WESTERLY — Watch Hill's beloved carousel is now under the care of a married couple who are well acquainted with the allure of the town's coastal areas and historic attractions.
Dee Dee and Jim Buffum have been managing the carousel and the adjacent beach and bathhouses since late May under an agreement with a new limited liability company formed by the Watch Hill Fire District. The couple owned and operated the Weekapaug Inn, which had been in the Buffum family for four generations, before they sold it to Charles "Chuck" Royce and Lang Wheeler in 2010.
"We're helping create systems and bringing a level of service to the beach and bringing our ideas of hospitality," Dee Dee Buffum said Friday morning during a tour.
Both Buffums also work for Mott & Chace Sotheby's International Realty as broker and sales associates. Their real estate office, where their work includes a focus on seasonal rentals, is just down Bay Street from the merry-go-round.
"It made sense for us to do this. We're already on Bay Street and we speak the vacation language," Dee Dee Buffum said.
With hope of establishing name recognition the Buffums and fire district officials decided to call the facilities Watch Hill Merry-Go-Round & Beach. They also established a new website for the facility, https://merrygoroundbeach.com/.
"We're working on a new generation and creating a brand," Dee Dee Buffum said.
The Buffums are using local companies whenever possible. Adam Francese's Westerly-based Rhode Island Digital Media developed the website; Westerly photographer Josh Behan took photos of local kids on the flying horses for the website; J MACK Studios, the Westerly-based design and print firm, designed staff T-shirts and assisted with development of the merry-go-round token design; and Westerly-based Printing Plus developed the design on beach passes.
Mystic Knotwork came up with a custom brass ring necklace, which are available for sale in the ticket booth. The brass ring theme, of course, is tied to the merry-go-round children's game. "We tried to keep the purchases as a collaboration within the network of local businesses because this really is a great community asset," Dee Dee Buffum said.
The fire district spent about $160,000 renovating and rebuilding the bathhouses starting last fall. The work included the creation of a deck front and a few larger bathhouses on the oceanfront. The beach is open to the public and a limited number of bathhouses are available for daily rental. Other bathhouses are rented seasonally. Fire district residents also have access.
The secluded beach is perfect for young families, Jim Buffum said, because of its proximity to downtown and the relatively placid water as opposed to near-by East Beach, which requires a somewhat rigorous trek down a stone-covered walkway and where the water can be pretty rough.
The bathhouse deck offers a panoramic look onto the water. "It's the best view in Watch Hill," Dee Dee Buffum said.
The Buffums and their staff are unofficial welcome ambassadors.
"I'm amazed by the number of people who have never been here ... we're like the first point of contact. I've been explaining a lot about the area and talking to the staff about how it's really important to be positive and helpful. We're a tourism economy here and the first impression is very important," Jim Buffum said.
Dee Dee Buffum agreed. "We're like the Watch Hill chamber of commerce," she said.
The staff of 30 work the ticket both and gate. Others work at the bathhouses and some work on the beach, carrying rented chairs and digging holes for and carrying rented umbrellas to beach-goers. The lifeguards are managed by Aaron Perkins, who also supervises lifeguards in Weekapaug and Shelter Harbor. A tractor rakes the beach weekly.
Also new this season are benches that the Watch Hill Improvement Society placed at the entrance to the beach. People of all generations have been sitting on the benches enjoying an ice cream and watching the flying horses. Jim Buffum said the benches help set off the area. "You walk through here and it's like you've entered this old-fashioned place. You're stepping back in time and entering this different world," he said. "People love to just sit there."
The beach, bathhouses, and merry-go-round were previously operated by Robin and Scott Randall for about 20 years under a lease with the fire district.
Randy Abood, Watch Hill Fire District moderator, praised the Randalls. "We're grateful for the number of years they were doing it and we're very happy to have the Buffums," he said.
Abood thanked the Buffums for their patience through a street enhancement project and prolonged period of rain in the spring that made opening the merry-go-round difficult this season.
The fire district is committed, Abood said, to preserving the merry-go-round, which is believed to be the oldest operating carousel in the United States in which the horses are suspended from chains. Some of the horses date to the 1870s.
"It's iconic. It is Watch Hill and it's there for everybody," Abood said, adding that his grown children are the third generation in his family "who have mastered the gold ring."
Jim Buffum's roots in Westerly are deep. Dee Dee moved to the area as a child with her family in the 1970s. She recalled growing up in the area, learning to sail at the Watch Hill Yacht Club and frequent stops to St. Clair Annex, a few feet from the merry-go-round, for ice cream.
"Ice cream from St. Clair and a merry-go-round ride is really an institution," Dee Dee Buffum said. "It's an honor to carry on this tradition."
The Buffums are using their first summer as a tutorial.
"This year is a learning year for us. Everything we can do to enhance summer fun," Jim Buffum said.
This article was edited at 8:27 a.m. on Aug. 3, 2019 to correct the size of the staff.