Generations of Taoseños have known the joy of whirling through the summer air on the brightly painted horses of the Tío Vivo carousel.
Generations of Taoseños have known the joy of whirling through the summer air on the brightly painted horses of the Tío Vivo carousel. Many have grown up to share the experience with their children and grandchildren. This will be the 80th year that Tío Vivo has been set up at the annual Fiestas de Santiago y Santa Ana de Taos. The historic carousel is being celebrated with a presentation by Wayne Rutherford on Wednesday (July 17), at 5:30 p.m. in the Fechin Studio at The Taos Art Museum, 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte.
"The carousel's longstanding cultural relevance in our community made it a natural choice for one of the Taos Art Museum's 'Taos Treasures' talks," said the museum's executive director Christy Schoedinger Coleman. "And as a steward and resident expert of Tío Vivo, who better to give the presentation than Wayne Rutherford?"
The Taos Lions Club purchased the carousel in 1938. Lions Club member Rutherford has been instrumental in the club's stewardship of the carousel. He has worked on every aspect of Tío Vivo -- from the manual labor of maintenance, the setup, operation and storage to tireless research going back to the late 1800s. Centuries of history come vividly alive when he shares his own experiences and those he's compiled from decades of interviews around Northern New Mexico.
"Many of the people who told me their reminiscences are now gone," Rutherford said. "I've collected a lot of tales from old-timers that got better as the bourbon flowed. It's been a fascinating opportunity."
When Rutherford joined the Lions Club, he was quickly recruited to put his experience as a builder and contractor in service to Tío Vivo. "It was still mostly in the 19th century, with one foot in the 20th," he said. "It hadn't been maintained much. I liked putting my hands on it and figuring it out. It didn't have brakes at that time, or a motor strong enough to get it going. To start it, we had to pull on the chains attached to the horses, and then bring it to a stop by grabbing the same chains and using the weight of our bodies to slow the rig down. And that was an upgrade from the days when it used to be hand-cranked. Back then, you used to be able to do a work exchange -- for every 20 revolutions you could crank, you could buy a ride for your kids.
"This is the kind of carousel known as a Flying Jenny, a portable model designed to be taken around to county fairs. No platform, just like a big umbrella with the horses suspended from it. The oldest one documented in the United States dates back to the 1850s or 1860s. We have a reference to an article from El Crepúsculo, the forerunner to The Taos News, that mentions Tío Vivo coming through Taos on its way to the Peñasco Fiestas in August of 1896, and from that we speculate it was built in the 1880s."
In the 1920s, Tío Vivo was owned by Manuel Ortiz Sr., of Santa Fe. He and his cousin Donicio hauled it around the region on a freight wagon, with a team of draft horses -- until the day in the late 1920s when the wagon sank into the mud while traveling through Peñasco, and the owners were stranded there for months.
The carousel was taken in exchange for room and board (or, by other accounts, in settlement of gambling debts), and sat there in a barn until 1938, when Lions member Ernie Martínez found himself wondering what had ever happened to it. It was tracked down in the barn, covered with chicken droppings, and the Lions bought it for $90. By 1939, they had restored it sufficiently to begin the tradition at that year's Fiestas. But as Rutherford recalls, that wasn't the end of Tío Vivo's perilous adventures.
"For a while it was housed in a wooden shed right next to the Forest Service's dynamite bunker. When I got involved, it was being stored in a barn with a wood stove and I could hardly stand thinking about it burning down. We laid out $5,000 for a shipping container, and the horses have been stored there since December, 2006. Circa 2008, a team led by Lion Jack Felmlee took it all apart, fixing the obvious problems, adding a more powerful motor, adding a brake and repainting it gold and blue, the Lions' colors. It's been a labor of love on the part of many Lions for many generations, and that commitment will continue."
He expressed the hope that more Taoseños would be inspired to join the Lions Club and carry on that stewardship. "We need younger people to come in and help us with Tío Vivo and the many other service projects that the Lions do year-round. It's an opportunity to be around service-minded people like yourself, and hear great stories and get engaged more fully with the life of our community. If you're a new resident of Taos, it's also a great way to do that."
At the Fechin presentation, Rutherford will be telling Tío Vivo tales, showing rare slides and sharing his expertise. He'll also be showing work by the many Taos artists who've included representations of Tío Vivo in their work over the years.
"I'll be offering a little more insight into the history of Taos, what made things tick back then and what makes them tick now," he noted. "There are threads that run through a community that link it together. The more of those stories you hear, the more you understand how things are here. When I was a kid, I wanted to run away and join the circus, and for the last 30 years I've been privileged to do that every July with Tío Vivo."
Admission to the museum is $10, members are free. For more information, call (575) 758-2690.
And, by the way, this year's Taos Fiestas is planned July 19-21. For details, visit fiestasdetaos.com.
Find out more about the Lions Club at taoslions.org.
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