September 2019 marked 40 years since the concept of a carrousel museum in North Tonawanda was initiated. 10 people sat around a table in the Carnegie Art Center to discuss the possibility of bringing a carrousel back to North Tonawanda, a city in which more hand carved carrousels were produced than the total of all other US cities that created them. It is difficult to believe that no carrousel was ever set up in a park in the city, despite thousands having been shipped around the world.
Of those ten people, Rae Proefrock and Doug Bathke have continued to be involved with the growth of the museum throughout the 40 years. Allan Herschell, namesake of the Allan Herschell Company founder, joined shortly thereafter and played a significant role in the creation of the museum.
The committee toured the original factory building on Thompson St and determined it would be a wonderful project to restore the building and place a carrousel in its roundhouse. Two big questions quickly arose. How would they raise funds to purchase a carrousel? And how would they tell the community of their plans? A very ambitious action was planned and undertaken. The cities of North Tonawanda and Tonawanda were broken up on maps into walk-able neighborhoods. Many volunteers were recruited to walk each street in the two cities to tell residents of the plan and to ask for a $2 donation. In return each donor was given a yellow ticket that would be good for a family ride when the carrousel was purchased. Over $10,000 was raised for a down payment and everyone was looking forward to the opportunity of a ride for their family.
Allan Herschell and the Proefrocks attended a National Carousel Association convention to tell carrousel enthusiasts of the plans and to ask for contacts to a carrousel for purchase. A perfect carousel was identified. It was most likely the first machine shipped from the Allan Herschell Company factory in March 1916. It also carried two types of Herschell horses. The middle and inner rows of horses were originally mounted on an early 1900s Herschell-Spillman track machine. The outer row carried 12 of the "brand new"
1916 style Allan Herschell horses. Additional fund raising efforts, including selling peanut filled chocolate horses on a stick, raised the balance of the $55,000 for the purchase price,. A trip to London, Ontario with 3 U-Haul trucks brought the carrousel home in 1982. The volunteers who traveled to Canada were welcomed at the factory building by a cheering crowd. All the parts were stored in the closed Gratwick School for the winter, where Al Baker, a senior in high school, rewired the entire machine.
The owner of the factory building agreed to allow the committee to use the roundhouse portion to house and operate the carrousel. A massive clean up around the factory was undertaken by volunteers for several weekends. Then it was time to paint the carrousel parts and try to put it together. What a puzzle! Thankfully, a carnival operator was found who led the way. In July 1983 the carrousel was opened to the public on the first day of the first Canal Fest, all of it celebrating the history of the Tonawandas.
The historic factory building was purchased in 1984 and the long process of turning it into a full museum began. There were many ups and downs for the volunteers and later paid staff. These included leaking roofs and the collapse of the original roundhouse. However, generous public and foundation grants have allowed the complete restoration of the entire factory building. Initially,roofing was a major project. Rebuilding the roundhouse and loading dock was next. Other projects included replacing over 100 windows in the complex, restoring the original office building into an Education Center, and developing the Kiddieland Testing Park.
Throughout the time devoted to restoring the building, efforts were also concentrated on creating exhibits which tell the story of the Herschell companies and the North Tonawanda band organ companies, and developing an ever increasing schedule of educational programming.
There is always more to do and more services to offer for our visitors, but the trustees and staff who have worked throughout the 40 years are pleased with the growth of the museum and the acceptance it has received from the community and visitors from around the world.