History of an American Treasure

Back in 1914, an enterprising man named Austin McFadden paid the Philadelphia Toboggan Company $8,500 to build a carousel, bring it to St. Paul, and assemble it on the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair. He ran it as a concession for many years, after which it passed to other owner-operators.

During its 75 years at the State Fair, the carousel wove itself into the stories of many generations of Minnesota families.

Most of those families thought that the State Fair owned the carousel, and took for granted that “their” carousel would be at the fair forever. That was not to be.

Historic Photo of Cafesjian's Carousel
Wurlitzer 153 band organ

Slated for Auction

In 1988, Minnesota carousel fans were shocked to learn that the privately owned carousel had been put up for sale. By the time the story hit the newspapers on November 11, twenty horses and a chariot were on a truck headed for a December 10 auction in New York. The story said the carousel’s owners had tried unsuccessfully to find someone to buy the carousel and keep it intact.

A St. Paul couple read the story and decided to try to save the carousel. Peter Boehm and Nancy Peterson, who had become interested in historic carousels only a year before, made a series of phone calls and learned that for a purchase price of just over $1.1 million, the carousel would be sold intact.

Last Minute Rescue

Within 72 hours of learning of the impending auction, Boehm and Peterson formed a non-profit organization called Our Fair Carousel, Inc. (OFC), opened a bank account and post office box, and announced through Twin Cities media their intention to acquire the carousel and operate it on a non-profit basis. They invited help from any source.

Over the next week, their phone rang non-stop with people calling to tell stories of what the carousel meant to them. Each day’s mail brought contributions, from $100 to a six-year-old’s gift of a quarter, two dimes and a nickel “to save my favorite horse.” The St. Paul City Council soon voted to use city resources to guarantee a bank loan with which OFC could purchase the carousel.

On December 10, 1988, after extensive negotiation, Boehm and Peterson traveled to New York and completed the purchase–ten minutes after the auction had begun and moments before the first of the carousel’s horses would have been sold. By terms of their agreement with St. Paul, they had one year to raise more than $1 million to repay the loan.

Horse on Cafesjian's Carousel
Gerard L. Cafesjian

Raising the Money

Boehm and Peterson spent 1989 raising money to pay off the million-dollar bank loan with which they had purchased the carousel. They created an Adopt-A-Pony program, which allowed donors to sponsor a horse on the carousel for gifts ranging from $5,000 to $25,000.

With the help of dozens of volunteers, they also operated the carousel at the Minnesota State Fair in 1989. More than 108,000 people rode the merry-go-round in its 75th and final year at the Fair and purchased thousands of t-shirts, posters and buttons to generate funds for the cause.

Meanwhile, a “mystery donor” had pledged $600,000, about half the amount needed. Later, his identity was revealed as Gerard L. Cafesjian and the carousel was named for him.

By the deadline in December 1989, OFC had raised about $900,000. The City of St. Paul, through one of its agencies, extended a long-term loan for the remainder.

St. Paul's Town Square

The carousel moved into a new home at Town Square Park, an enclosed city park on the top level of a building in the heart of downtown St. Paul. The building housed a variety of stores and restaurants, and for about two years, business at the carousel was good.

By 1993, however, downtown retail business was in decline and Town Square itself was beginning a transition from retail to office space. With ridership dwindling, Our Fair Carousel’s board of directors began to seek another location. A lengthy negotiation with the city and a careful consideration of bids from three locations led to the selection of St. Paul’s Como Park.

Cafesjian's Carousel at St. Paul Town Square
Cafesjian's Carousel at Como Park

At Home in Como Park

In October 1999, Cafesjian’s Carousel opened in a new $1.1 million copper-roofed pavilion in Como Park. When the carousel is in operation, eight 14-by-14-foot garage-style doors can be opened in various configurations to suit the weather. Just outside the doors are patios with benches for visitors. Even when the doors are closed, large windows allow visitors to see the carousel, which has undergone a complete restoration.

Inside the building, six display cases provide informational displays about the history and restoration of the carousel and band organ. A permanent wall plaque and name plates on the carousel platform identify participants in the Adopt-A-Pony program.

The carousel’s pavilion was financed by Mr. Cafesjian, the City of St. Paul, Ramsey County, and Our Fair Carousel, which in November 2005 was able to repay a $400,000 loan through donations and carousel revenues.

Cafesjians Carousel

Looking Toward the Future

OFC is now creating a reserve fund to protect against emergencies and allow for future restoration and repair of the carousel.

In addition, the carousel continues to need new volunteers and leaders to keep it running for new generations of riders.