Tonawanda News

July 14, 2013

Still spinning

Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum celebrates 30 years in NT

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — At this museum, going around in circles is a good thing.

While the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum on Thompson Street in North Tonawanda prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary with events and new attractions, it’s been a long trip — and a lot of hard work — to get there. 

Rae Proefrock, who currently serves as the museum director, was one of the original group of volunteers all those years ago. She said that a former director of the Carnegie Art Center wrote a piece in the Tonawanda News asking if anyone would be interesting in bringing the carrousel back to North Tonawanda.

“I went to the first meeting and we started to plan — and then he left and went somewhere else. And it was all us,” she said while painting one of the carrousel ponies recently at the museum. “We sat around the table, about seven to 10 of us. We each placed a dollar on the table for postage so we could tell people what we were trying to do. That’s how it started.”

The building where thousands of carrousels were produced over the years now hosts thousands of visitors each year, but at the time, in 1979, the 1915 Allan Herschell Company factory complex — then owned by a nearby auto sales and repair business which used it for storage — was not in the best of shape.

“You would not believe what it looked like,” Proefrock said. “You know the fairy tale where the thorns grew up all over the castle? The building was covered with all kinds of wild growth. In the building itself, you could not walk from front to back.”

Doug Bathke, the president of the museum’s board, volunteer curator and wood-carving teacher at the museum, was also one of those early volunteers.

“It looked like if you sneezed, the building would fall down,” Bathke said, recalling that the space that is now the museum’s courtyard was full of garbage, whiskey bottles, pop cans and other debris. 

“It took a full crew working Saturdays for a month to discover there was something respectable beneath that,” he said. “It was a little bit shocking for us.”

The company initially allowed the group to use the roundhouse, Proefrock said. In 1981, they located the large 1916 Allen Herschell No. 1 Special carrousel in Canada and began working to purchase it, with volunteers criss-crossing the entire city and the City of Tonawanda to sell yellow tickets for $2, with proceeds going to the down payment.

“Eventually it would be good for a family ride on the carrousel,” Proefrock said. “I would tell people to put it in their jewelry box and eventually they’d find it there with other treasures. Years later, we still got some of those yellow tickets. I even had a few people say, ‘I found it in my jewelry box!’ “

The ticket campaign raised $10,000. The group brought the carrousel back in 1982 and started working to restore it, opening the ride in time for the first Canal Fest in July 1983. At first, Proefrock said, it was just the roundhouse and the carrousel within, open every other day.

“Because on alternate days, we had to repair it,” she said. “Something was always going wrong.”

The group purchased the building, but disaster struck in March 1984, less than a year after the carrousel’s opening. A heavy March snowstorm collapsed the roundhouse, bringing three feet of dense snow and the roof down onto the carrousel. When the group dug things out, however, Proefrock said, things were not nearly as disastrous as they could have been. 

“The only thing that was broken was one of the sweeps,” she said, referring to one of the ride’s support beams. “It could have all been matchsticks.”

Still, the carrousel needed new shelter. The following spring, volunteers strung a tent from a two-story portion of the building to a chimney (both of which no longer exist) and operated the carrousel within — for about the next six years.

About 1990, the roof was repaired, the carrousel moved back to its home and Proefrock started writing grants. “Then we just kept going from there.”

The building and the 1916 carrousel were added to the New York state and National Registers of Historic Places. Slowly, but steadily, exhibits were added as portions of the buildings were spruced up and reconstructed. The museum acquired a small 1940s children’s carrousel, which had been restored as a hobby by a Wisconsin man who then donated it.

The building now has a good roof, and the past few years have been focused on replacing and repairing the things that don’t show, such as the wiring, plumbing and sprinkler system, Proefrock said. “It was a big project, but the building is in good shape.”

For approximately two years, attention has been turned to a new project, something Proefrock calls “a dream come true.” 

The museum’s side yard at Thompson and Vandervoort streets now holds the new Kiddieland section, featuring a pony cart ride, kiddie helicopter ride and kiddie boat ride from the old Page’s Whistle Pig in Niagara Falls, as well as a kiddie car ride from another donor. All were constructed in the 1940s and 1950s in the building that now houses the museum.

While Proefrock had hoped the area would be open for the anniversary this week, it’s going to be a little bit longer — although, if all goes well, it will be soon.

Ed Janulionis, treasurer of the museum board, also runs Allan Herschell Company, which sells parts of all the Herschell rides produced over the years. He noted that the new area commemorates an important part of the history of the company that many people don’t realize.

“Kiddieland represents a facet of the company a lot of locals don’t realize,” he said, “in that they built a lot of rides other than carrousels. A lot of folks will think carrousels and that’s the end of it. No.”

In fact, from 1946 to 1970, approximately 2,500 rides were produced by the company, he said — and only 400 were carrousels.

Janulionis became involved with the museum, and then the company, in the early 1980s after attending a lecture at the Town of Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society by Allan Herschell, the grandson of the Allan Herschell of carrousel fame. He’s been active with both ever since.

“Even though we are considered a local venue, a lot of our visitation is from out of state, out of the country, people from Europe and Asia,” he said. “That’s also interesting to me, that there’s still an interest in carrousels and the amusement ride industry. I don’t think a lot of locals realize this part. (The museum is) small, but it’s known nationally and internationally.”

Bathke said the museum’s collection of industry documents, including Herschell catalogues, is also something of which many local residents are unaware.

“We really have an intensive collection,” he said. “I seems like people go to us or the Smithsonian; we have quite the repository. It’s really been a neat journey that way. People walk in and they don’t know the full depth of what history is there. It’s just amazing.

“It’s like Niagara Falls, really. It’s in your own backyard, but how many locals go there each year? It was such an important industry in town that happened to touch the entire world, that most people don’t realize.”

Proefrock said she now sees those first children who rode on the newly opened museum carrousel return with their own children — and sometimes grandchildren. That’s what it’s all about, she said.

“Riding the carrousel and watching people having a good time,” she said. “Listening to the seniors sing along to the musical. Babies crying at first because they don’t want to get on ... and then again when they don’t want to get off. Just watching families having a good time together. I love seeing the families enjoying themselves.”

IF YOU GO • WHAT: Events marking the 30th anniversary of the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum. • WHEN: A 30th anniversary celebration will take place noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free, with fees for rides and food. The event includes themed crafts and activities, songs and stories about the Erie Canal by Dave Ruch at 1 p.m., hot dogs, popcorn and an ice cream social. A Carrousel Chat: Going in Circles -- and Getting Somewhere! by museum director Rae Proefrock will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The event will feature a look at the history of the museum and its future. • WHERE: Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, 180 Thompson St., North Tonawanda. • FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 693-1885, email or visit