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Tracey Cameron Got Off Her Hobbyhorse and Began Saving the Nation's Fading Carousels

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Living next door to a polo field was too tempting. Tracey Cameron just had to part some of the players from their money. So while renting a carriage house near Connecticut’s Farmington Polo Club and working as a children’s book illustrator, she bought used carousel horses for $35, custom painted them to match each player’s favorite pony, and then sold them for $1,000 each. “For that price, I’d paint a horse like a tiger,” joshes Cameron, 33, who this year will earn $200,000 as a restorer of carousels.

With her partner, brother Steve, 30, she has brought eight merry-go-rounds back from the glue factory in the last eight years, and has developed a social conscience about them as well. Though the Camerons could earn twice as much by dismantling the carousels and selling the pieces (antique dealers pay up to $30,000 for the finer folk-art horses), Tracey is now philosophically committed to keeping the carousels intact. “Merry-go-rounds should be appreciated the way they were,” she says. “They are wonderful toys which everyone should be able to see and ride.”

Once a Cameron bid is accepted (their most recent job, in Santa Monica, ran $80,000), the pair usually travel carny-style to the city in question. Insists Tracey, “It’s not, ‘Hey, man, let’s paint the pretty ponies.’ Doing this the right way is not fun and games.” They begin by stripping off old paint, up to 16 layers. Tails come from a slaughter house, eyes from a Brooklyn taxidermist, “jewels” from a belly dancers’ supply store. Then Tracey paints the torsos in “horse colors”—butterscotch, cream, gray (“I don’t believe in pink horses”)—and saves the hottest tones—turquoise, persimmon, cobalt blue—for saddles and bridles.

Because she restores to modern taste and not to period appearance, Tracey has won nays from folk-art historians. She shrugs, “We look at it from the owners’ standpoint—it has to run, it has to last, it has to look fabulous. That’s why we use acrylic enamels, like the paint on cars. The collectors scream, but our horses won’t have to be repainted for 20 years.”

Born in Newark, N.J., Tracey had an artsy-craftsy streak from the age of 4 when she used to paint all day. After graduating with a BFA from the University of Hartford and traveling in the Far East, she settled in Connecticut. While customizing wooden steeds for her polo players, she picked up carousel expertise and was commissioned to come up with a complete carousel for Hartford’s Bushnell Park. She found one in Canton, Ohio for $55,000, spent the same amount restoring it, and estimates its value today at $300,000. Brother Steve, who takes charge of stripping and rebuilding, joined the business in 1974.

After each job, the Camerons usually take about a month off to travel to places like Bermuda and Venice, with Tracey leaving her Hartford housemate, architect Jack Dollard, behind. But it’s not an easy life. Tracey recently suffered an attack of “orange lung” from inhaling acrylic paint and could hardly taste or talk for four weeks. And there is sadness when the job is over. “It’s like giving up a child for adoption,” she says. “Suddenly, it’s not mine. I take one last ride and then never go back.”