Office buildings were also added and the first occupants opened their doors in 1999. Alan, along with his wife Nancy, were instrumental in getting ExplorationWorks going. The pair donated the land and provided funding to help make it possible. Also in the works at this time was the long cultivated desire planted in a young Nicholson’s mind as he marveled at the carnival rides in his childhood: a carousel. Creating the carousel was a five-year project. From the beginning, the plan was to make a piece of moving art that would stand the test of time and be an enchanting ride enjoyed for generations to come. When the National Carousel Association’s convention was held in Helena in 2010, they declared our town’s carousel to be the finest carousel in the country, maybe even the world. Each animal was hand-carved out of basswood by Ed Roth, an artist from Long Beach, California, who came from a long line of woodcarvers. His artwork is included in the Disney Carousel in Japan. However, getting a world-famous woodcarver to interrupt Disney projects to create pieces for a small town in Montana was no easy feat. Nicholson chuckles as he recounts reaching out many times, with no reply. “He didn’t respond because he didn’t think I was serious. A carousel in Montana? He thought I was nuts, which I admitted on the spot.” The animals are all hand-painted by Spokane’s own Bette Largent. She has earned the reputation of being one of the best carousel painters in the world. With riders climbing on and off all year, wear and tear is inevitable. Each year, a local artist comes in to touch up the animals so they look fresh and new again. Helena artist Mary Harris created many stained glass pieces that can be seen throughout the carousel building, including the rounding boards at the top depicting Helena wildlife scenes. A stained glass piece once belonging to the original Broadwater Hotel, which Nicholson won at an auction, can also be seen in the space. The rods, cogs and other mechanisms that make the carousel go round were made by Todd Goings of Ohio. He is one of the few specialists who build mechanisms for these nostalgic machines. He travels to Helena every couple of years to fine-tune the carousel himself, ensuring it is operating safely and optimally. Almost 2,000 light bulbs warmly set the
PHOTOS & WRITING by EMILY CLEWIS G R E AT NO R T H E R N C A R O U S E L 989 Carousel Way, Helena, MT The Great Northern Carousel is a Helena treasure, a love letter to the town thoughtfully written by founder Alan Nicholson and his family. Partnering exclusively with experts from the carousel community, the landmark boasts both the appearance and experience of excellence and fun. Occupying space in the Great Northern Town Center, the ride is conveniently located next to ExplorationWorks, making it a hub of family enjoyment. The seeds of such amusement were planted early in the life of a young Alan Nicholson. Growing up in the small town of Roundup, Montana, he and his friends would feel the rush of excitement when the circus came to town. “Us kids would go watch ‘em put up all the tents and all the rides and things,” Nicholson remembers fondly. “And I always loved riding the carousel. It’s a fond memory of my childhood. All the excitement around that every summer.” After obtaining degrees in math and science at Montana State University and a master’s at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, Nicholson was brought to Helena as a math and science supervisor with the state. It was then he began taking steps to develop sections of downtown Helena. When he began this work, many historic buildings—including the Power Block, New York Block and Gold Block—were falling apart and abandoned. Some were even condemned or on the verge of demolition. Energized by a government push for urban renewal, Nicholson acted. “I was pretty naive back then and I thought, ‘That would be a pretty nice thing to do and it might even turn out to be profitable.’ So, I did that.” On a roll with vision and success in renewal endeavors, he set his sights on a new project: the lot where Helena’s first railroad depot had been. Riddled with weeds, long unused train tracks, and abandoned buildings, Nicholson slowly turned the plot into today’s Great Northern Town Center. Driven by the desire to create a new center of entertainment for the city, the area was designed to include restaurants, hotels and a movie theatre.
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