Montana Treasure: Hidden secrets inside A Carousel for Missoula

John Thompson is wood carver and board member for A Carousel for Missoula. He poses for a picture with his hand carved dragon.

MISSOULA - A Carousel for Missoula is a beloved fixture for families visiting downtown. Its creators say the horses and dragons are full of symbols that tell many stories.

In May of 1995, A Carousel for Missoula opened its doors. Since then nearly 5 million people have taken it for a spin.

The Carousel just might be the largest public art piece in the Treasure State. 

"We keep track of rides and we give roughly 200,000 rides a year," Executive Director Theresa Cox said. She says two-thirds of those are kids, and a third are adults.

A Carousel for Missoula currently has 38 horses and two wheelchair accessible chariots, all hand carved from bass wood. It takes anywhere from 500 to 800 hours to make one from start to finish.

"Once the carousel was finished, the people who helped create the carousel didn’t want to give up," Cox said. "They had created a family among themselves so the carvers still come in on Tuesday nights and carve."

John Thompson is one of those carvers. From horses to dragons, he says carving is a labor of love. 

"We love kids and that’s why we do it. In fact my kids when I started [carving wood for the carousel], my youngest was about four years old. Now he’s 32 and I'm still down here playing. Now we bring our grand kids down here," Thompson said. 

It truly is a family affair. You'll find hidden ladybugs carved or painted on horses and dragons. They're a symbol Thompson uses to represent his wife. 

The wedding ring Thompson wears is the same ring a rider can find on the dragon's hand when they reach up to grab a ring of their own. 

It's not just Thompson's family that has hidden treasures in these horses. Many of them are adopted by different families and organizations.

Local fifth graders fundraised 1 million pennies to pay for four horses to be carved and installed.

Special touches like those help bring the masterpiece to life. 

A Carousel for Missoula, this week's Montana Treasure.  

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