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Story ID:4230
Written by:Kathe M. Campbell (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Musings, Essays and Such
Location:Butte Montana USA
Person:Butte Citizens
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Where The Horses Succumbed

by Kathe Campbell

"But they just can't do that too us. It's our beautiful gardens. It's where we and our kids have grown up and played and where our families picnic on warm summer evenings. Can't they mine their copper around our gardens?"

These sentiments and irreverently more were uttered on the streets and in the meeting halls and bars of Butte, Montana in the early 1970's. The sons and daughters of our immigrants were heartbroken, and remain so today, for their grandchildren will never know the joy and sweet youthful memories of Columbia Gardens. Picnics, a children's playground, giant swings and see-saws, even a zoo of sorts. Colorful lanterns to light their way as couples canoed upon the shimmering lake. Nobody ever forgot Sunday afternoon rendezvous of hand-holding between the carousel horses to repetitious calliope tunes. All would soon be memories.

From the turn of the century the amusement park, nestled against the east ridge, was the crown jewel of the west and the first in all of Montana. At the center of it's buildings and dazzling manicured gardens stood the carousel complete with band organ, hand-carved horses and chariots, mirror frames, gargoyles, and an elegant canopy. Her turning platform consisted of 42 ornately painted steeds of every breed in various poses. Twin mares supported a bench for two, while shorter dainty ponies beckoned tiny tots and the faint of heart. For the serious rider, shiny black and pure white stallions posed on two hind feet trailing gleaming silver and gold manes and tails.

The carousel was the brainchild of Butte's most well-known Copper King magnate, W. A. Clark. Lore has it that Clark had been distraught over seeing Butte's children playing in dirty streets-the same children of the men who toiled deep within Butte's mines turning the city into the richest hill on earth. Mr. Clark put up the funds to provide the young with a magnificent park near the city. On Thursdays children could ride Clark's streetcars to the sprawling park for free. Smells of popcorn and cotton candy permeated the air, for Columbia Gardens opened daily from Memorial Day until the snow fell.

Butte's public and parochial schools wouldn't think of holding their proms or commencements anywhere except the Columbia Gardens Pavilion. Even weddings were held in the enormous round echoing hulk of a building with it's vaulted ceilings and hundreds of paned windows. Whenever billboards touted a large civic event, most of Montana converged upon the pavilion to swing and sway to the Guy Lombardos and Tommy Dorseys of the day.

After Clark's death, the Anaconda Mining Company bought Columbia Gardens. Although it was a losing venture, the company made significant expansions while honoring Clark's wish to keep admission free. The improvements included refurbishing the carousel, bi-plane rides, a rebuilt roller coaster and even lovelier flower gardens. The park became the love of Butte and great envy of the rest of Montana while the states largest American flag fluttered above.

It was my honor, as the nation's first lady Boy Scout Executive, to announce Wednesday as scouting day at the Gardens. Boy and Girl Scouts were invited to ride the busses free, participate in morning programs in the pavillion, a free sack lunch, and afternoon fun under the guidance and leadership of countless mothers. Bus loads from surrounding communities participated, the program a great success for a number of years until the boom was lowered.

As people danced and relaxed and played at the mountain oasis, Anaconda's open pit mining interests inched closer and closer. The Company stated that the Gardens was sitting upon a vein of valuable minerals and would be excavated as an open pit copper mine. In early 1972, plans were announced to scrap the Gardens despite thunderous shouts of opposition. The Gardens opened for the last time on Labor Day, 1973 to thousands of mourners.

Buildings and all amusement park equipment was unceremoniously torn down. Very little was saved. Never was a town so sad as when it cast a tearful eye upon ugly and barren mounds of dirt. A "Save The Gardens" group was formed, and with $520,000 donation from the Anaconda Company, the group set out to move the Gardens to a new location near a local ski area.

Some of the money was used for preparing the grounds, but after 18 months no meetings were called and much of the money was embezzled and squandered by a local attorney. An accounting requested by city fathers was never given and the move of the new Columbia Gardens was never realized. Worst of all, that same year, the beloved carousel mysteriously burned. Of course, some say it was an accident. Some said no, but the people were angry and sad and suspected foul play. Butte was no stranger to foul play.

Today some of the retrieved playground equipment is still used in various parks around the city, it's children having no idea what they play upon. Due to the efforts of hard-working loyal volunteers, a new foundation, "Spirit of the Columbia Gardens Carousel," is working to build a brand new hand-carved and ornately painted carousel. They are mostly retired and talented seniors who fill spaces in meeting rooms, at telephone banks, and in technical research. Their goal is to depict the historical west and celebrate our ethnic backgrounds.

We watch the process throught store front mall windows as replicas of old fashioned turn of the century horses are being constructed with metal cast legs attached to wooden bodies. Their colors are brilliant, highlighted and shaded with metallics and burnishes, each horse different. Their enormous eyes dance and their manes perpetually catch a breeze. The tails resemble the luminous trail of a comet and seem to flit and switch as the horses are moved about the shop. The process is long and tedious and we musn't be impatient.

Each Christmas, children can be seen pressing their noses against mall windows where the completed carousel horses are showcased against a seasonal backdrop. All of Butte marvels at the talent and work that goes into recreating our beloved past. When the rebuilding of the horses commenced, the thought of a brand new band organ wasn't even a gleam in the foundation's eye. Now that the horses are many, the foundation is asking Butte and all of Montana to show their pride to the tune of $55,000. The music will happen.

Today the Spirit of Columbia Gardens Carousel foundation is putting Glory, a wooden Andalusian horse, up for auction on eBay in an effort to raise money to finish their carousel project. Andalusians were the horses of royalty. Glory's iridescent opal and gold flank sports a Spanish saddle and silver trappings and will be the victory horse for the carousel started 12 years ago.

Just where the horses will eventually stable and become available for the pleasure of Montana families, is up to the foundation. One thing is for sure, the hard-working and beautiful people of Butte will build a place deserving of our heritage and the toil of our volunteers. Nobody can take this away because the Columbia Gardens Carousel was a treasure more valuable than all the copper, silver, and gold taken from the mines.

- 2004
Kathe Campbell