By Mary Heyl
“Once around is never enough!” Not only is this the motto of the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, but it’s most likely the phrase on every departing visitor’s tongue, as one visit is just not enough to experience all this unique museum has to offer.
Just 45 miles north of Springville, the museum, located at 180 Thompson St. in North Tonawanda, is one of two remaining complexes in the U.S. that housed the production of wooden carousels. From riding the two carousels to touring the wood carving shop to experiencing the Kiddieland Testing Park, there’s no better time to “bring your family to the museum you can ride!”
Today it’s hard to imagine a time when the carousel was considered an exciting thrill-ride for both children and adults. However, that’s exactly what it was to early amusement-park goers around the turn of the 20th century when Allan Herschell began his career in carousel manufacturing in North Tonawanda. By the time Herschell had founded his own company in 1915, he had been a part of three other companies that manufactured amusement park rides in the area.
Herschell’s company produced over 3,000 hand-carved wooden carousels—more than any rival company—and became a major employer in the Niagara region. His carousels were shipped throughout the U.S. and Canada and internationally to South Africa, India, Tahiti and Mexico. Today there are 148 antique, hand-carved carousels left in the U.S. and Canada and of these, 71 were manufactured in one of Herschell’s four companies.
A visit to the museum’s recreated wood carving shop gives visitors a genuine appreciation for the time and detail that Herschell’s artisans devoted to turning blocks of wood into beautiful carousel animals.
If you have fond memories of riding a miniature train or row boat ride as a small child, you have Herschell to thank for that experience! His company developed the concept of the “Kiddieland,” a group of rides designed for small children.
Outside of the museum, visitors can experience the Kiddieland Testing Park Exhibit from Memorial Day through Labor Day, where four refurbished kiddie rides from the post-World War II era are operational. Although the factory was not considered an amusement park, Herschell’s company invited neighborhood children for a free ride, as the company tested each one before shipping. Today’s littlest visitors can get the same thrill on miniature cars and fire engines, horse and pony carts, helicopters, and floating boats.
Today, the museum complex, which includes seven interconnected structures, is on both the New York State and National Registers of Historic Sites and has been operating as a museum since 1983. More than 15,000 visitors a year come to experience the building as Herschell’s employees once did, as many areas are still intact. The building expanded over the years to accommodate the growing company and included a large carving shop, a woodworking shop, a paint shop, a storage area, an upholstery shop, a machine shop and a roundhouse where carousels were assembled and tested.
Visitors can see two vintage carousels in the museum and, if they’re small enough, can ride both of them! The 1916 #1 Special has 36 hand-carved horses and almost 600 lights—it was one of the first carousels the company shipped after it opened in 1915.
In the Children’s Gallery, the Kiddie Carousel invites smaller visitors to give it a whirl! This small aluminum carousel is from the 1940s and was designed especially for small children so that adults wouldn’t have to accompany them.
The museum also has an impressive collection of band organs; nearly all band organs in the country were made in North Tonawanda. The Artizan Style D, the Wurlitzer Caliola, the Wurlitzer Style 125 Military Band Organ, and the Wurlitzer Style 146 Orchestral Organ are all on display, and visitors can even play the Caliola, which is fully operational.
Saturday, April 1 is the opening day of the season, and the museum is celebrating by hosting Superhero Day, when visitors are invited to ride the carousel as their favorite superhero or villain! Spring hours are in effect from April 1 to June 12: the museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for children ages 2 to 16 and free for children under age 2. For more information, call (716)693-1885 or visit www.carrouselmuseum.org.