Tonawanda News

August 31, 2013

The stories behind Kiddieland

Rides, area at new museum exhibit have a history all their own

By Jill Keppeler jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — When the long-awaited Kiddieland exhibit, with its four working Herschell rides, opens to the public today at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, it marks the culmination of dozens of stories under the overarching theme of a museum with a dream.

Here are a few of them:

•••

Architect Michael Bray grew up around the museum, which holds portraits of his great-great-grandfather Wallace Olver (in the roundhouse) and great-grandfather Ward Olver (in the wood shop). His father, Ward Bray, was one of the original group of people who worked toward a carrousel museum in North Tonawanda, and still volunteers there.

So when museum director Rae Proefrock was seeking an architect to help with the Kiddieland project, she said, she knew exactly who to call.

“Michael’s been here since he was a little boy, coming to ride the carrousel,” she said. “We knew he was an architect; we knew we needed some help with the shelters. And he did everything. It was amazing.”

Wallace and Ward Olver were artists, designing carrousels, painting murals and carving horses for Herschell-Spillman Co. and Allen Herschell Co. Bray assisted with art of another sort, working close to 400 hours pro bono to create civil engineering drawings dealing with site layout, designing foundations and ride structures, working with contractors and dealing with issues including zoning, electrical and drainage — and, as he put it, putting all the pieces together.

“As an architect, I have to take that project under my wing and sign and stamp the drawing and hold myself responsible for what’s designed and what’s out there,” he said. “I’m just grateful the carrousel recognized that need and came to me for that.”

Besides a professional success, the project was also very personally rewarding for the great-great-grandson and great-grandson of artists who worked on countless pieces of work in the building adjacent to where the Kiddieland exhibit now stands. 

“I’m just glad the museum got the outcome that it did. It’s really going to contribute not only to the museum’s success, but to North Tonawanda’s success,” Bray said of Kiddieland. “There’s going to be a lot more folks coming to that museum, I think.”

“Things just fell into place, almost like it was meant to be.”

•••

Sam Hummel of North Carolina thought so.

Proefrock said Hummel called her out of the blue one day and offered the museum his 1940s kiddie car and fire truck ride, even offering to transport it to North Tonawanda. 

“He just said he had this ride and would we like it?” she said. “We couldn’t turn it down. And I think they were so pleased to see where it ended up and how it ended up, and how it was restored.”

Hummel, who asserted at last week’s dedication of the exhibit that “All good rides have a story,” has many of them about the ride, which he purchased in the mid-1970s after reading an ad in an automotive magazine. The local arts council, he said, had been looking for a way to bring more people to a festival supporting the Carolina Theatre, and he thought the ride would be a good draw.

He bought it sight unseen ... and without telling his wife.

“My wife was at church with the kids,” Hummel recalled. “She came back and said, ‘What ... is ... that ...’”

The marriage survived. So did the ride. They rebuilt the floors and put new seats in, and with other kiddie rides purchased by other arts supporters, it became a fixture of the festival.

“It was a big hit right from the beginning,” Hummel said. “The place would draw 80,000 people. It was a big hit and we had a lot of fun running them for that period of time. It’s beautifully built; we enjoyed learning how to make it work and respect the engineering skill involved. We had a wonderful time.”

Eventually, the rides’ run at the festival faded. Hummel said he and his cohorts gave them to the City of Greensboro for use in a kiddie park ... but after they sat in a warehouse for years, he said, “I simply went down there and said, ‘We want them back.’ “

At some point after that, the Hummels were vacationing in Canada, heard about the Carrousel Factory Museum and decided to stop in on their way home. They arrived nearly at closing, took a whirlwind tour ... and the eventual home of the little car ride was sealed.

“I could tell she had the energy to pull this thing off,” he said of Proefrock. “I could tell y’all were doing an absolutely fantastic job in preservation with the resources you had.

“I wanted it to be in a place where it would be appreciated and used. What you’re doing up there is an absolute miracle.”

The Hummels attended last week’s dedication of the exhibit, and Sam Hummel helped to cut the ribbon on his beloved ride. He spoke about how he had the timing of it down to a science (to maximize anticipation in waiting children) and about how he’d collected “so many grins” from children riding it over the years.

“I’m going to keep those grins,” he told those attending the dedication, “and you can start collecting them from here on out.”

•••

Generations of Western New York children grew up riding the rides at Page’s Whistle Pig in the Town of Niagara, at the corner of what is now the intersection of Packard and Military roads. And Peter Page grew up with them.

Three of those rides -- a helicopter, boat ride and pony cart ride -- now have new homes at the Kiddieland exhibit, and Page couldn’t be happier that they’ve found a new life.

“If my father was here now,”  he told those at the dedication last week, “he would be so proud.”

Page’s Whistle Pig, an area institution, was opened in 1939 by Pete Page, Page’s grandfather. The rides, so familiar to generations of Niagara-area children, were a later addition by his father, Bernie Page, starting in 1950 with the pony cart ride that now will run at the museum.

Like all the rides, it has a story. Bernie Page had originally purchased 12 real ponies to give rides to children at the site, Peter Page said. That plan, unfortunately, was ill-fated.

“This ride came to Page’s because a horse bit my sister,” he said, motioning to the pony cart ride. “This ride here replaced those ponies.”

More rides came and went throughout the years, with many people who helped keep them up and running. The last year they ran was 2006, Peter Page said. Then the Proefrocks approached him on behalf of the museum ... and the rest is history. 

“It’s wonderful. I’m sure my father’s happy,” he said. “His spirit was behind me saying, ‘Do it.’ “

Rae Proefrock said they were able to come to a deal that pleased both sides.

“I think he was happy to know they were staying nearby,” she said of Page. “We had contacted them in the past, and said we’d be interested in case he sold them.”

Although the days of Page’s Whistle Pig have passed, Page is still full of stories about the rides, their operation and those who have ridden them over the years, including couples headed to their senior proms, a group of FBI agents (who wanted to ride the helicopters) and even members of the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds. 

However, he’s looking forward to showing them to a few very special young riders sometime this opening weekend.

“It will be our first chance to show the rides to our grandchildren, this batch of grandchildren,” he said, “and we’re looking forward to that.”

•••

There are more stories and thank-yous behind the new exhibit, from extensive work done on the rides by Powers Great American Midway, Steve Baldo Ford, Carubba Collision (which estimated more than 225 man hours went into refurbishing the boats), an Orleans-Niagara BOCES auto body class and others, to the fairy garden created by Menne Nursery, and to funding obtained from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, the Niagara County Greenway Fund, Lumber City Development Corp. and more.

Proefrock said it all adds up to a dream come true.

“There were so many people involved who just put all their effort and energy into doing this,” she said. “And even all the contractors paid to do their jobs, they all reduced their prices. They all seemed to have some sort of connection to the rides or the neighborhood or the community.”

Kiddieland will open from noon to 4 p.m. today, Sunday and Monday, and will be open noon to 4 p.m. weekends into the fall, weather permitting. Museum admission, which includes one ride token, is necessary. Additional tokens are available at 50 cents each.

IF YOU GO • WHAT: Kiddieland opening weekend • WHEN: Noon to 4 p.m. today, Sunday and Monday • WHERE: Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, 180 Thompson St., North Tonawanda • COST: Admission to the museum is $6 adults, $5 seniors and $3 children ages 2 to 16. Admission includes one ride token; additional tokens may be purchased for 50 cents. • FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 693-1885 or visit carrouselmuseum.org.