Sunday, August 31, 2008

Herschel Carrousel Factory Museum, North Tonawanda, NY.

When I was casting about for a place to stay during my time in Buffalo, I found a Microtel north of the city in a suburb called Tonawanda. It was relatively cheap and conveniently located, if very small. It did put me in close proximity to an attraction I wanted to see in North Tonawanda- the Herschel Carrousel Factory Museum. I definitely have a jones for old-time amusements. Whether it be traveling carnivals, fly-by-night circus companies, roadside attractions, or extinct amusement parks, I lament the passing of these traditional outlets for public play. Before the age of television and digital media, people pretty much had to engage the outside world to find their fun. Now these things are disappearing, seemingly forever.

There was a time when Western New York employed a lot of its denizens in the making of traditional carousels. Allan Herschel was a pioneer in the field. His firm originally made parts for steam engines, but on a trip to Coney Island he discovered and fell in love with a new adult diversion. He saw his very first merry-go-round. In 1873 he came back to the area north of Buffalo, and started an operation aimed at designing and manufacturing simple and elegant versions of the ride. Eventually he shipped his product throughout the United States, Canada and abroad. In 1915 he built the facility at 180 Thompson Street which currently houses a museum, as well as an original Herschel carousel from 1916.

I arrived at the place promptly at 10AM, only minutes ahead of a tour group of summer camp kids. This gave me enough time to get the lay of the land and organize my self-guided visit. I began with a quick look around the gift shop that stocks a good amount of classic memorabilia and trinkets centered (of course) around the carousel theme. I paid my $5 admission (that included a ride on the in-house classic carousel) and stepped into a room containing the Lockman collection. This exhibit documents the changes in style and manufacturing that occurred over the history of the carousel industry. It even includes an antique wooden bull, used as a strength-testing game at the now-defunct Erie Beach Amusement Park.

Then I walked around the partially-restored workshops abutting the gallery. There is a lot of information contrasting the labor-intensive production of wooden carousel horses to the modern day method that involves fiberglass. In addition, there's a section where contemporary hobbyists and craftsmen can come and use the old tools left from the factory. While I was browsing I met a retired minister from Ohio named Don Brewer. He's a former showman who once toured with the circus. We jawed for awhile about the sad decline of touring shows, and he showed me a bit of the wooden carving he was engaged in. It was great to talk to someone who was once actually part of the long-lost world that I am so enamored with.

I certainly felt like all the volunteers staffing the Museum appreciated my interest in the history of carousels and amusement parks. There will likely come a day when people forget the roots of the industry. I'm overwhelmingly grateful that there are enthusiasts willing to invest their time and energy in preserving this delightful part of our past. The opportunity to photograph an authentic operating carousel from the second decade of the 20th Century was amazing. In addition, displays describing other rides produced by Herschel and Co. were detailed and fascinating. This is another place I hope to eventually bring Baby E., once he is old enough to appreciate a ride on the carousel. I'll even cash in my wooden nickel when that time comes.

Bonus Trivia: The idea for the carousel is based upon the use of wooden horses that knights trained upon during medieval times. They even practiced with brass rings, attempting to spear them with a lance.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the love of, and fascination with, small parks, old rides, carnivals, sideshows, Ripley's, defunct parks and the like can be genetic, I know where you got it.

For years I had a thought about writing a book about old parks and rides, but that was before the Internet and my realization there was already a lot of information out there.


10:23 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

You should put together a website. There's always room for more.

12:15 PM  

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