PAWTUCKET — Eunice Degre-Markley wasn’t going to let something like a pesky little mosquito bug her.
Relaxing comfortably in a beach chair under a shady tree inside Slater Memorial Park, Degre-Markley was patiently awaiting the start of the Rhode Island Philharmonic’s yearly “Pops in the Park” concert, which was moved up in the day by three-and-a-half hours due to concerns over the mosquito-borne illness Eastern Equine Encephalitis – more commonly known as EEE.
Officials have said they were airing “on the side of caution” by moving the start time of Saturday’s concert to 2 p.m. from the traditional 5:30 p.m. start, which allowed performances to conclude before dusk. The post-concert fireworks display, however, was canceled.
“We come every year, today’s a little early,” the Pawtucket resident said. When asked if concerns over mosquito-borne illnesses affected her planning for the yearly orchestra performance, Degre-Markley dismissed the notion, saying the show was during a time of day when the bloodsucking bugs were less prominent.
It was quite apparent that many shared her sentiment, as scores of people turned out Saturday morning and afternoon for the Slater Park Fall Festival, one of the signature events of the annual Pawtucket Arts Festival.
Situated inside the park is the famed 125-year-old Looff Carousel. Built by craftsman Charles I.D. Looff in 1894, the carousel was relocated to Slater Park in 1910 and features a functioning North Tonawanda Military band organ, as well as 44 standing horses, six menagerie animals – a camel, a giraffe, a lion, and three dogs – and two chariots. However, the aging, century-old carousel was last restored 41 years ago, in 1978.
The horses rode again on Saturday, as Mayor Donald R. Grebien and a group of children cut the ribbon that reopened the carousel to the general public.
“This is a great opportunity, exercise, and venue for families and residents…” Grebien said. “It’s an important means to keep our history going … It really is a collaborative effort and investment we do. It’s about the kids.”
The carousel is the oldest Looff Carousel in the country, but it was closed during the summer for repairs to its roof and interior. Restoring the carousel was a roughly $300,000 reinvestment in the community that Grebien described as “a great, important way to preserve the past” and a preservation that was “important to our heritage and history.”
Excitement built through the summer leading into Saturday’s grand re-opening, and the mayor said he was personally thrilled to see families enjoying a valuable piece of entertainment in the community.
“I had a sneak peek,” he said. “I’m excited. What better way to do it than when thousands are here?”
The mayor also said the carousel is an important slice of Americana and nostalgia for many residents – including himself. Reminiscing about bringing his now-adult children to the carousel when they were younger, Grebien described the carousel as an “uplifting experience, a great opportunity, a family ride.”
The mayor even remembered when he rode the horses inside the Looff Carousel as a youth, although his enjoyment may have varied compared to others. Describing his younger self as a “little bit of a big baby,” Grebien laughed when he thought about how fast the carousel goes around and how it would frighten him when he was a youngster.
“Now, it’s one of the best things we have in the community…” Grebien said. “It’s a major asset, it’s our history, it brings the community together.”
Some of those community members who enjoyed a ride aboard the horses were Cheryl Palmieri of Providence and her two-year-old great niece Natalie Netto of Lincoln.
“I loved it,” Palmieri said after she disembarked from the carousel. “I’ve ridden it years ago, it brings back a lot of memories. Natalie loved it.”
Two-year-old Natalie confirmed her great aunt’s suspicions, saying: “I loved it!”
The reopening of the carousel was just one of the countless factors that brought Palmieri to Pawtucket on Saturday afternoon. The entirety of the day-long festival, with its food trucks, arts and crafts, and various vendors, brought out the best the city has to offer.
“It’s kind of everything … It’s been a while but I’ve been here before. I love the crafts,” she said.
Meanwhile, back over at the stage inside the park, Degre-Markley noted that there’s so much to enjoy about the Slater Park Fall Festival and the Pops in the Park performance.
“We enjoy this, the music. To see the Philharmonic at the (Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence), you have to pay. Here, it’s free,” she said. “Whatever they play, we enjoy it. I enjoy the atmosphere and that’s why we come every year.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette