North Tonawanda museum to celebrate 100 years of the Allan Herschell Co.
By Jill Keppeler
Over the course of its time in North Tonawanda, more than 3,000 carousels pranced out of the Allan Herschell Co. factory to homes around the world. However, not a single one stayed in the city that produced so many of the attractions -- until 1983, when the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum was born.
Rae Proefrock, the director of the museum and one of the original members of the Carousel Society of the Niagara Frontier, said it started in 1979, when the then-director of the Carnegie Art Center ran a notice in the local newspaper, seeking people who'd like to bring a carousel to the city.
Not long before that, Proefrock said, she, her husband and their children had been in Washington, D.C., and encountered a carousel on the National Mall.
"And of course with two small children, you had to go right to the carousel, to ride it. And when we did that, there was this large, really large, sign saying this was a national treasure, made in North Tonawanda, New York And so was the band organ that was playing, also made in North Tonawanda," she said. "So, when I saw this article in the newspaper, we thought, we really ought to help, because there's never been a carousel put up in the City of North Tonawanda.
"Nearly 3,000 went out of here, all over the world ... and we'd never had one."
Carousel history in NT
The history of the carousel in North Tonawanda is a lengthy one, but that's not how Herschell started out. In 1872, he started a foundry in the city with partner James Armitage, Proefrock said. Then a chance trip in the early 1880s changed everything.
"He visited a doctor in New York City, and on the way, he saw one of the first American-made carousels, made by the Dare Company in New York City. And he just knew this was going to be a money-making machine," she said. "And he also knew we had a lot of lumber along the river. We had a great transportation system with the canal and the railroads in Western New York. And we had a lot of German immigrant woodcarvers in the area.
"Plus, in the foundry, he was already making the most difficult part of the carousel, which was the steam boiler to propel it. So with all those in place, it was the perfect place to start to make carousels. And that's what he did. That was 1883, the first one. And by 1900, they were making a carousel a day."
The Armitage Herschell Co. went bankrupt shortly after 1900 and Herschell reformed with his brother-in-law, Ed Spillman, as the Herschell-Spillman Co. That company operated until 1913, when the Spillman Engine Co. was founded and Herschell retired --- only to create the Allan Herschell Co. himself two years later.
One hundred years later, the museum operates in the buildings where the company was based at its founding. This year marks not only the 100th anniversary of the company's inception, but also 100 years of continuous operation.
Not all of those years were in NT. In the decades after Herschell's death in 1927, the company changed hands a few times, moving into Buffalo in the 1950s and eventually being sold to Chance Manufacturing in Wichita, Kansas, where it was operated as the Allan Herschell division. In 1998, Chance sold the division ... which was purchased by the Carousel Society of the Niagara Frontier. Today, it no longer manufactures rides and carousels, but it provides maintenance parts for the Allan Herschell rides that are still in operation around the country, Proefrock said.
The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Allan Herschell Co. this fall. The wood-carving floor exhibit is shown and, below, a collection of carousel animals is shown.
The path to the museum
For all that carousel history in NT, as Proefrock noted, it wasn't really well known. The creation of the society in 1979 aimed to change that.
"There were about 10 people initially," she recalled from her office in the museum on Thompson Street. "What we did was collect $1 from each person for postage and sent letters out to people around the city, telling them what we would like to do, looking for more interest. And it just went on from there."
In the fall of 1979, the early members of the society went through the building where the company had been located. It wasn't easy. At the time, it was owned by a motor sales and repairs business that used it for storage and was "stuffed, floor to ceiling, two floors, with just junk," Proefrock said.
The society rented the former factory and started cleaning it out, a lengthy process. But something was missing ... and members found it in London, Ontario.
The 1916 No. 1 Special carousel was one of the first machines shipped from the company after it opened for business. It had been purchased by a man who had been the ride operator at a local park as a teenager, Proefrock said, but had been in storage since the 1950s. It could find a new life at the upcoming museum ... but first, money had to be raised to purchase it.
"(Volunteers) walked the entire two cities, Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, and offered (residents) a family ride ticket if they would donate $5," Proefrock said. "We said someday it would be good for a ride on the carousel. We ended up collecting $10,000 for the down payment. Plus it told everyone what we were going to do, and about the project."
By spring 1983, it was time, she said. "We traveled to London with 30 trucks, like a parade, and brought it back.
"It was kind of fun coming back over the bridge, because right in front of us ... there was a man with two live horses and they gave him so much trouble. We walked up to the inspector and said, 'We have 36 horses!' The guy almost died. It was such fun. I said, 'But they're wooden!' And it just happened to be a person from NT, so he really did know what we were doing."
Once back home in North Tonawanda, the carousel was set up in the original roundhouse, which had been loaned to the society. The museum was open for the first Canal Fest, in 1983.
"And then over that winter, we actually purchased the building," Proefrock said. "And in March of 1984, with a really heavy, wet, 3 feet of snow, the roof collapsed over the top of the carousel. We had to dig through all that snow and get it all out."
A new roundhouse was eventually constructed, and the carousel restored to it. Countless other improvements have also been made to the old buildings over the years, Proefrock said, but the museum, and the society, soldier on.
"We've had a lot of ups and downs, but we've always had great volunteers, donors, foundations, government officials," she said. "We've had a lot of support over the years."
The museum today
Today, the museum welcomes 12,000 to 13,000 guests a year to
its complex of buildings on Thompson Street. It's listed on both the New York
National Registers of Historic Places. In the roundhouse, the 1916 carousel still carries its riders around and around, as does the 1940s aluminum child-sized carousel in the Children's Gallery, which also includes a variety of other activities for the museum's younger visitors.
Other features at the museum include the Lockman Collection, purchased by the society in 1995, which documents the changes in carousel animals over the course of 60 years. It features horses both carved and molded, as well as other animals such as an ostrich, a dog and a rooster.
The wood-carving shop exhibit showcases the workshop where numerous carousel horses were created over the years, sometimes with a carver demonstrating the art. The Wurlitzer Music Roll department shows off a one-of-a-kind exhibit of equipment used to produce paper music rolls used in band organs to create that distinctive sound so often associated with a carousel. More than 1,600 hand-punched original master music rolls are on display, and the machinery is still used to make new ones for sale.
This is the area of expertise for Doug Hershberger of North Tonawanda, a volunteer at the museum. Herschberger has a real passion for the subject and a wealth of information about the band organ's history in North Tonawanda.
In 1893, there were five different band organ makers "all within walking distance of where we're standing," he said recently at the museum. "A huge percentage of band organs were built here.
"All from North Tonawanda, city of music. That's my focus, celebrating that. Everyone knows the sound of a merry-go-round. All of that music you recognize came from right here."
Last year, the museum purchased an Artizan Style "D" Band Organ, produced sometime between 1922 and 1930 in North Tonawanda. Its music often welcomes visitors to the museum now. (There are also three other organs on display.)
In 2013, a long-awaited dream came true as the museum opened its Kiddieland Testing Park (so named because local children used to be invited to test out the rides) in an adjacent yard. The park is home to four vintage Kiddieland rides, all produced at the factory. Three ran for years at the former Page's Whistle Pig in the Town of Niagara, while one came from a private donor.
A new exhibit celebrates the 100-year mark for the company, with a timeline of photos, articles and facts; portraits of prominent people involved in the company; and a list of known company workers compiled by volunteer Bill Clark. There are 1,200 names on the list, but visitors will be encouraged to add to it if they know someone is missing.
The exhibit will officially open as part of a special event celebrating the 100th anniversary from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 3 at the museum.
The Wurlitzer Music Roll department is shown.
'Yet here we are'
On the timeline in the exhibit is a photo from the very beginning of the museum. It shows the building complex on Thompson Street, discolored and shabby and surrounded by brush, decades after the company departed.
Today, the face of the building is a bright, candy-apple red; the words "merry-go-rounds," "road carrousels" and others painted in white. The bright colors of the Kiddieland rides can be seen in their space next to it.
Fall hours mean those present during a recent Monday were volunteers and (the few) employees, continuously working to make sure the building is ready for its next open hours and events.
Mary Eichler of North Tonawanda, who cleans at the museum and also volunteers there, said it's been good to see.
"I love the fact someone took the time to do something like this," she said, taking a break from dusting in the wood-carving gallery. "It takes a lot of caring about the history. People really do care. It's for the community, and it's for the kids."
Shirley Burgess, office events manager, has been at the museum for eight years. She said the progress has been exciting.
"We've done a lot in those eight years, seeing Kiddieland go up and now the education building," she said. "Different exhibits have opened, things that people have donated. ... Just to see the stuff coming back to life again and seeing people come to see it. It's so cool."
The next step for the museum is the ongoing renovation of a small separate building, the former office building for the company, adjacent to the complex. Proefrock said the building was sold off separately in 1959 and kept as a private residence for years, enduring two fires along the way. The museum bought it several years ago and has used it for storage, but now workers are refurbishing it as a new education center to hold classrooms and meeting space.
The restoration is being paid for through grants from Empire State Development and the state Thruway Authority, Proefrock said. It should be completed by the end of the year.
The whole complex has come a long way since the first walk-through in the late 1970s.
"The reason I wanted to get involved is because I was teaching fifth grade at Drake School ... and my class knew nothing about this heritage," Proefrock said. "You could ask them, 'What are you proud of?' 'What do you like about your city?' ... They had no idea.
"I thought this would be a good thing to bring back our history and give children something they could relate to and be proud of about their city. That's my motivation."
Hershberger said the road to the museum has been "amazing."
"Our history from the beginning is an amazing succession of miracles," he said. "Have you ever seen a photo of this building before Rae and her friends decided to acquire it?
"No one in their right mind would have ever dreamed a dream so big, yet here we are."
WHERE & WHEN
A celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Allan Herschell Co. will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 3. In honor of the anniversary, admission will be $1. Ride tokens will be 50 cents.
The event will feature demonstrations in the music roll shop, wood-carving gallery and restoration department. The 100th Year Anniversary exhibit will be unveiled. There also will be games and activities for children and the creation of a time capsule.