Skip to main content

From medieval training device to a Gilded Age delight, the history of the carousel dazzles the imagination. These whirling masterpieces of art will forever hold a nostalgic place in our hearts.

But maybe none so much as the Carousel for Missoula.

In the heart of Caras Park, tucked into the banks of Clark Fork River, stands a labor of love, a testament to true artistry, and Montana’s largest public art piece. With the help of a community and over 100,000 hours of volunteer hours, local cabinet maker, Chuck Kaparich, spurred a carousel renaissance that would spread across the nation.

A Carousel for Missoula Montana

But, like many things, that wasn’t the initial plan when Kaparich began his endeavor. Initially, on the hunt for an antique carousel horse for his wife, his search lead him to Fred Fried, historian, carousel conservationist and author of A Pictorial History of the Carousel.

Through Fried, Kaparich discovered that America once boasted over 5,000 hand-carved carousels. Today there are less than 160 due to their selling off of the ponies, parts, and scrap metal. Fried informed Kaparick that, in not so many words, that if he really cared about art or carousels, to carve his own damn horse. Or better yet, a carousel.

The making a carousel horse Missoula Montana
Each horse consists of 7 different pieces held together by wood glue and pegs. Up to 8 different people work together to bring each horse to fruition.

And that’s just what Kaparich did.

After receiving carving tools for his birthday, Kaparich turned piles of basswood, wood glue, and wooden pegs into four prancing ponies. These four carvings would become the foundation of A Carousel for Missoula.

In a speech to Missoula’s City Council Kaparich promised, “If you will give it a home, and promise no one will ever take it apart, I will build a carousel for Missoula.

But he knew he needed help if he was going to finish the carousel in his lifetime. So he offered carving classes to see if anyone might be interested in learning and contributing. Fifteen minutes after registration opened, the waiting list was 40 students deep.

John Thompson holding carved horse head A Carousel for Missoula Montana
John Thompson, Carousel artist, colabrated with adopting families and businesses to design all but six of the carousel’s ponies

After multiple carving classes, over 100,000 volunteer hours, and almost 5 years later A Carousel for Missoula opened to the public on May 27, 1995 to an overwhelming outpouring of support. Guests stood in line for hours to be the first to ride Montana’s largest public art installation.

The carousel consisted of 38 one-of-a-kind parading ponies and two racing chariots, complete with wheelchair capabilities. Overlooking the twirling display of master craftsmanship stands 14 grinning gargoyles and a towering 9-foot dragon named Lucky Red Ringer, daring the most skilled riders to reach out and grab a ring from his mouth. The rider who collects the brass ring wins a free ride.

Meet The Mounts

Ask anyone in Missoula and they will gladly tell you their favorite pony. And each pony has a name and story.

Larry Pirnie's pony Paint A Carousel for Missoula
The most vibrant and eclectic pony of All, Larry Pirnie’s Paint remains a crowd favorite

Impossible to miss and always a crowd favorite, Paint certainly shines the brightest. Adopted and painted by world-renown Missoula Artist Larry Pirnie, Paint sports Pirnie’s signature style of vibrant hues splashed across a leaping stallion.

Sir Franklin at A Carousel for Missoula
The ever valiant Sir Franklin was one of four Penny ponies designed by the schoolchildren of Missoula

There’s the bucking Merriwether, armored Sir Franklin, black and white Snapples, and the spunky circus mount Moonlight. These four steady steeds were born from the imaginations of Missoula’s schoolchildren after raising over one million pennies in their Pennies for Ponies campaign.

Henry Bugbee's Montana Appaloosa A Carousel for Missoula
A fitting choose for any Montana Native, Montana Appaloosa proudly sports Henry Bugbee’s hand print

Among the Penny Ponies, you can find Henry Bugbee’s Montana Appaloosa. Being the first Native American professor at the University of Montana, Henry’s family and friends chose to celebrate him by adopting a horse in his honor. Look for the galloping appaloosa with Henry’s red hand marking the rump.

Midnight Rose A Carousel for Missoula
Midnight Rose traveled all the way from Calgary to be a part of A Carousel for Missoula

Then there’s Midnight Rose, a gorgeous prancing ebony pony adorned with gilded roses. She was gifted to the Carousel from Calgary’s Midnight Rose Carvers in memory of a fallen friend. Inspired by the Calgary Carvers, Missoula keeps a group of carvers called the Pony Keepers on hand. The Keepers craft gift horses – or huskies, sea turtles, and even slugs – to any cities building a carousel for nonprofit.

Columbia Belle A Carousel for Missoula
The lead horse in the carousel, Columbia Belle, proudly dons two antique jewels from America’s first “galloping” carousel

And you can’t miss Columbia Belle, the carousel’s most dazzling horse of all. With golden hooves, rainbow sashes, and the American flag tucked under her saddle, Columbia Belle holds the lead horse position. But that’s not all she holds.

Embedded within her bridle shines two antique jewels, one a crimson ruby and the other a brilliant sapphire. These 100-year-old gems once belonged to America’s first carousel to have ponies that “galloped” and were gifted to A Carousel for Missoula by Mr. Fred Fried himself.

Fred Fried Carousel Historian Missoual Montana
Carousel Historian and Conservationist, Fred Fried, depicted on one of the inside panels of the carousel
A Carousel for Missoula Montana
Sleipnir, a Norwegian Fjord, and Soro, a traditional Stein and Goldstein carousel horse, demonstrate the wide array of styles making up the Carousel for Missoula’s herd

Little did Fried know that his fateful conversation with Chuck Kaprich would spark a carousel revival. A Carousel for Missoula was the first hand-carved carousel built in America in over 60 years. Since its opening, it has spurred the creation of over 15 new carousels from coast to coast.

Thanks to Fried’s conservation efforts and the support of Missoula’s residents, the simple, sentimental joy of carousels will continue for generations.

Missoula’s Art Scene: More Than Just Mountains

Diving Head First into Missoula’s Backyard

Monumental Day Trips Minutes from Billings

Jessie's alt signature
Jessica Pickett

Gypsy mom, storyteller, and daydreamer extraordinaire, you can usually find me researching our next adventure. An explorer, lover of craft beers, and anything outside I'm at my happiest getting lost in a new city or hitting the trails with my family in tow.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.