Looking back at my childhood, I have fond memories of visiting Wonderland, just south of Billings, where I could ride the horses on the carousel. I also remember riding the horses on the merry-go-round at Columbia Gardens just outside of Butte. Wonderland closed in 1960 and Columbia Gardens in 1973. For the next twenty years, if you wanted to ride a painted pony and reach for the brass ring, you had to wait for your local fair to open with its concessionaire-owned rides.
The National Carousel Association publishes an online Index of North American Carousels. That index lists seven carousels in Montana, including merry-go-rounds in Boulder, Butte, Columbia Falls, Helena, Missoula, Shelby and Somers. Of these seven, three are seasonal, but four are open to the public year-round and have other attractions on-site or nearby.
This article serves to introduce you to the carousels of Montana, but the only way to really experience them is to get on that pony and ride.
A Carousel for Missoula
Chuck Kaparich, a Missoula cabinet maker, had a dream. He had grown up in Butte and remembered the Columbia Gardens carousel. His dream was to own his own carousel horse, so he approached an expert, seeking to buy one.
The expert told him in no uncertain terms that if he wanted a horse, he should carve it himself. So he did. In fact, he carved four and his dream grew. In 1991, he approached the Missoula City Council with the idea of building a carousel for Missoula. Chuck’s dream took hold, and as I recall, almost everyone in Missoula got on board. Chuck taught volunteers how to carve basswood, and how to assemble the various parts, which then had to be sanded and painted. Individuals and organizations adopted horses, which gave them some say in how the horse was painted and decorated. The mechanism that runs the carousel dates back to 1918 when it was built by the Hershell-Spillman company. Missoula acquired it from Nevada’s Ponderosa Ranch theme park.
The carousel, with 38 horses, two chariots, and 14 gargoyles, opened on May 27th, 1995. It sits in its own building next to the Clark Fork River in Missoula’s downtown Caras Park.
The Dream Maker, Somers
Perhaps the most charming carousel in Montana is the one Bob Cherot built for his granddaughter. Overlooking Flathead Lake, the 14-horse ride is located on the grounds of the Cherot home. As such, it is not open to the public except by reservation. As is the case with other modern merry-go-rounds, each horse has his own story. One, with a parrot riding on his back, is named for Jimmy Buffet and his parrot-heads.
Another had to be painted twice, hence the name Dunnagin as he had to be done again. Bell is a beautiful white horse with blue and green trappings, while Prince has an actual horsehair tail, rather than a carved one. Honey is another white horse with a bear riding along behind the saddle cradling a honey pot. The platform has a two-person chariot that is wheelchair accessible.
Remove a couple of pins and the seat, and a wheelchair can fit right into the chariot, secured in place by the seat belt. Open May through September, the rides are free, but donations to the local Food Bank and Volunteer Fire Department are gratefully accepted. Also, the sign is very clear, “Adults not admitted unless accompanied by a child.”
Big Sky Waterpark, Columbia Falls
For your summer adventures, Columbia Falls’ Big Sky Waterpark has a 1936 carousel. At the time of publication, the Waterpark is closed for the season and the carousel has been dismantled. I assume that come spring 2022, the carousel will be reassembled, ready to welcome riders who want to spend time away from the pools.
Carousel Rest Area, Shelby, Montana
The carousel in Shelby is one of the oldest and yet newest in the state.
While open at its present location sine 2018, the carousel itself dates back to 1936. It lived on the grounds of the Marias Fair, just east of town, until local rancher and businessman Harry Benjamin got the idea of restoring it and moving it into town. Restoring the carousel became a community project, even including the inmates at the Crossroads Correctional Center who did a lot of the cleaning and repainting of the metal animals. The carousel opened to the public in May, 2018. Although the building housing it was not completed until after his death on May 11th, 2020, Benjamin was able to see that his dream would come true. Another dream came true with the grand opening.
Daisy Hader died at age eight, leaving behind the desire to ride a carousel if she ever got out of the hospital. One of the horses at Shelby is now named Daisy May in honor of the child who never got to ride. Other inhabitants of the carousel include a couple of roosters, a fire truck and a bench held up by a couple of bears.
Great Northern Carousel, Helena
Unlike other carousels around the state, the Great Northern Carousel was built as a carefully planned bit of urban redevelopment. When local developer Alan Nicholson got the idea to rehabilitate the old Great Northern railyard, the railroad (now known as Burlington Northern) was uninterested. That was in the 1970s. By the 1990s, the City of Helena had an interest in fixing up the area, and Nicholson approached them. From the start, Nicholson had wanted a carousel on the site. The Great Northern Carousel opened in 2002. In 2010, Don Largent, host of the annual National Carousel Association meeting, said about the Great Northern, “The one in Helena is probably about the nicest new-generation carousel in the United States. It’s something to be proud of.” Like other modern carousels around Montana, the “horses” are hand-carved. Unlike the others, the Great Northern has other creatures to ride.
These include two frogs (one a Montana tree frog), an otter, a bison with two prairie dogs riding behind the saddle, two jack rabbits, a bighorn sheep, a pair of antelope (pronghorn), a triceratops, a pig, a cutthroat trout, and two bobcats, one of which is chasing a grizzly. A real Montana experience.
The Jefferson County Recreation Park, Boulder
In 1958, employees and clients of the Boulder River School, using molds developed by A. Brill Enterprises, cast their own aluminum horses and built a classic metal carousel for the facility. At the time, Boulder was home to the state’s children’s hospital, and many of the “clients” were like my friend Larry who had cerebral palsy. Instead of having special education classes in local schools, children with developmental disabilities were sent to Boulder. A carousel was undoubtedly a welcome addition to the grounds.
The state closed Boulder’s facilities in 2017, but long before that the carousel had fallen into disuse. In 1995, the Boulder Volunteer Fire Department received permission to move the carousel to the Jefferson County Fairgrounds and its associated Recreation Park. Nothing is ever as simple as that, however, and the move took many years and much effort by local volunteers. In 2010, the National Carousel Association held its annual tour, starting in Spokane and continuing on to Missoula, Helena and Boulder. At that time, the location had a roof, but no side walls. Today, the carousel has its own building in Recreation Park on Highway 69 south of town.
The carousel has 36 jumping horses and two chariots.
The Spirit of Columbia Gardens Carousel, Butte
Copper King William A. Clark bought Columbia Gardens in 1899 as a gift for the people of his city. The park’s carousel was built in 1923 and ran for fifty years until the park closed and the carousel burned in 1973. But memories in Butte are long, and in 1996, a group decided to replace the destroyed merry-go-round and started the Spirit of Columbia Gardens Foundation. As with Boulder and Missoula, the community of Butte came together to build a new carousel, and 2015 saw the ground-breaking for the ride’s building in Stodden Park. Nondys Mason was one of the volunteers. She painted every one of the 35 horses, and told NBC News, “We have some very famous horses here that represent over 100 years of history in Butte.”
Like Missoula’s horses, the ones in Butte are carved basswood. The carving and sanding could take a year per horse, and Mason reported that each horse took 250 hours to paint. Completed horses went on display at the Butte Plaza Mall and it was there that the Montana Standard photographed each horse. Those photos and the descriptions of the horses are online.
You can easily visit all the carousels in this article by driving a loop around western and central Montana.
Starting in Missoula, head north on US 93 to Somers, then catch US 2 in Kalispell. Highway 2 will take you to Columbia Falls and Shelby, where you head south on Interstate 15. The Interstate will take you to Helena, Boulder and Butte, where you get on Interstate 90 to return to Missoula. Of course, with a circle like this, you can jump on the carousel at any point, returning to your starting point as the music fades away.