A three-minute ride on the carousel costs $1.75, and the carousel runs every 30 minutes.