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The Story Behind the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum

Go behind the history to find out how North Tonawanda became the ideal place to make carousels — and how the legacy lives on today.

In the early 20th century, the Herschell Company dominated and defined the buzzing industrial city of North Tonawanda. With over 150 lumber mills, Wurlitzer organs and Richardson boats being produced in town as well, North Tonawanda took advantage of its unique natural habitat and placement near the water to become a major industrial force. But it was the beautiful carousels made by Herschell that were the pride and joy of the town — so much so that the sign greeting you as you entered city limits said “Welcome to North Tonawanda: The Home of the Carrousel.”

The Beginnings

The factory founder, Allan Herschell, was actually a foundry owner in the area and upon seeing a wooden carousel on a trip to New York City, decided to create them himself. His foundry allowed him to make the most challenging piece of the equipment, the steam boiler which propelled it, and the area had an abundance of lumber along the river. Coupled with the excellent transportation system with the Erie Canal and the Western New York railroads, he could easily ship out his finished products to buyers. The area was also settled by German immigrants who were skilled wood carvers, making the production even easier to manage.

The Factory

The Factory complex is made up of over ten structures, primarily built between 1910-1915, and contained 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. Over the years, more than three thousand carousels were produced and shipped out of the factory all over the world. The factory also produced rides for children and adults, including roller coasters and carnival rides. The company moved to Buffalo in the 1950s and changed hands multiple times over the years.

The Society

In 1979, a group of ten people gathered together to discuss how to preserve the heritage of the factory and the carousels, including bringing an original carousel back to North Tonawanda. The initial question of how to raise money for converting the original factory building into a museum was answered with a door-to-door drive selling $2 tickets to locals to ride the carousel once it arrived, raising over $10,000. After further fundraising efforts by a dedicated team of believers, the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum opened its doors in 1983 and an original 1916 Herschell carousel was made available to the public to ride.

The Museum

The old factory building is now listed on both the New York and National Registers of Historic Places, saving the history of the factory and the carousels themselves. During the warmer months, you can visit the innovative “Kiddieland Testing Park,” filled with rides for small children from the factory’s post-war era like Kiddie Cars, Pony Carts, Wet Boats, and the Kiddie Carousel. Adults and children above 36” can ride on the “Big” 1916 Number One Special Carrousel indoors. You can also visit historical exhibitions like the Wurlitzer Music Roll Department, which houses still-operational historical equipment that produces paper music rolls. In addition to the machinery, the Wurlitzer Music Roll Department includes over 1,600 hand-punched original master music rolls dating back to the turn of the 20th century. This is the only public display of equipment of this type in the country.

The museum is a can’t-miss attraction near Niagara Falls USA, allowing visitors to take a step back in history to the turn of the 20th century when upstate New York was a vibrant and boundary-pushing manufacturing hub. And once you’ve ridden the smooth and elegant original 1916 carousel, you’ll never see the newer metal ones the same again.