North Tonawanda’s Enchanting Carousel Kingdom
By Stephen Cravak
Nestled amongst tree-lined avenues of a Buffalo suburb, resides a hidden gem. A testament to human passion and preservation stands a relic of America’s industrial past and its continued pursuit of amusement. When on Thompson Street in the heart of North Tonawanda, your eyes need to be peeled for a red brick complex built in 1915. Inside its crimson walls organs serenade and horses run wild. You will enter not a re-creation, but a true representation of the past. Welcome to the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum.
The museum has been treating visitors to a merry-go-round of insight into the area’s rich contributions to antique carousels and children’s ride production. The building served as the primary facility for the Allan Herschell Company.
According to Carousel historian and collector Charlotte Dinger, Allan Herschell was born in Scotland in 1851 later emigrating to Buffalo, New York. After seeing a carousel in New York City, he was determined to begin building steam-operated merry-go-rounds. His first company the Armitage Herschell Company was unable to survive two fires and economic downturn. Herschell’s passion for carousels led him to continue on by joining forces with his brother-in-law to form the Herschell-Spillman Company. It’s not surprising that it was a mere 2 years after Herschell’s retirement that he jumped back into the carousel business. Founding the Allan Herschell Company, the fourth carousel producer in North Tonawanda, Herschell competed against the Spillman Engineering Company, who conveniently removed his name.
North Tonawanda carousels were primarily built to be portable for use at carnivals and fairs. While Herschell horses weren’t as elegant as ones in Philadelphia or as lavish as Coney Island carousels, they remain respected pieces among enthusiasts and collectors. For example, museum Director Rae Proefrock has seen rare Ostrich figures sell at auctions for as high as $85,000. Luckily for visitors the museum has one on display among an eclectic menagerie of animals.
Though Allan Herschell died in 1927, the company fledged forward. Production at the North Tonawanda location was moved to new owner Wiesner-Rapp’s facility in Clinton Street in Buffalo. But when Wiesner-Rapp sold the Allan Herschell Company to Chance Manufacturing in 1970, all production was moved to Wichita, Kansas. In less than a decade, a group of concerned North Tonawanda citizens began efforts to keep and restore the building.
It’s comforting to see the amount of love pumped into the museum. It’s certainly not a “gimmicky tourist trap” of the likes across the border on Clifton Hill. Instead, it’s a nationally registered historic site, taking full advantage of its unique location. Disneyland may attract close to 16 million visitors a year, though at the end of the day it’s a for-profit escape from reality. The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum is at the opposite end of the spectrum in that it receives 12 to 13 thousand visitors a year while offering a charitable enchanting trip into historical reality. The non-profit Carousel Society of the Niagara Frontier does more than operate the museum. In 1997, Chance Manufacturing sold them the Allan Herschell Company and all remaining assets.
The museum is modestly priced at $5, exactly half the cost of admission to the Buffalo Zoo, Niagara Aquarium or area museums. Each paid admission also includes a carousel ride, with additional rides costing a mere 50 cents. Though running the museum comes at a premium, and it would benefit from an increase in visitation as the bulk of its budget comes from special events and fundraisers. While only a 20 minute drive from the falls, the residential location may be a large enough speed bump from attracting an onslaught of tourists. The thought of re-locating to a more tourist-friendly location such as the Buffalo Harbor or Niagara Falls has occurred to museum operators. “We would if we could,” says Director Proefrock.
It’s interesting to note there are over a dozen antique carousels in operation across New York state. Specifically, one from Herschell built in 1918 is just an hour and a half away at the National Museum of Play at the Strong in Rochester. Though being located in a once working factory gives the Herschell Factory Museum its charm. Proefrock revels in the magic of the museum’s authentic location, and is proud that they’re the only original factory still standing and viewable to the public. “Of the 120 antique (hand carved) carousels operating in America, an estimated 75 came from North Tonawanda,” says Proefrock.
At the museum you’re re-living history on the very ground where it took place. It’s like the Gettysburg of amusement history. In fact, the spelling name of the museum reflects its authenticity. “We created the Society (which spells it Carousel) before noticing on the building facade that the company spelled it with 2 Rs, so when we named the museum we used the 2.” Such dedication is admirable. Despite the suburban location, the museum’s collection attracts a wide variety of visitors with an estimated 50% coming from out of state.
A 1916 carousel is the museum’s trump card and still spins riders around. Forty feet in diameter with 36 hand carved horses spread across three rows, it has found a permanent home in the very round house where it was once tested before it was shipped out to the buyer. At the time of construction, it was a unique carousel in that it offered “jumping” horses in additional traditional standing horses. The carousel is an iconic representation of the evolution of American merry-go-rounds. Originally erected at Springbank Park in London, Ontario, it was re-located to the Lake Ontario shore in Hamilton, Ontario where it ran until 1959. Complimenting the “#1 Special” model is an operating 1923 Kiddie Carousel.
The museum staff moves just as fast as the carousel horses. Each year sees new exhibits and they also have a trick up their sleeve… a roller coaster in the basement: the Little Dipper coaster from Crystal Beach Park’s kiddieland. Visitors may view the cars and part of the track at the museum, as for the future, Proefrock hopes to one day make it operational. While coaster enthusiasts may have to wait awhile before a coaster credit becomes available in North Tonawanda, the museum is serving up quite an appetizer sampler in late 2012 by re-creating an Allan Herschall Company Kiddieland in an adjacent fenced-in grassy field. The kiddieland will be complete with 4 rides and a pavilion. “We’re waiting for the concrete foundations to be poured before we can begin installation,” says Proefrock, “we hope to have it open by September.”
It’s amazing that all of the rides, artifacts and exhibits are the product of un-paid labor. The building still stands because of individuals who refused to sit down and ignore their neighborhood’s rich history. Proefrock, an educator with 36 years on her belt, was one of the founding trustees of the Carousel Society of the Niagara Frontier. Specifically, all of her work has been without pay. In fact, almost all of the museum’s staff are volunteers. At any time the museum relies on the donated time of 20-25 individuals. If you’re lucky, during your visit you’ll meet Beverleigh O’Neale, at 80 years of age, she’s a fiery soul who used to ride the museum’s 1916 carousel as a child growing up in Canada.
Diligent and creative at fundraising, Proefrock and other trustees have raised over $750,000. The Museum was awarded a grant from the National Historic Society in recognition of the significance of the Wurlitzer Music Roll Shop exhibit. In addition, they’ve worked with the National Carousel Association receiving three separate grants. Though the museum still needs more to keep the grounds running smooth and to add future attractions. Canal Fest, an annual summer celebration between North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda is a major fundraiser. Through sponsorship of the festival’s rides, the museum collects a percentage of the profits.
The museum even offers an interactive way to re-create history in the palm of your hands. Wood carving classes are offered by a master carver in blocks of 4 Saturdays in the very shop where thousands of carousel horses were carved to the perfection decades ago. Visit the website for more info.
Buffalo needs to be on the top of a traveler’s bucket list, especially for those visiting Niagara Falls, the museum is just a quaint 20 minute drive away. The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum isn’t a building filled with artifacts and captions, its living history. Allow at least 2 hours for your visit and be sure to let museum volunteers know how you appreciate their dedication.