For nearly half a century, a nondescript factory at the corner of Thompson and Vandervoort streets bustled with an unusual activity.
The Allan Herschell Co. turned out more than 3,000 hand-crafted wooden carousels for a worldwide market from 1915 until 1959, when it closed. It sat empty for another quarter-century before being resurrected.
"History was created here," Rae Proefrock said, "and now history lives here."
Proefrock is the acting director of the Carrousel Factory Museum, which opened last week for its 24th tourist season.
The popular tourist attraction barely survived the wrecker's ball and has struggled to make ends meet in recent years, as government cultural funding has dwindled and as regional tourism leaders toil to find a unified marketing approach.
"It's a constant financial struggle to maintain the museum and try to grow," Proefrock said. "If we could get corporate support, it would make a huge difference."
Meanwhile, the dedicated group that worked to save the old factory presses on to keep its doors open as a museum for nine months each year.
By the late 1970s, the old factory "was a derelict building that was probably within five years of falling down," said Proefrock's husband, Charles, president of the board of trustees of the Carrousel Society of the Niagara Frontier.
The society was formed in 1979, staying loyal to the spelling of "carrousel" that was painted on the outside of the factory nearly a century ago.
Chuck Proefrock, as he prefers to be called, taught in North Tonawanda and was dismayed that his students knew so little about North Tonawanda history. The city was once known as the lumber capital of the world. The wood from poplar trees was even used to make the carousel horses in Herschell's factory.
"The students didn't seem to have pride in their city," Rae Proefrock said. "We wanted to help change that."
Rae Proefrock recalled the genesis of the carrousel society.
"There were eight of us sitting around a table," she said. "We decided we wanted to bring the factory back to life. We each put a dollar on the table, and we used the money for the postage to send out letters asking for support."
The original goal was not to create a museum, but to bring a carousel back to North Tonawanda, her husband said.
"North Tonawanda made thousands of carousels, but none of them stayed in the city," he said. "We were a blue-collar town that didn't go for that kind of thing."
The society went looking for an original carousel that had been built in the Herschell factory and found one privately owned in London, Ont. They bought it, broke it down into hundreds of pieces and trucked them to the empty carousel factory in North Tonawanda. The carousel was reassembled in the round house where it was originally tested.
Meanwhile, the factory building had been sold to Industrial Motors, a private company that distributed electrical supplies and used the space for storage.
Once the society had the original carousel in place, volunteers hit the streets and knocked on doors and collected $33,000 to buy the building. They spent a year cleaning it out, and the museum opened in 1983.
A year later, it was listed on both the state and national Register of Historic Places. Since then, the society has raised and spent thousands of dollars on renovating the building and filling it with amusement park artifacts and photographs of a lost era.
Photos of factory workers taken in 1919 were enlarged to life size and the images cut out and mounted on wood figures that resemble the original wood carvers at work. In the half-light of the old building, the cut-out carvers look like the real thing.
The history of carousel making is detailed in interpretive panels throughout the museum.
"This is the only place in the world you'll see an exhibit like this," said Rae Proefrock, who has extensively researched carousel history.
The historic designation provides the society state and federal funding that accounts for 20 percent of the annual operating budget of $230,000. The rest is raised from donations, admission prices and sales of memorabilia and souvenirs in the gift shop.
The museum, at 180 Thompson St., is open noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday until mid-June; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday from mid-June through Labor Day; noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday after Labor Day to Dec. 28.