austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Open the door, get on the floor

If I asked your thoughts of North Tonawanda, New York, I venture to say most of you would offer a vacant blinking. My father spoiled my expectation, when I asked him about it, by identifying a car plant that, yeah, was in the area. bunny_hugger knew the city existed, but had no idea where it was until planning out this trip. On discovering that it's near Buffalo, near Niagara Falls, this became the subject of a half-day excursion. This for our last full day of the trip, and the only one not going to an amusement park.

But in North Tonawanda was the factory of the Allan Herschell Company. Herschell, or Herschell-Spillman, or Spillman, made carousels for decades. Any kiddie carousel you see even today is, probably, a Herschell carousel or a Herschell-derived one. Herschell also made amusement park rides, in many models. The company pioneered making Kiddielands, and you'll find their rides, or modern versions of their rides, at many parks even today. The factory closed decades ago, when it merged with Chance Manufacturing of Wichita, Kansas. The building stood, though, and a couple decades ago reopened as the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum. We'd never been. Now that bunny_hugger knew it was easy to visit on a Rochester trip? We had to go.

It was a nice bright sunny day and the parking lot was pretty near full. We feared school groups making field trips again. This was unnecessary. It wasn't a busy day. They didn't have an admission booth up front; we bought tickets deep inside, from the gift shop. This would seem to make it possible to just ghost the museum, if you walked around like of course you had paid admission. If that's the world you want to live in.

The factory floor is ... well, what you might imagine a wood- and metal-working shop from 1915 might look like. Strings of big, open work rooms. There's carving tools in the factory, but they're imports. Apparently the only piece of hardware they can prove was actually used by the Herschell company was one nondescript paint-can-sealing mechanism. But they have exhibits set up to show the kinds of tools used, and how they were used, and what carousel horses look like mid-carving. There's a bunch of videos explaining the process, and the kinds of employees, and all that. Most fascinating to me were old advertising flyers for the company's mechanisms, though. The mix of bombast and hard-sell about, like, what their portable haunted house ride could do for your carnival, and how many person-hours it took to set up or take down.

These would lead to new discoveries. Like, that in the 60s they were pitching a Monster Mouse Ride, a larger version of the Mad Mouse roller coaster. I hadn't heard of this before. Some advertisements are plain enough. There's a great sell for something called the Ridee-o. Description: ``the continuous train of 18 cars travels around the two parallel tracks at roller coaster speed ... the outer of the two parallel tracks is smooth, whereas the inner track is a series of dips, giving the cars a new and peculiar mixed action''. I think I can imagine this, and liking it. Others? ``Crowds throng to ride the Lindy Loop!'' And you can convert your caterpillar ride to one. What is it? ... I'm not positive but it looks like sleigh-style cars rocking freely on an arc, on a ride that's otherwise going around a hilly circular track. Seems like fun. We've never even heard of this before.

A complete mystery? The Magic Carpet, ``the latest midway sensation'', the flyer for which points out how ``Douglas Fairbanks sailed to fame and fortune on his Magic Carpet in the `Thief of Bagdad','' inspiring a ``yearning in the hearts of the youth and their youthful elders for a similar ride''. How does it work? No idea. There's also pictures of the Hey-Dey, ``a switching, twirling, whirling scene of action'' that ``repeats 10 to 25 per cent of its Riders --- a most unusual record''. (``The Smack of the WHIP, the Speed of the ROLLER COASTER, the Terrific Skid of an Automobile on a Greasy Road --- All Are Experienced in a Ride on the HEY-DEY.'')

And then, by 1937, the ``Blue Goose'' Kiddie Ride. ``It offers wonderful flash, color, and appeal at a very nominal price. The comical geese actually flap their wings and move their feet as the ride rotates.'' Yes, it's that Goosey Goosey Gander ride from Fantasy Island. We'd known, looking at it, that it was something old and noteworthy. We had no idea how old or noteworthy. And, as ever, we'd never heard of this ride before and now we saw one, and saw the advertising explaining it, four days apart.

The museum has some things we knew about, such as a bunch of Spillman memorabilia. And an explanation of the links between Herschell, Spillman, and Herschell-Spillman. Also Armitage Herschell. Loosely, Allan Herschell joined with James Armitage to make, first, machine tools, then machines, the ausement machines. This turned into the Armitage Herschell Company. After that folded Herschell and his in-laws the Spillmans made a new company that made amusement park rides. Also, a separate Herschell-Spillman Motor Company. Herschell-Spillman (``manufacturers of carousselles'') reduced its name to Spillman. Herschell started his own, competing company, in 1915, the one behind this factory. One imagines the family gettogethers were fun affairs. It's all a bit confusing, and reading the plaques at the museum kept leaving me with that feeling I missed a page. Part of the trouble is that these kinds of museums are made by people who are really excited by amusement park rides. They need people who understand corporations, and know how to write corporate histories. Amusement park (and related) histories treat financing as though it were the weather, an uncontrollable thing companies just have to cope with. That it's structural doesn't get proper attention.

Also confusing matters is the other thing you might possibly have heard of North Tonawanda for. After Herschell left Armitage Herschell that company got a new investor, Rudolph Wurlitzer. As in, the band organs. And the Herschell/* companies have this tie to Wurlitzer companies, a thing we didn't know or appreciate. Also that there were many band organ companies formed by people leaving Wurlitzer and trying to go into this for themselves. There's a couple good displays at the museum which strive to explain this. Particularly there's explanations of how the music spools which tell a band organ how to work work, and how they were made.

The place also has a picture of an Over The Jumps, which looks to be a carousel that's on a track with hills, which is such a good idea I'm surprised it's not popular yet.

The factory museum has rides, of course. Many of them are kiddie rides, including a little outdoor area we didn't visit because, well, we don't have kids. Also we spent all our time indoors looking at, like, carousel ostriches and the lathe one might have been made on. But there's a good-sized room for kids activities, and a kiddie carousel. We couldn't ride it. There's a weight limit. The docent did encourage us to come through the gate, though, and photograph it up close. And pointed out the one-man street band organ behind it. This thing is covered with ... just ... stuff. Toy trumpets. Dolls. A paper carousel. Kiddie drum toys Puffy stickers of Olive Oyl and 70s-model Donald Duck. It was, the docent explained, Rusty's All-American Band Wagon, and the guy who made it, and kept adding to it, would just wander the North Tonawanda streets, playing for kids, because that's how he wanted to spend his days. And good for him. Glad he's being remembered.

The docent explained how it was only her second day, so she was still a bit shaky on all the carousel history. bunny_hugger was polite about not being too much the expert in the room. The docent also mentioned how one kid had been unwilling to ride the kiddie carousel, but would do it if his sister, too big for the ride, went on. So she made an exception for this circumstance. bunny_hugger wondered, later, about the docent who'd already broken the weight rule once, and maybe broke a rule about adults going past the gate, and was telling us perfect strangers about it, and this was day two.

There's a small exhibit with some of the companies' bigger rides, bumper cars and miniature trains (``steam train serial #0001'', according to the sign!) and even a Little Dipper roller coaster train with a short segment of track. And then, there's a side building. It's circular. It's where the company would set up and test carousels before shipping, from the nearby train platform. There's an antique carousel in there now, a 1916-manufacture Number One Special Three Abreast portable carousel. The signs include the setup instructions. The docent, an elderly woman, was happy to talk with us about the carousel and how much it'd been part of her family history. (Also that we could sit anywhere except in the spinning-tub car that we wanted to ride in it.) Museum admission came with a token good for one ride, but she gave us several, when other groups came in to ride.

And ... while there, I overheard a guy talking with the docent. A lot. He was talking about Tuscora Park, in New Philadelphia, Ohio. This used to be an amusement park, which turned into a city park. It has, from those days, an antique carousel, plus a kiddie roller coaster, a Parker Superior Wheel, and some other rides. We've been there several times. bunny_hugger was, that day, wearing the Tuscora Park t-shirt she got there one visit. I overcame my shyness to point this out to everyone's delight.

The guy talking was, he explained, the artist-in-residence at the world's largest Troll Doll museum, from somewhere in Ohio. He insisted if we ever visited we should contact him as he could set us up with a private tour, and he gave us his business card to take him up on that. He's generous with the Troll Doll museum time; later, in the gift shop, he would talk about it at length with the women working that counter.

The gift shop had a nice mix of interesting stuff, including DVDs of the movies playing in the museum that we didn't take time to watch. I spent a fair time leafing through a not-actually-carousel-related book, a nice little bit of woodworking projects explained in such detail that even the inexperienced could build some neat toys or practical projects. Then I ran across the author's ``Politically Correct Birdhouse''. He explained that while he hoped future readers would be free of this scourge, he has to live with political correctness in which anything you might say that might offend anybody is a Bad Thing that must be suppressed, and so suggesting that girls like pretty things is a Wrong Think and so here's a birdhouse that ... I don't know where this chain of thinking leads. I had been thinking of buying it, for my father if nothing else, since some of the mechanical toys were neat contraptions that would be challenging. But with that bizarreness I set the book back. I trust the author, if he is still with us, is having his brain lock up every 85 minutes when he considers that there are places that just have sex-neutral bathrooms and that turns out to be fine.

We did get some things, including t-shirts and a big book about antique carousels that bunny_hugger dips into and out of as she feels like. Possibly with the end of our trip so near we were getting worried about not having enough stuff.

Great place, though. If we're ever in the Buffalo area again --- and I think that's plausible, since we liked all the places we went --- this is worth another visit.

Trivia: New York City's 1916 zoning ordinance, requiring ``setbacks'' on skyscrapers, permitted them to build as large as desired when the upper floor footprint was no more than one-quarter the ground-level footprint. Source: Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, Daniel Okrent.

Currently Reading: Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow?, Brian Fies.

PS: I'm not done with roller coasters at La Feria yet.


Station decoration at Cascabel 2.0: a lot of eye.


Peering up at the loading station, through the gates. The train launches by an induction motor rather than going up a lift hill.


And here's the train zipping right off, suddenly.

Tags: carousels, la feria, mexico city, niagara full

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