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Painted ponies go up and down
It’s 100 years for Como Park’s Cafesjian’s Carousel
When Nancy Peterson heard the news that cold November day in 1988 that the long-time Minnesota classic carousel had been dismantled and 20 of the horses and a chariot were now on their way to the auction block in New York City, she remembers saying to her husband, “Somebody ought to do something!”
So Nancy’s husband, Peter Boehm, picked up the phone.
“And I’m pretty good on the phone,” Peter said to me with a twinkle in his eye.
He would have to be. The New York auction house expected to raise just over a million dollars on the sale of items that made up the 68-horse carousel, with individual horses eventually gracing the amusement rooms of well-heeled East Coast residents who had an affinity for folk art.
But over the coming days, responses aimed at keeping the carousel together in Minnesota poured in, including contributions and pledges--from $100 down to Boehm’s favorite: three quarters, two dimes and a nickel from 6-year-old Kim Taylor along with a note that read, “Dear sir: I would like to give you some money from my bank for my favorite, Pinto.”
And the bid goes to ...
Many financing ideas for the bulk of the needed funds--egos and politics aside--came and went, eventually resulting in a bank letter of credit in Boehm’s hands for $1.3 million.
Then it was off to New York City for the auction, or, more accurately, for an attempt to purchase the antique horses and chariot before the auction began. That effort was successful--to the tune of $1,132,500--just minutes before the bidding would open, despite the unhappy potential bidders who had arrived, wanting a wooden horse for their dens and drawing rooms.
Having temporarily secured the fate of the carousel, which was built in 1914 and had been at the Minnesota State Fair for decades, Boehm and Peterson spent the next year raising money to pay off the loan.
One of their creative ideas was the Adopt-A-Pony program, which allowed donors to sponsor a horse on the carousel for gifts ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. Today there are just 17 horses, of the original 68, still available for adoption.
All of that was helpful, but there was still a long way to go.
There’s something about a carousel
The name of Jerry Cafesjian caught Boehm’s eye as it appeared on more than one of the carousel’s visitor logs. Then his contribution of $100 came in--quite a bit more than the usual $5 or 10’s they were used to seeing.
Again, Boehm picked up the phone, and by the end of their conversation, he had offered Cafesjian a seat on the carousel’s board of directors.
As a child, Cafesjian had lived near an amusement park. With carousel reflections on his bedroom ceiling and tunes in his ears as he went to sleep as a boy in New Jersey, “A joy was brought to Jerry’s life, and he never forgot it,” Boehm said.
A proud Armenian by heritage but with no children or siblings, “this generous man,” as Boehm described him, had been a successful executive with West Publishing. Now that he was retired, he had legacy on his mind.
“What would it cost to put my name on the carousel?” Cafesjian later asked. Boehm lowered the phone and quizzed Nancy, who was experienced in dealing with legacy contributors at Macalester College. “A ‘naming gift’ is at least half the cost of the project,” Nancy replied.
Boehm, back on the phone, said, “$600,000.” “Done,” said Cafesjian, knocking Kim Taylor’s $1 contribution right into second place on Boehm’s list of favorites.
This remarkable story continues with the carousel approaching its 100th birthday. After years at the State Fair and a brief stay in Town Square Park, the intact merry-go-round is now securely ensconced in its own building in St. Paul’s Como Park.
A birthday party will take place Saturday, Aug. 9, at Como Park. Sadly, Cafesjian, who died last year, won’t get to witness the grand celebration.
The whole effort to save and maintain the carousel, from start to finish, has been based on volunteers. Even Peterson and Boehm, the caretakers and not owners of the carousel, do not draw a salary.
Betsy Wing of Brooklyn Park has been on the staff for 13 years. “I love volunteering here,” she says. “I’ve made new friends, but it’s all about the kids: you become a kid again yourself.”
Cancer survivor Mary Paklonsky of St. Paul, who has been volunteering at the ride up to 20 hours a week for the past four years, seconded the idea of “interaction with the kids,” and called the group her “adoptive family.”
And Jackie Attleson, also of St. Paul and another 13-year-carousel veteran, gives the “safety speech” before each ride. Attleson loves being a member of the volunteer crew as well, saying, “It’s giving back to our community.”
What do the riders think?
A couple of little ones offered their opinions of the carousel as well. Matthew LeMay, 6, of New Richmond, Wisconsin, rode on a pony on the outside, or fastest ring, saying it was “not scary; it was really fun,” and was ready to go again.
Matthew’s brother Josh, age 4, and a man of few words, riding in the middle ring, thought the ride was “fast,” but mainly wondered “where are the people playing the music?” referring to the recorded tunes.
There’s so much more to the fascinating carousel story, and it’s all in a book called “State Fair Carousel, saving a Minnesota Treasure.”
Written by Peterson and Boehm and just off the press, the $12.95, 100-page paperback is currently available only at Cafesjian’s Carousel in St. Paul’s Como Park.
Information on riding the carousel is available on the website ourfaircarousel.org.
100th Birthday Party Aug. 9
Everyone is invited to the 100th birthday party for Cafesjian’s Carousel, which will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 9, at the carousel’s location, right next to the Marjorie McNeeley Conservatory in Como Park.
There will be birthday cake and root beer floats, while singers and face painters entertain visitors. A brief ceremony will take place at 3 p.m., and rides will be free from 4 until 6 p.m.
Who are Nancy and Peter?
Nancy Peterson, age 71, who hails from Hibbing, worked for Macalester College as director of publications until her recent retirement.
Peter Boehm, age 66, a native New Yorker from Long Island and in the typesetting business, came to Minnesota following the sale of typesetting software to a local Roseville company. The company had bought the software from the firm Peter worked for and Peter, ready for a change, contacted them and asked, “you bought the software, would you like to hire the person who knows how to use it?”
He met Nancy soon afterwards and they married in 1985. They have an adult daughter and two grandchildren.
View more photos in the gallery link below.