FAR-FETCHED IDEAS ARE RARELY met with unbridled enthusiasm. But when word got out five years ago that cabinet installer and novice whittler Chuck Kaparich, 47, had begun hand-carving a carousel in the garage next to his one-story wood-frame house in Missoula, Mont., his neighbors were charmed by the idea. In fact, hundreds eventually volunteered to chisel, sand and paint and to help raise the $750,000 needed to complete the masterwork, which was being donated to a local park. "Chuck said that he intended to finish it no matter how long it took," recalls Mayor Daniel Kemmis, an early supporter. "It was pretty strange, but he was sincere."

Indeed, Kaparich's creation—thought to be the country's first hand-carved merry-go-round since 1932—is Missoula's new mane attraction. Since its inaugural spin in May in Caras Park, close to 100,000 visitors have ponied up the 50-cent fare to revel in its ups and downs. "I rode a bucking horse," says Gladys Pancake, 72. "It was the biggest thrill I've had in years."

A Butte, Mont., native who can still recall his first carousel ride at age 4, Kaparich was inspired in 1990 after seeing a 1909 merry-go-round in Spokane, Wash., built by American carver Charles Looff. "Until then, I didn't realize that true carousels had wooden horses," Kaparich says. "I was blown away." With the support of wife Beth, 52, a schoolteacher, Kaparich and his crew spent between 400 and 1,000 hours carving each of the 38 basswood horses and two chariots. "Everyone took so much pride in this," he says. "If I had hired people, it wouldn't be as nice." Now a local hero, Kaparich insists the notoriety was never his intent. "If I provide 3 minutes of happiness on a wooden pony," he says, "that's enough for me."