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New season comes around Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum provides a link to the past

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 last week, "and now history lives here."

Proefrock is the acting director of the Carrousel Factory Museum, which opened last week for its 24th tourist season.

"We're lucky to be here," she said.

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 Niagara County 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 so hard 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 "carousel" 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."

>The beginning

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."

Even today, the nearest carousels -- or merry-go-rounds -- to the museum's are at the Buffalo Zoo and in the northern Niagara County lakeside hamlet of Olcott.

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.

>Funding boost

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.

Up to $6,000 a year from the Niagara County Legislature has been discontinued.

The society operates on a small budget and an even smaller staff. There are four people in all, two full-time workers -- Proefrock and Cory Cox, an educator/curator -- and two part-time employees.

"We rely tremendously on volunteers," Proefrock said.

Up to 30 people volunteer their time during the tourist season as tour guides, gift shop clerks and carousel operators.

The museum may be the victim of underexposure. From the outside, it still looks like a factory and still nondescript, despite the big white letters announcing "Allan Herschell Co. Carrousels Merry-Go-Rounds" painted on the outside.

But keeping the factory look is the whole point, Proefrock said.

"That's what we're excited about," Proefrock said. "We want it to look like a factory. We don't want glitzy."

There's enough glitz in Niagara Falls, Ont., she suggested.

>Work in progress

"Tourists love authentic, original sites," Proefrock said. "We are the only museum in the world to house an authentic carousel factory."

North Tonawanda Mayor Larry Soos will buy a ticket to that.

Soos was a kid in school when the carousel factory was bustling with activity. His older brother, Alex, now 69, painted some of the wooden horses for Allan Herschell, the owner.

"I never went inside," Soos said. "It was a factory. Why go inside? But now it's an important part of tourist trade in North Tonawanda."

Soos said the carousel factory ranks with the historic Riviera Theatre, concerts in Gateway Park, the City Market, the annual antique car show in Gratwick Park and the history and railroad museums -- not to mention Canal Fest.

The museum, which draws about 13,000 visitors a year, is a work in progress. More renovations are planned.

The society wants to turn a 10,000-square-foot parcel of land in front of the building into a park and picnic area. The park could be developed for $20,000, Proefrock said.

She sees the carousel museum -- along with the Riviera Theatre, Gateway Park on Erie Canal, the and other city museums -- as part of an entire Niagara County package for tourists.

"We have a unique cultural presence in the area," Proefrock said. "I believe visitors could spend a wonderful day right here in North Tonawanda."

Proefrock thought about that and added, "Why not sell a one-day package to North Tonawanda?"

She left the question hanging there, and in a later interview, Kate Scaglione, marketing director for the Niagara Tourism Corporation, agreed.

"There's so much beyond the falls for tourists," Scaglione said. "The more we give tourists, the longer they will stay."

Baseball is said to be a game of inches. In football, it's yards. In the tourist trade, it can be measured in seconds.

A 4 1/2 -minute promotional DVD presented by the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. in Niagara Falls last week to tourism industry leaders showed dozens of attractions across the county.

Rae Proefrock was watching eagerly in the audience in the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

When it was over she said, "We had more seconds than anyone else."

Life is one big merry-go-round.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum - a brief history

Allan Herschell Co.: Founded in 1915, it employed as many as 75 craftsmen who produced more than 3,000 hand-carved wooden carrousels for a worldwide market.

Address: 180 Thompson St., North Tonawanda

Operations end: The company closed in 1959 and the building was purchased by Industrial Motor Corp., an electrical supply company.

New life: The Carrousel Society of the Niagara Frontier leased the building in 1983 and opened the Carrousel Factory Museum. The society bought the building in 1984 for $33,000.

Museum features: An adult working carrousel with 36 horses; a Wurlitzer music roll shop; 20 hand-carved carrousel animals; 26-photo exhibit documenting production in the factory; antique bumper cars; exhibit on evolution of trains from steam to diesel.

Season: Opened for the season on Wednesday. Hours are 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.

Special events: April 28, Victorian Tea; June 2, Renaissance Festival; Aug. 17, Teddy Bear Picnic; Oct. 27, Halloween Spooktacular.

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