On a carousel in North Tonawanda, New York

Monday, January 16th, 2012. Filed under: Art New York
This Herschell ostrich (1907) is a rare bird.

This Herschell ostrich (1907) is a rare bird.

My aunt Angie always gave great presents. One long-ago summer, my birthday gift was a wooden jewellery box that tinkled and revolved like a real merry-go-round.  Decades later, I’m still enchanted by carousels though real, rideable ones are few on the ground.  One of the best places to find them is Western New York, a region that once supplied the world with fairground rides.

The Herschell Carrousel Factory in North Tonawanda, a community on the north edge of Buffalo, was once headquarters for carousel production in North America.

My first visit to the factory–now a museum–was pure magic.  I peeked into the carving room and admired the historical display bright with color and fantasy.  There were old kiddie cars, lovingly restored, and a small-scale merry-go-round for tots.  Inside the roundhouse where workers once assembled mechanical wonders and shipped them as far away as Tahiti, the 1916 #1 Special carousel was a sight to behold. Thirty-six handcarved horses, over 580 lights, illuminated heads and handpainted scenic panels added to its magnificence.

“Can adults ride?” I asked the attendant.

The 1916 Herschell #1 special carousel features painted local scenes and a 1910 Wurlitzer band organ.

The 1916 Herschell #1 special carousel features painted local scenes and a 1910 Wurlitzer band organ.

“Sure!” she replied and pointed to one of the larger and wilder-looking outer horses.  “Climb onto Big Billy there.”

The crazed-looking stallion creaked as I swung my leg over his saddle and I instantly regretted the second beef on weck—a Buffalo area specialty—I’d polished off at lunch.

But no time to reconsider.  The attendant hit the switch and Billy surged up and forward so fast I wondered fleetingly whether his last name might be Seabiscuit.  Then I gave up any thought other than holding onto the brass pole with both hands.

At 40 feet in diameter, whirling at 6.5 revolutions a minute–well, you do the math.

Flying around and around to the carnival piping of the Wurlitzer organ was sheer glee once I got used to it.  I laughed out loud, caught myself and then let it rip.  Why not?  There was no one here but me and the attendant who jigged her knees and conducted the Wurlitzer with an enthusiastic air baton.  I closed my eyes, felt the breeze on my face and channelled the spirit of my Cossack ancestors.

The Herschell Carrousell Factory Museum is on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Sites.

The Herschell Carrousell Factory Museum is on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Sites.

I drop by the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum whenever I can. It’s always my birthday – and summertime – aboard the 1916 #1 Special.

In the carving room, local artisans like Bill Miller demonstrate techniques on lightweight basswood.

In the carving room, local artisans like Bill Miller demonstrate techniques on lightweight basswood.

It's hard to believe that these beautiful carousel horses are not made from fiberglass or plastic.

It's hard to believe that these beautiful carousel horses are not made from fiberglass or plastic.

The Herschell Carousel Museum houses the Mary W. Lockman Collection of hand-carved carousel animals.

The Herschell Carousel Museum houses the Mary W. Lockman Collection of hand-carved carousel animals.

Once Around is Never Enough - Allan Herschell Company motto

Once Around is Never Enough - Allan Herschell Company motto

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