Missoula Carousel Makes Merriment in Go-Roundish Fashion

In 1988 a man had a vision. It wasn’t of sugar plums, as you might expect, but of an authentic, old-timey carousel ride in his hometown of Missoula, Montana. Spoiler alert: he made his vision big enough for a whole city and now they have A Carousel for Missoula, it’s a carousel like none other in the world.

And the fun is just getting started.
And the fun is just getting started.

The late 1800s and early 1900s were apparently the heyday of carousels, a time when everybody wanted to ride them and they were all made out of artist-crafted woods. I don’t know what the opposite of a heyday is, but that era came about for carousels sometime last summer when I got to ride an authentic broken fiberglass version. Doesn’t have quite the same appeal, not even to me and I’m hardly a discerning audience. I’m a critic, don’t get me wrong, but that’s just by profession.

Chuck Kaparich is the genius who started the whole thing off when he made four of his own wooden horses in the authentic, historically accurate style. Not to be confused with Chuck E. Cheese, Chucky from Rugrats, nunchucks, or that chewy chuck steak we sometimes get. This is a guy who missed the carousels from his childhood and decided to do something about it. Chuck E. Cheese, Chuck Kaparich, see the difference? Me and the brothers sure do!

Chuck went to the city to tell them about his “brain child,” whatever that means, and a guy named Geoff Badenoch thought it was crazy enough that it just might work. He’s not to be confused with Geoffrey the Giraffe or the color orange. He set up the first board of directors and did not eat leaves from very tall trees. See the difference?

Chuck started teaching classes on how to carve the figures, starting with the gargoyles and advancing until they got to and through the grandest of mares. They have a cool building montage that shows all the progress (or they would if this was a made-for-tv movie and not an article) and a mere 100,000 volunteer hours later, it was done.

Above: Woodworkycraftsmen offer to let us take a hammer to the art, but we were reasonably affraid of what might happen.
Above: Woodworkycraftsmen offer to let us take a hammer to the art, but we were reasonably affraid of what might happen.

It’s a one-of-a-kind carousel for a bunch of reasons and I’m not the only one to say so. Every horse is as different as the people who adopted them — they got to pick they’re very own designs — and these ponies are also as different as the people who carved and painted them too. You really should see all the horses and learn more about them. They’re each so distinct it’s amazing. It’s almost like grown-ups each having their own personality. Isn’t that weird to think about?

You know what else is special, they have a secret hollow body and that makes each horse a time capsule. It’s especially special since they’re only supposed to be opened up in case of serious surgeries. I’m a newsman so they told me all about it. Horses don’t usually get surgery though, I think they just get “put down,” which my parents explained is when they’re sent over to make themselves useful at the glue factory. Something fishy there me thinks.

Another rarity is that they have a whole machine dedicated to teaching you one figure of speech. It’s this ring machine that puts out plastic hoops of various colors including one that is brass. If you go for it and do grab onto that brass ring, you’ll win a free ride. So now I know what that whole “brass ring” thing is I’ve heard talk about. What a wonderful (and ornate!) educational device they’ve dreamed up!

Above: Unlike most newer carousels, this ride has a ring machine, and it's a mighty pretty one at that. The detail is astounding and it's still hand-carved wood.
Above: Unlike most newer carousels, this ride has a ring machine, and it’s a mighty pretty one at that. The detail is astounding and it’s still hand-carved wood.

There is also an onsite restoration and woodworking shop where projects are made for other non-profit carousels and various charity groups, like the Habitat for Humanity relief they were carving on when I came in with my brothers, but this story is going to be long as day by the time I finish and we went in on the solstice.

mt-missoula-carousel2Left: Once you have the confidence to move from chariot to animal, there are plenty of animals for your choosing.

Delightfully, the price for a ride on this jewel in the crown of Missoula is only 50¢ for kids and seniors (basically anybody who might drool in their sleep) and $1.50 for grown-ups and especially large children. It might cost these non droolers more, but it’s worth it when you can sleep without slobber and ride your dream horse. As a special thank you to the people of the city who made it all possible, A Carousel for Missoula is free on Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, can you believe it!

They even have a concession stand right there with ice cream and drinks to help cool you off and a variety of other eaty things too. Oh, and before you head over to Dragon Hollow Park (playground) next door, pop into the carousel gift shop for a bit. If you liked your ride, there’s plenty in there to remind you how special it was. I recommend the historical picture book. It tells you the name and history of every single horse on the circle, and it’s really well made and colorful too.

Remember it’s called A Carousel for Missoula, and I swear I’ll never understand why — I still struggle sometimes to get the literal meanings of things. It is located on the river’s edge next to Dragon Hollow park. The address is 101 Carousel Drive in Missoula, Montana, and you can check their latest info online at www.carrousel.com. Now giddy-up and get yourself to the carousel!

Above: Make no mistake, this ride is fast and fun, even if we do sometimes get tired of having our pictures taken.
Above: Make no mistake, this ride is fast and fun, even if we do sometimes get tired of having our pictures taken.