Craftsmen hand carved the carousel in North Tonawanda in 1924. Domenick De Angelis, an Italian immigrant, bought it and put it in a resort community in Massachusetts. But after De Angelis died, it was dismantled and put into storage for 60 years.
Over the decades, his family was offered good money for the carousel. One bidder dangled an offer of $150,000 for just a single horse.
The money would have helped the fatherless, working-class De Angelises.
But it never was about the money.
Antoinette De Angelis and her seven children waited through the years because they wanted to see the carousel operate again and honor Domenick De Angelis’ memory.
“There were times when the money would have helped,” said Dominick De Angelis Jr., the third of Domenick and Antoinette’s children. “There were times that I thought, to myself, that if we had sold it, my mother would have that money to raise the family. But she didn’t want to do it.”
Now, because of the De Angelises’ patience and devotion to the family patriarch, Buffalo is getting a rare, park-style menagerie carousel on the waterfront – and the family is seeing its dream come true.
The carousel will operate 13 miles from the factory where it was built and where Herschell-Spillman carousels were once shipped on the Erie Canal to destinations across the country.
“I know if my father was alive, he would really ... ,” 80-year-old DeAngelis Jr. said, unable to continue for a moment. “I think my father would be glad to have it back where it was made.”
“There is a real emotional attachment to this carousel,” said Ellie De Angelis, Dominick’s wife.
She added with a laugh, “We just hope we live to see it up.”
Cabs and carnivals
Domenick De Angelis was born in 1892 outside Naples, Italy. His parents sent him to the United States when he was 14 in pursuit of a better life, and he arrived in Massachusetts to live with an aunt.
De Angelis worked in carnivals, drove a taxi and acquired and placed coin-operated slot-like machines in stores. He also developed an affinity for carousels, and after saving up, he bought a lavish, park-style menagerie carousel with hand-carved wooden animals in 1924 from the Spillman Engineering Company. Spillman was one of four Herschell-Spillman companies that turned North Tonawanda into one of the nation’s handful of great carousel manufacturing centers.
European immigrants made more than 3,000 mostly portable carousels for the Herschell-Spillman companies, but the park-style carousel De Angelis bought was one of only about 20 of the fancier machines ever produced.
The carousel contains 34 animals and three chariots, including three rows of horses in standing and jumping positions and lion, tiger, giraffe, deer and ostrich figures.
The carousel and a penny arcade De Angelis also purchased were installed on land he rented at Mayflower Grove, a resort in Pembroke, a lake community on Massachusetts’ South Shore.
Adding to his success, in 1932, De Angelis bought a portion of Glen Echo Park in Stoughton. There was a pond, a boathouse, a dance hall, a hotel, a second carousel and an arcade. But summer rains two years later sank the business, and the property was foreclosed when De Angelis was unable to make a mortgage payment.
De Angelis retained his pinball machines and, after working in the government’s WPA program and selling Christmas trees, opened a roller-skating rink and arcade in 1936 in Swansea. A hurricane two years later leveled much of it.
“As shrewd as a man as he was, he didn’t believe in insurance,” De Angelis Jr. said of his father. “Bad decision.”
In 1940, De Angelis moved his carousel from Pembroke to Houghs Neck, a peninsula in Quincy, in a building with pinball machines, a shooting gallery and a restaurant that his wife, Antoinette, ran.
De Angelis Jr. remembers climbing to the top of the carousel once a week with his father to oil the bearings and painting the merry-go-round in the wintertime.
The family bought a house next to the site, and everyone pitched in, with De Angelis Jr. and younger brother Joe helping maintain the carousel and the games.
“My father was from the old country,” De Angelis Jr. said. “He was very strict and stern. But he was fair, and we all loved him; and we all did something.”
The older De Angelis, who by then also was working in the Quincy Shipyard, died in 1952, three years after being stricken with leukemia.
In 1956, Quincy officials notified the De Angelises that the land was being seized through eminent domain to build a school. De Angelis Jr. was then in the service, and his paychecks went directly to his mother. He obtained a 20-day leave to take the carousel down.
The wooden animals and the painted rounding boards and scenery panels were stored in the cellar under the roller skating rink.
De Angelis Jr. assumed the carousel would be used again after he got out of the military.
“The whole family was against breaking up the carousel,” De Angelis Jr. said. “I thought once I got back from the service, I could put it up again.”
But that didn’t happen.
“It became out of sight, out of mind,” Ellie De Angelis said.
In either the late 1960s or 1970s, she said, the family was told the carousel had to be moved. It was then stored in the cellar under a wraparound porch at the family’s Quincy home.
That proved to be fortuitous: The previous storage site burned down in 1978; the carousel would have gone up in smoke with it.
In the 1980s, a collector approached the family and offered to buy an armored horse from the carousel for $150,000. The family said no.
But with their mother’s health in decline, they decided to restore her favorite horse, which had roses on its mane and was named Silver.
“Even though the horse was white,” Ellie De Angelis said.
Carousel Works, in northeast Ohio, restored that horse in 1986. And that led to a larger discussion of what to do with the mechanical ride, which at this point had been in storage for 30 years.
The owners of Carousel Works asked De Angelis Jr. what the family was going to do with the carousel.
“Let’s go ask my mother,” De Angelis Jr. replied.
Whatever his mother said, he was willing go along.
“I don’t want to sell it,” Antoinette said. “I want to keep it and see if we can get it up and running again.”
And that was the family’s final answer.
The Carousel Works owners were impressed.
“We trust this family because they go along with whatever their mother said,” De Angelis Jr. recalled them saying.
“That’s why it gets so emotional,” Ellie De Angelis said. “It’s just not a piece of machinery to the family.”
The family sent the carousel in October 1988 to Carousel Works.
Antoinette De Angelis died the following year.
More offers to buy the carousel came in piecemeal in the 1990s. A Quincy politician also tried to get the entire carousel installed in that city. And projects for the carousel were proposed in Warwick, R.I., in the 1990s and in Boston in the early 2000s. None succeeded.
But when two of the siblings died in 2011, the five remaining brothers and sisters decided they needed a solution.
The call from Buffalo
Laurie Hauer-LaDuca, a Clarence architect and carousel enthusiast, had become involved with Buffalo Heritage Carousel after reading an article in The Buffalo News about the group’s efforts to acquire a carousel.
Hauer-LaDuca learned about the De Angelis carousel through a dealer she knew. She called Carousel Works in December 2013, and the company put her in touch with the family.
That began a 2½-year effort to acquire the carousel.
A purchase agreement was signed in August 2015 to buy the carousel for $250,000. That came two months after Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. said the carousel would be welcome at Canalside, and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation offered to buy the amusement ride once a Canalside site was designated.
But the slow hand of government eventually left the De Angelises feeling the project, like those that failed to materialize in New England, might never happen, despite the Wendt Foundation’s offer and the encouraging pronouncements of Mayor Byron W. Brown, waterfront officials and others.
“The family knew there was community and journalistic support,” Ellie De Angelis said.
She pointed to three supportive editorials in The Buffalo News and several letters to the editor.
“But that doesn’t mean anything in politics because we went through the same kind of issues before. It was a long, drawn-out road, and if it were anybody but Laurie, we probably wouldn’t have stuck in there so long,” De Angelis said.
In the end, Buffalo Heritage Carousel needed a 30-day extension, and the deal was completed June 27.
The carousel is to be located on Canalside’s Dunbar Block near Clinton’s Dish ice cream stand. The carousel will be restored with a $600,000 grant obtained by Assemblyman Sean Ryan.
The carousel is expected to open in 2018 in a permanent structure that will house the year-round, solar-powered attraction.
Relocating the carousel to Buffalo, so close to where it was made, pleases the De Angelises.
“It was paramount that it go back to the place where it was built,” Ellie De Angelis said. “It was almost fate. Maybe this is why the other projects were never completed all those years. Maybe this was supposed to happen.”
De Angelis Jr. said, laughing, “If this is where my father wanted it to be, you think maybe he could have let us know a long time ago. It would have saved us a lot of trouble.”
Ellie De Angelis said the siblings worked together on finding the carousel a new home, just as they did when the merry-go-round was operating.
“These five people hung in there for a long time to make it happen because they felt Buffalo was the right place to be,” she said.
Now, they’re anxious to see the restored carousel – which was purchased when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House and went into storage the same year Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected – operating again.
“We’re all going to be excited to be there at the grand opening,” Ellie De Angelis said.
Resurrecting the carousel could also help her husband find peace with the past, Ellie De Angelis said.
“I always knew the carousel was part of my husband’s soul,” De Angelis said. “This is an extension of his father that I think will finally bring him closure. He was 14 when his father died, and they were very close.”
“The family’s blood and sweat and heart is in that carousel.”