Keep a Carousel Turning
Minnesota couple heads drive to keep a famous merry-go-round off the auction block. PAINTED PONIES
ST. PAUL, MINN — TO HEAR Peter Boehm tell it, he just happens to like merry-go-rounds. It's as simple as that. Maybe loves merry-go-rounds is more accurate. And one in particular: old No. 33, manufactured by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1914. With a generous 50-foot diameter, four rows of hand-carved, jumping horses (68 in all, with their original paint), and a fast, silky smooth ride, it's the stuff of a carousel-lover's dream.
That might help explain why for the last 10 months Mr. Boehm has virtually ignored his typesetting business and, together with his wife, devoted himself to saving No. 33, known hereabouts as ``the state fair carousel.''
Nov. 11, 1988, was a pivotal day in Peter Boehm's life. That's when a local newspaper printed a story saying that 20 horses from the 74-year-old carousel would be auctioned off in New York the following month.
Mr. Boehm and his wife, Nancy Peterson, were appalled. Boehm had been taking his daughter, Abby, to the state fair for a dozen years, each trip highlighted by a turn on the merry-go-round. ``I was just one of those people who came (to the fair) each year and rode it,'' he says.
Little by little, the couple's interest grew. Nancy latched onto a book about hand-carved carousels, titled ``Painted Ponies.'' On a family trip to Boston, they used a list in the book to visit six of the 10 operating carousels along the way. In a Hershey, Pa., museum, they admired an exhibit of carousel horses.
Then came the news of their own hometown carousel's imminent demise. ``Nancy said, `This is really terrible. Somebody ought to do something,''' recalls Boehm.
Before long, Peter and Nancy realized that the ``somebody'' would have to be they.
The first step was to form a nonprofit corporation, Our Fair Carousel, dedicated to preserving the merry-go-round and finding a permanent home where it could continue to operate. They drew up a business plan and named a board of directors.
A local newspaper columnist jumped on the bandwagon, and volunteers began to call, asking what they could do to help. Boehm contacted the carousel's owner. Yes, he would sell if Boehm could raise the money in time - a little over $1 million would do.
But where would the money come from, especially with only about four weeks left before the auction date?
Then St. Paul city council member Tom Dimond stepped in. He sponsored a resolution in the council that, in essence, authorized city funds to guarantee a loan to Boehm's group. The due date: the end of 1989.
``We got together, along with other groups, and put together a package which the city guaranteed,'' says Mr. Dimond. It's been a community effort in which many other individuals and businesses have played essential roles, too, he points out. ``Peter put together the fund-raising. He's worked very hard.''
Armed with his new financial muscle, Boehm headed for New York and managed to buy the entire carousel just before it was auctioned. Some in the local press cheered, but others questioned the city council's judgment. Could a merry-go-round possibly be worth $1 million? Should a city in need of better streets and sewers and snow-plowing spend any money on a project like this?
To Boehm, the answer is ``no.'' He wants private funds to pay 100 percent of the cost of saving the carousel. ``What the city (loan) gave us was time,'' he says. According to Boehm's latest reckoning, Our Fair Carousel has raised pledges to cover $900,000 of the $1.3 million he needs to pay off the loan. (Of the total, $600,000 is in the form of an as-yet-anonymous pledge.) If he fails to raise the money, ownership reverts to the city council, which has declared its willingness to auction off the carousel.
During the recently concluded Minnesota State Fair, 107,000 people paid $1 apiece to ride the carousel one last time, an increase of more than 20,000 over last year, says Boehm.
But the key to completing the fund-raising, he says, is an ``Adopt-A-Pony'' plan that allows sponsors, most likely corporations, to underwrite individual horses (a plaque with the donor's name will be attached to each horse). The prices range from $5,000 for an inner-row horse to $25,000 for the outer ring. So far, 10 horses have been ``adopted,'' including a ``people's pony'' paid for by the many small donations that have come in.
Boehm wants to place the carousel in Town Square Park, a mall in downtown St. Paul. He reasons that it's climate-controlled (that's why he's ruled out the fairgrounds, city parks, and the Como Zoo), has 24-hour security, and would mean the carousel could be operated year-round.
Why let kids with dirty shoes and sticky fingers ride on horses that could sell for thousands of dollars as individual works of art (see accompanying story)?
``There's no point in saving a merry-go-round that doesn't work as a merry-go-round,'' he says firmly. Instead of dollar figures, he sees children of all ages enjoying the fantasy of a carousel ride.
``Down here, we only have children's tickets,'' he said as the carousel whirled nearby at the recent state fair. Many of the riders were grownups; some couples held hands as they rode. ``One 86-year-old woman got up and rode a horse,'' he said. ``She told me: `My friends think I'm crazy, but I've never felt so alive.'''
``Peter Boehm is one of the most shining examples of anyone I've ever met'' who loves merry-go-rounds, says Arthur Curtze, the founder of Brass Ring Trust, a State College, Pa., group dedicated to saving antique carousels. ``He's an excellent example of what can be done.''
Mr. Curtze spent several days this summer in St. Paul preparing the carousel to kick up its heels in a final state fair fling. He rates it among ``the top 40 or 50'' antique carousels in the country, he said in a telephone interview. And because it was used only a few days each year for the fair, it ``runs just like new.'' Not only is it safe, says Curtze, it's fast. Add to that the fact that every horse is a ``jumper'' (moves up and down), and riding it is something special.
Meanwhile, Barbara Mintz, one of the owners of Guernsey's, the New York auction house that sold Boehm the carousel, says she'd be ``thrilled'' to buy it back anytime. Customers are waiting in the wings, she says. ``The city council could definitely get its money back - and more'' if Boehm fails to pay them back, she says. Her auction house, which specializes in collectibles, plans to gavel off three other carousels on Dec. 18 - either together or as individual pieces.
Can Boehm raise the money in time? ``I'd say I have a 50-50 chance,'' he says. ``I think it's going to go down to the wire.'' But in December, he muses, at the last moment, maybe on nearly the last day, ``someone's going to get in the Christmas spirit'' and put him over the top.
Carousel expert Curtze seems more sanguine. ``I have no doubt he'll raise the money,'' he says. ``The (carousels) I worry about are ... in cities where nobody cares....
``Peter Boehm did his homework,'' says Curtze, who is quietly helping other groups around the country in the process of saving antique merry-go-rounds. Boehm may not be the first to try to save a carousel, says Curtze, but ``he's one of the best I've ever seen. He always knows when to ask for help.
``That's why he got a contribution from Brass Ring Trust.'' Our Fair Carousel, Inc., P.O. Box 17276, St. Paul, MN 55117.