Salem’s carousel to be renamed for founder Hazel Patton at Saturday ceremony

Hazel Patton never wanted her name on the carousel in Riverfront Park.

But more than 20 years after its opening, the civic icon and carousel founder has given in.

A group of friends, led by Barb Bonnem, persuaded Patton that her name belongs with the other park structures named after men who advocated for their creation: the Peter Courtney Minto Island Bridge and the Gerry Frank | Salem Rotary Amphitheater.

“They twisted my arm and said it’s time that women get recognized for achievements as well, so that kind of tipped the scale,” Patton said. Friends of Patton and city officials will gather Saturday, June 3 at noon for a dedication celebrating the official renaming of the Hazel Patton Riverfront Carousel. The event is open to the public.

New signs, commissioned by the group, were hung on the structure last week.

Patton refused to put her name on the building shortly after its completion in 2001, saying she wanted the carousel to belong to the community.

Last fall, Bonnem went to Patton’s house with Marie Bradford-Blevins, the carousel’s executive director, to persuade her friend that it was time for her name to be on the structure.

Her friends wanted to make sure Patton, who’s approaching her 90th birthday, was recognized while she’s alive rather than waiting for a posthumous ceremony.

“She got all teary-eyed and she just loved it,” Bradford-Blevins said.

With Patton’s blessing, the project moved forward.

Salem’s Riverfront Carousel is being renamed in honor of founder Hazel Patton. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Getting a carousel to Salem’s Riverfront was a five year effort by Patton. She first got the idea  after visiting Missoula in 1996 for her son and daughter-in-law’s graduation from the University of Montana. There, she saw a carousel — the first constructed in the U.S. since the Great Depression — underway with a master carver teaching others how to carve horses. The Missoula carousel would be located in a park along the river near downtown.

“The situation was so similar it was a no-brainer,” Patton said.

She returned to Salem determined to bring a carousel to Riverfront Park and spearheaded a volunteer effort to hand-carve the carousel’s animals and fixtures.

The Riverfront Carousel opened in 2001 after years of work to get the animals carved, and about a year of construction.

“Many, many people put a lot of their resources and their talents into it,” Patton said.

Though it’s the only structure in Salem bearing her name, Patton’s fingerprints are all over the city.

Bonnem met Patton 35 years ago through a project she was working on to organize volunteers for local nursing homes. Patton showed up and, working with an intern from Chemeketa Community College, created an analysis of nursing homes in Marion and Polk counties that was quite direct in assessing shortcomings and areas of need.

“I thought ‘Oh, there’s quite a bit more to this woman,’ and from then on we became friends,” Bonnem said.

Patton works behind the scenes and rarely takes credit for her work. Bradford-Blevins described her as “quiet but deadly.”

In a typical interaction, Bonnem recalled walking downtown with Patton once and remarking on the colorful directional signs pointing people toward various city landmarks.

“I was walking with her one day downtown and said, ‘Oh those are so good,’ and she said ‘Oh yeah, I got a national grant,’” Bonnem laughed. She had no idea her friend played a role in getting them up.

Saturday’s ceremony will have a brief program dedicating the building to Patton, including a poem reading.

Bonnem told Patton she serves as a role model to young women in Salem when persuading her to accept recognition.
“Without your name on it they’ll never know how it got there,” Bonnem recalled telling her.

It’s also the carousel’s 22nd birthday celebration. Visitors can enjoy $1 rides, the price from when the carousel first opened, and catering with treats and cake pops while supplies last, Bradford-Blevins said.

Patton said she’s happy to see how the wider community has embraced the carousel since she pushed for its creation.

“The one thing that’s really touched my heart is someone said, ‘I can’t imagine not having the carousel there,’” Patton said. “That’s what we aimed for: people felt like it belonged to them.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.