Russ Ringsak

Horses and Hats, and a Lost Owl

October 24, 2006

In August of 1991 a man brought four wooden horses to a meeting of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and made a remarkable offer: "I will deliver to you a carousel and sign it over to the city as a gift. In return, I would like the city to give it a good home."

He was Chuck Kaparich, a cabinet maker, and he had carved the horses himself, all different, and in his very large dream they would someday be part of a colorful herd that would whirl happily to music, gladdening hearts and making people grin. He had cut them with a set of tools given to him by his wife, although he had never carved anything before and didn't even know how to sharpen the blades.

Kaparich's grandfather was a Croatian farm kid who came to Montana when he was nineteen, leaving behind a new bride because they had no money for a second ticket; it took him seven years of working at the smelter in Anaconda to save enough to send for her. With hard work and frugality they raised seven children — children whose beds were rented out during the day to miners from the night shift — and eventually saw one of them, Chuck's father, become a dentist. By the time Chuck grew up the country had been through a lot, including two world wars and a giant depression, and he was keenly aware of what a great gift he had been given by his dad and grandad. He wanted to give something back, to the country and to his grandfather for coming here, and the carousel would be the answer.

The board was won over by the sheer presence of the horses and by his spirit, and the city stepped into Chuck's dream with more vigor than even an optimist like himself could have imagined. And by lucky happenstance, that October he heard from an antique dealer that there was an old carousel lying in pieces, thousands of them, sitting behind the Miracle of America Museum, just seventy miles north in Polson.

It had been built in 1918(!) by the Herschell-Spillman factory in North Tonowanda, N.Y., back when they were producing nearly one carousel per day. It could be traced only back to 1959, when it had been moved from a warehouse somewhere to Incline Village in Nevada, near Lake Tahoe. The TV show Bonanza was filmed there and the Ponderosa Ranch was a big attraction; there are photos of the carousel in action near there. It was auctioned off in 1983, with the horses each sold separately, and the frame and machinery somehow ended up in Montana. Kaparich bought it all for $3500.

It was originally powered by steam, and a local retired Northern Pacific machinist volunteered to help rebuild it and bring it into the age of electricity. In a few months there were a dozen mechanics at work; it took them four years and it now runs smooth and slick as if it were brand new. If you can take your eyes off the spectacle of the fast-moving high-style horses, you can watch the mesmerizing gears and cranks up there in the hub above the main center shaft.

It took hundreds of volunteers, donating hundreds of thousands of hours, working nights at the Kaparich garage and at their own places, cutting, gluing, carving, sanding, painting, making bearings and gears, assembling the frame; raising money, recruiting, mailing, calling, holding auctions. Clubs and businesses kicked in and local schoolchildren collected a million pennies — two tons of pennies. People passing through town would donate money just from seeing one horse in a store window.

Volunteers learned to carve at Chuck's weekly classes, which had a waiting list as soon as it was offered. In his early planning he thought he might have to do all the carving himself and was ready to spend his next thirty years at it, and suddenly he was teaching it to persons who couldn't wait to help out. Every horse is unique, each a vision of the carvers and of the people who sponsored it.

The organ is new, from Don Stinson's company in Bellefontaine, Ohio. It took a year and a half to build and is the largest carousel organ in the country, and it sounds great. Not to get too gushy here, but it definitely gets your attention.

The city held up their end of the deal, holding a design competition and ending up with an appropriately sturdy and playful building down there just beneath the downtown, in a park on the bank of the Clark Fork River. It's open year round; anytime you get the urge to ride you can just walk down there and hop on a beautiful and heroic horse. It's not expensive.

When those bright ponies are moving, all that color flashing by and that big organ singing, you cannot approach it without smiling. The place exudes vigor, happiness, big dreams and triumph. You are taken with the power of it, the large reality there, and it raises memories you didn't even know you had.

So I've been moved to add it to my Firstmost All-American Must-See Landmark Short List: the other two locales are Beartooth Pass and Arlington Cemetery. And if your travels don't take you to Missoula soon you must go to their newspaper, www.missoulian.com/bookstore, which will lead you to a full-color book telling this most uplifting story, including a detailed history and the pictures and names of every horse. It's well written and photographed, and at $25 you won't find a better hardcover bargain anywhere. This book should be a bestseller. It's not, but it should be. It's also in paperback. It's called A Carousel For Missoula.

* * *

Russ' Hat and Hank
Russ with his new hat and Hank
(click for larger image)
With winter coming on I've been looking at hats. I like hats but haven't worn one for quite a while, mainly because they seem out of style enough to draw attention. And I'd rather not feel I have to defend a hat, as Roy Blount Jr. put it. Each style carries a message, like I'm a horse guy or I'm a city guy and maybe sort of dangerous. Or maybe I'm not dangerous at all but I like to look like I could be, y'know, because Bogart wore a fedora just like this one. The Panama suggests you're ready to party, or you might know how to get drugs.

The big leather broad-brim style says you can travel long distances and you could be reckless. Either that or you were in a shop and in a mood and you said it ain't exactly me but hey, why the heck not. Maybe the sales person influenced you with her very beautiful eyes and maybe she said it looks fabulous on you, and you were thinking what would look fabulous on me right now would be you and I know for fact that ain't gonna happen so what the heck, maybe I'll just buy the hat. To remember the moment.

So. I started looking around on this last road trip out west, trying on hats here and there, and some were real goodlooking but they were too much so. I didn't want a hat that made me look like I need something this grand just to get noticed. I didn't want to look like I might be on my way to a gig, or to a million-dollar horse auction.

A cowboy hat, even a thirty-dollar straw one, just won't look right on a guy who can't ride a horse; they'll know. Horse people can tell. And I've never wanted to ride anything that didn't have a kill switch on it. Something to make it stop when you crash. Horses can go completely haywire, and that makes me nervous, and anyone with an attitude like that has no business wearing a cowboy hat. I have no business wearing a cowboy hat even riding a horse on the Missoula Carousel.

But a bowler, or a porkpie, or a Homburg, they'd all be the same; out of place, on my head. And the basic fedora is just too much city and too close to the suit and tie for a truck driver. I spent quite some time on the internet when I got back and finally found a great Stetson, the Flint hat, made specifically for Miller Hats in Houston. It had a brim width somewhere between the western and the fedora and it had a moderate teardrop crown that sloped slightly to the back. It said to me it was about keeping the snow and rain off and looking good, and it said very little else. More west than east and maybe a bit more north than south, which was fine. The brim was down in front and up in back, and it had a narrow black leather band. It was steel grey.

It arrived Friday morning. It has a stitched edge on the brim and gives off a soft sheen. On the leather sweatband inside there is a gold-colored imprint of a fancy crest and the words: "John B. Stetson Company — Made in U.S.A. — Imperial Ultimate." I wore it to a restaurant that night. Parked three blocks away and it was chilly but with the hat on I was okay just wearing a light jacket and jeans. It's warmer than a cap. I felt good in it. It made me look and feel like a guy who is finally old enough to wear a hat. It exudes style, dignity and purpose. It's what they call classic, like our truck. I'm wearing it right now, at my desk. I'm a hat guy.

* * *

In a previous piece about Montana I mentioned the Owl Bar as a must stop in Livingston, because there were hundreds of blues and R & B albums on tap and a fine little library of local writers on some shelves behind the bar. The place had much character and so did the owner, but, sadly, it has been sold and is today a magnet to college children who come over from Bozeman, and it is no place for a grownup. A serious loss to those of us who called ourselves regulars there, one week a year. The former owner now tends bar part time at the Elks Club a block away; which is okay, but the Elks is no Owl.

A place that hasn't changed is the Sax & Fryer bookstore, another Livingston landmark. Opinion would vary on this, but to my taste it is the best bookstore anywhere. There is even a saddle museum in the basement, by appointment. It's some consolation, but of course it's not the Owl either.

© R.Ringsak 2006

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