by paul Ruben
Have you ever heard of Venetian Swings? I hadn‘t until about 20 years ago when I first visited Crossroads Village in Flint, Michigan.
Then I completely forgot about them, and even the fact I had been there. When I visited again this past summer the memories came flooding back.
Crossroads Village is an authentically recreated Great Lakes town from the turn of the last century, with more than 34 historic structures. Friendly villagers in period dress welcome visitors. Guests can ride the narrow gauge Huckleberry Railroad, take a 45-minute cruise aboard a paddle-wheel river boat, catch a show at the Colwell Opera House, or learn a trade from one of the local craftspeople. It’s a place out of history, but for me the best part was the collection of five antique rides.
They have a 1912 CW .Parker Carousel that formerly travelled the fair circuit in Canada before finding a home at Fairmont Park in Southern California. A 1910 CW Parker Superior Wheel is one of only nine ever made, and was rescued from now-defunct Rocky Springs Park in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The 1940 pony cart ride, manufactured by William F Mangels of Coney Island, New York, operated for years at the Cincinnati Zoo. The 1940s miniature train Ride from the Allen Herschell Company consists of an engine and three cars. It was located in Queens, New York, before finding a home at Crossroads Village.
But it’s the park’s Venetian Swings, pictured above, that fascinated me. They were built by Herschell in the late 1930s. I thought the ride might have come from one of the Italian ride manufacturers not far from Venice, but I was wrong. Swings like these have been reported since at least the early 1600s. They became popular in Europe during the Renaissance. Somewhere along the way the rides became shaped like boats, like the gondolas of Venice. I’m told similar rides, sometimes known as swing boats, are still in use in Europe and at smaller fairs and events in England.
Venetian Swings work like this. Two riders sit in one of six gondolas, facing each other. There are two ropes dangling from the metal frame on which the gondolas hang. Each rider takes hold of one. The attendant starts things off by pushing the gondola into a swinging arc. On the descending part of each arc the rider who faces forward pulls on his or her rope, increasing the speed of the swing, while the rider facing backward does nothing. Then the roles are reversed as they alternate pumping the swing. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is.
Whoever thought to motorise the ride can be credited with paving the way for today’s swinging Pirate Ship, and even the Frisbee and other pendulum rides that have followed. But I loved this version. It was like a step back to a simpler era. It’s purely human-powered and the only limits to the ride are the riders’ muscle fatigue and ability to endure endless swinging. The attendant told my riding partner and I that we could ride as long as we wanted, possibly secure in the knowledge we could not, actually, ride all day in this. We rode for … maybe one minute? I like to think the other guy wimped out.