Helena’s Great Northern Carousel: A Place of Art and Ice Cream– but Mostly Ice Cream


Kaylyn Barns, Writer

Photo credit: Kaitlyn Tabbert

Helena’s beloved Great Northern Carousel is again up and running as of Friday, November 25th, glad to be welcoming community members to come in and take Cutty the Fish, Gulliver the Goat, or one of its other 35 other animals for a spin, after its latest closure in late September of 2022.

Montana-born Alan Nicholson was the mastermind behind the entirety of the Great Northern Town Center, the carousel being a long-held childhood dream. Since moving to Helena in 1970, Nicholson had been involved in real estate and development throughout the downtown area.

Prior to pursuing a career in real estate, Nicholson had been involved in education, admittingly not knowing much about development when he started out. “A place of ignorance had its advantages,” Nicholson said, “sometimes the more you know, the more you question” (article written by Alana Listoe, published in Independent Record 2014).

He first spotted the land in the 1980s, but his efforts to buy the plot from Burlington Northern Railroad proved futile.

In what many would describe as barren and desolate, Nicholson could see a brighter future for the piece of land, a future including more than a lonely field and former train depot.

When, due to a constraint on the maximum appraisal price, the City of Helena could not purchase the plot in the 1990s from then-owner Montana Rail Link, Nicholson finally bought the land, according to the Great Northern Town Center website. Working alongside city authorities, Nicholson proposed two concepts in 1988: 1) to subdivide it and sell it; 2) to create a community center similar to what we know today.

Although splitting and selling the area was viable, Nicholson and fellow city officials preferred the idea of keeping the land under one ownership and creating a bustling attraction in which residents and tourists alike could enjoy themselves.

Based on a five-part plan, Nicholson and the city defined the characteristics of a “great place” as the following: Where the people are, where you take your friends and people you love, scaled for people yet accommodating to automobiles, a place with integrity, vitality, and a sense of permanence, with varied and interesting architecture, and with a feeling of safety and convenience, according to the website.

New codes and zoning rules were passed, enabling Nicholson’s vision to come to life. Construction began in 1998.

On the Carousel’s web page, Alan now wishes visitors enjoyment and wonder. “May it be a place where the everyday world is left in the dust while you and your critter leap with boundless energy along the most glorious trails of your imagination.”

Mary Harris: Local Glass Artist

Although appreciated–yet not always recognized–as a work of art, the carousel could have only been brought to life by the dozens of skilled artists, craftsmen, and innovators across the country who worked long hours with not much more than their imaginations.

Fourteen stained glass scenery panels line the top of the carousel, 13 of which were hand-drawn, designed, and created by local glass artist Mary Harris. The last scenery panel, a board titled “Great Northern Carousel,” was drawn by another artist, but created by Harris.

Each panel represents a uniquely-Helena scene, a rarity within the world of carousels itself, tying itself into the community so evidently.

The more one looks at the artistry, the more personalized details one can find, such as a depiction of Spring Meadow Lake in the background of one of the panels.

Scenery panels include Reeder’s Alley, the Bluestone House–a former home involving a mysterious history, near the fire tower of downtown Helena–and depiction of the Capitol Building. In honor of a Helenan legend about a military plane flying sideways between St. Helena Cathedral towers, Harris included a plane in one of the panels, along with the numbers 01, corresponding to the year the carousel was built (Bluestone information by Marga Lincoln, Helena Independent Record article).


Harris, born in Wisconsin, has lived in Helena for 35 years, while engaging in the glass business for about 40 years.

Inspired by a local Milwaukee glass shop, Bet Your Glass, Harris took two classes as an introduction to glass art–a $25 gift from her husband that would flourish into a lifelong hobby and career. After the classes concluded, Harris continued, self-taught, making her style and pieces even more personal and unique throughout the country.

Harris takes pride in being self-taught, noting that “you develop your own style and technique,” different from any other person in the world. “When you see somebody else’s work, you have a tendency to copy their work, or take ideas from them; mine is completely [original].”

Ed Roth: Sculptor and Woodcarver

Ed Roth of southern California has been designing, sculpting, and woodcarving for nearly all his life. Known as “the most prolific master wood carver of his generation,” Roth has completed crafts around the world, from California to Hong Kong.

Around 2000, Ed Roth was recommended to Nicholson by the then-president of the National Carousel Association. He was asked to begin carving carousel animals for an envisioned project called The Great Northern Carousel. Nicholson requested some animals; others were left completely to Roth’s own imagination. All animals, with one exception, are native to Montana: trout, bison, grizzly, dinosaur, and even a frog.

At the time, Roth was completing projects in Tokyo Disneyland and Peddler’s Village, Pennsylvania.

The carving of 37 of the characters took three years to complete; two of the animals were not finished until after the Grand Opening in 2002.

What may be the most popular animal, attracting children of all ages, is known as Titan, the seahorse. The character was Roth’s idea to design and include, signifying the personal spark of fantasy creations found in his future work.

Lupin the wolf, another notable animal, was one of Nicholson’s “must-haves,” according to Roth. At the time, debate over the management and protection of wolves in Montana was a controversial topic.

Roth was drawn to Nicholson’s enthusiasm for the project, and what Nicholson could bring to the community. In an email response, Roth recalls, “Alan explained he was bringing something unique to his community. He was very proud of what he was adding to the town’s heritage: a place that celebrates Montana history, a custom carousel, children’s museum, and a unique shopping experience–a place to gather. He truly loves his state.”

This carousel is particularly memorable and cherished by Roth and his family alike. “We have a great amount of affection for this carousel and the wonderful family that poured their heart into this carousel and community.”

Community Value

Carousels, once dotting the nation’s most iconic attractions, are now often a relic of the past. Under the Big Sky, however, this carousel continues to be celebrated by young and old alike, residents and those just passing through, by both its past and future; the carousel continues to provide children of all ages with an opportunity to seek adventure and lighthearted fun just down the street. From the bright lights to the fair music, the playful atmosphere draws us in, capturing us by our imaginations.

Jefferson Elementary School second-graders concur: There is a lot to love (and celebrate) about The Great Northern Carousel:

“My favoret part is you can go on the cerisel and you can get ice creme and sometimes you can get freay rids,” by Elsie 

“My forait thig is the ride,” by Finn

“I like the carousel because of the rings you can toas into the clown,” by Silas

“My faveret thing about the carousel is theres a lot of animals to chose from,” by Ethan

“My favorite part about the carousel was going up and down,” by Declan

“…ice creme,” by Quinn

“…ice cream,” by Elenor

“…Ice cream,” by Elio

“…I love the ice cream,” by Addison

If you haven’t already, now is a better time than ever to head down to The GNC, and take your favorite animal for a spin–and grab an ice cream for the ride!