Once doomed State Fair carousel marks 100th birthday

ST. PAUL, Minn. – A Minnesota icon has reached its 100th birthday -- 25 years after it nearly met its demise.

The carousel that began life in 1914 at the Minnesota State Fair -- and twirls to this day at Como Park -- was already being dismantled for auction when a St. Paul husband and wife embarked on a longshot mission to save it.

"I said the silliest thing I've ever said in my life, 'Let's see what we can do,'" laughs Peter Boehm.

The year was 1988 and Boehm and his wife Nancy Peterson had just read an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune stating the privately owned carousel that had graced the Minnesota State Fair for decades was being broken up and sold.

Hours later Boehm was on the telephone with the owner. "I got off the phone with him and I said to Nancy, 'It's easy, all we need to do is raise $1 million before the auction in four weeks.'"

While $1 million may seem far-fetched, the carousel's carved wooden horses are prized by collectors. Several on the carousel might have fetched $40,000 a piece, with at least one horse worth more than twice that. Twenty of the horses were already packed in a truck on their way to a New York auction house.

Boehm and Peterson had to work quickly. They formed a nonprofit community group and convinced the city of St. Paul to back a million-dollar loan. Then the couple traveled to New York and purchased the carousel intact for just over $1.1 million.

"We bought it just seconds before the auction was to start," said Boehm. "They agreed to withdraw it from the auction and sell it to us outright."

The next challenge was paying down the loan. Boehm and Peterson got a huge break when West Publishing executive Jerry Cafesjian stepped up with a $600,000 donation. The carousel was named in his honor.

Cafesjian's Carousel was moved initially to Town Square in downtown St. Paul. When retail traffic at the mall dwindled, the carousel was mothballed until its permanent home opened in 2000 in a brand new building at Como Park. Both the carousel and the its privately-funded building were paid off with admissions and further contributions from Cafesjian.

All 68 hand-carved wooden horses have been restored over the years. Volunteers operate the carousel Tuesday through Sunday during the summer months and weekends in the fall. The carousel is closed on Mondays for maintenance.

"We said right from the very first day, we're doing this for our future grandchildren," said Boehm. Indeed the couple's two grandchildren are now among the riders.

The couple's efforts resulted in Minnesotans having a rare treat. According to Peterson, roughly 6,000 carousels were built in the first 30 years of the 20th century, considered to be the golden age of carousels.

"Maybe only 150 of them have survived," said Peterson. Far fewer are open for public rides.

Cafesjian's Carousel was built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, with most of its horses carved by David Lightfoot, one of the top wood carvers of his day.

Both Peterson and Boehm are frequent riders on the Carousel, but they have another favorite seat.

"I can sit on that bench out there all day long," says Boehm, pointing to a park bench a few feet from the carousel. "Just watching the smiles of the people as they come off the ride - that's what we did it for."

Watch past KARE 11 stories on the carousel below.


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