by Pam Janssen, PAHS Board Member
Six years ago, my husband and I took a ride to North Tonawanga, New York, to visit a niece who had relocated there with a teaching position at Niagara University. In addition to visiting Cassie, we knew we would have a chance to see Niagara Falls for the first time. We did all the touristy things, and especially enjoyed the magnificence of the area. On one of our lazy days, my niece suggested a visit to the Allan Herschell Carrousel Museum in North Tonawanda.
According to the history of the company found on Wikipedia: “The Allan Herschell Company was a company that specialized in the creation of amusement rides, particularly carousels and roller coasters. The company manufactured portable machines that could be used by traveling carnival operators. It was started in 1915 in the town of North Tonawanda, just outside Buffalo, New York.
Previously Herschell, with James Armitage, created the Armitage Herschell Company in 1873. In 1883, his son William traveled to London to meet former Limonaire Frères employee Eugene de Kleist. Backed by Armitage Herschell, in 1888, de Kleist set up band-organ production in North Tonawanda, founding the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory. The company produced a range of barrel-organ based products, suited for all ranges of fairground attraction.
Armitage Herschell remained in operation until the early 1900s. The company carved many portable carousels, made simple in style. Surviving steam riding galleries are located in Mississippi and Maine. In 1901, Herschell left the company due to financial complications, thus allowing de Kliest to buy the pair out, and seek new investment from his association with Rudolph Wurlitzer.
Herschell created the Herschell Spillman Company with his in-laws, the Spillmans. Herschell Spillman started out creating and carving carousels in a traditional style, but later branching out to create larger park machines, such as elaborate carousels with many types of animals. Surviving carousels can be found in California, Michigan, Maryland, and Portland, Oregon’s Herschell–Spillman Noah’s Ark Carousel. The Herschell–Spillman Motor Company Complex at North Tonawanda was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
The last company Herschell created was his own. Herschell specialized in horses with rigid poses and portable machines, which enabled them to be packed and shipped easily between towns. Herschell produced over 3,000 carved wooden carousels, which were shipped all over the United States and Canada, as well Mexico, South Africa, and India.
The factory, bought in 1915, is located on Thompson Street in North Tonawanda. It is one of the last factory complexes in the United States to contain the production of wooden carousels. The complex was expanded to meet the growing company’s needs. The building has a large carving shop, a woodworking shop, a paint shop, a storage area, an upholstery shop, a machine shop, and a roundhouse where the carousels were assembled and tested.
Herschell did not create just carousel rides, but expanded to include rides made for children and adults. He thought up the concept for rides specialized for small children, called “Kiddieland”. Twister, Hurricane, Flying Bobs, and the Sky Wheel were thrill rides that catered towards adults.”
The first room you enter in the museum contains a display of horses carved over the century.
From there you enter the old factory itself. The first thing I noticed were the red and green seats… I immediately was drawn back to memories of childhood visits to the Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Did they make the seats for the old Pavilion (are they still in place there?)
On the other side of the workspace were life-sized photo cutouts created from old photos of men working on the carving floor, complete with samples of the carved horse figures in various stages of development.
The room also included a display that listed the names of every carrousel they had created and sold throughout the world. In addition to a carrousel that went to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, there was listed the carrousel that sits at Bay Beach in Green Bay.
A brief history of the Bay Beach Amusement Park, again cited from Wikepedia: “Bay Beach is a municipal amusement park in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Situated near the mouth of the Fox River, on the east bank as it flows into Green Bay, the park contains rides, concessions, a roller coaster, and a food pavilion. Dances, movies, and other events are held in a pavilion. The park is adjacent to the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary.
The park’s history dates to the 1890s when entrepreneur Mitchell Nejedlo purchased the land. Originally intended to be divided and sold for summer cottages, he turned it into Bay View Beach. Bay View Beach had a dance hall, a bar, and a bathhouse, however, because it was swampy and infested with mosquitoes, the park didn’t attract many visitors. In 1908 Captain John Cusick bought the resort from Nejedlo. Cusick built an 8-foot dock that extended 570 feet into the bay, then bought a steamboat to transport customers from Walnut Street Bridge to Bay View Beach. When swimming became popular, Cusick began renting swimsuits for $0.10. On a good day, he could bring in as much as $450. In 1901 a roller coaster was built. Then in 1908, Cusick built a ride called “Shoot the Chutes”, a flat-bottomed boat that could hold 12 people. The boat was slid down a 50-foot ramp and onto the water. The ride cost $0.10.
In 1911 Bay View Beach was sold to Frank Emery Murphy, born 1862 (Green Bay Alderman, corporate executive of Murphy Lumber, Murphy Supply, Morley – Murphy Company, and owner of the prestigious Horse Shoe Bay Farms in Door County, Wisconsin) and Fred A. Rahr born 1863, (Green Bay Alderman, operator of Rahr’s Brewing Company, Treasurer of the Green Bay Volunteer Fire Department when it was organized in 1887). In 1920 they donated the 11 acres, along with all its buildings and attractions, to the city of Green Bay to be used as a City Park, called Bay Beach Park.
From the site’s earliest days as a private park, a public beach was available, but pollution of the bay eventually caused the swimming beach to close. From the 1930s to the early 1970s, Bay Beach’s pavilion hosted concerts, political rallies, dances, Fourth of July fireworks, and other events. On August 9, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Bay Beach in celebration of Green Bay’s tercentennial of the landing of French explorer Jean Nicolet in 1634.
And, of course, the Carrousel. And, while I don’t have a photo of my younger self enjoying a ride on the Carrousel at Bay Beach, I did get one of yours truly going in circles at the museum in North Tonawanda.