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A Heritage Preserved

July 2024
2min read

The history of carousels goes ’round and ’round…


Human beings have been traveling in circles for an astonishingly long time. In A Pictorial History of the Carousel , Frederick Fried tells us that a Byzantine bas-relief of about A.D. 500 depicts people swinging about a center pole in baskets, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, a lot of going around was going around in Europe, as people dizzied themselves on everything from simple man-powered merry-go-rounds to elaborate handcrafted carousels whose motive power was equine.

Merry-go-rounds of one sort or another were common in America in the early nineteenth century. When steam power was added in the middle of the century, the carousel trade flourished, and soon no city park, carnival, state fair, circus, or pleasure resort worth its bunting was without at least one of the mighty whirligigs—usually complete with a band organ to provide accompaniment for prancing horses, camels, giraffes, lions, and tigers. Not all rides were models of elegance. A carousel worker described one machine set up at the World Exposition and Cotton Centennial in New Orleans in 1885: “It took a cowboy to ride it and it beats all that people were so crazy to ride that we had a devil of a time to keep them from overloading the machine.… Electric lights were undreamed of so we lighted the machine with gasoline torches which smoked, filling the canvas top with gasoline fumes. Then too, there was the steam engine and the boiler that burned soft coal generating about as much smoke as it did steam. When the wind blew the smoke toward the machine, some of the people who had paid a perfectly good nickel to ride were a sweet looking sight.”


Smoke or no smoke, the rides were enormously popular, and by 1900 a handful of companies had turned out thousands of the machines. Today, no one is turning them out, and of the thousands manufactured, less than a hundred are in operation anywhere in the country. This is of considerable concern to a number of citizens of North Tonawanda, a town in northwestern New York State not far from Buffalo. For it was in North Tonawanda that the Herschell-Spillman Company once busied itself manufacturing more carousels than any firm in the country. “At one time,” Frederick Fried writes, “the name ‘North Tonawanda’ was magic throughout the land.”


The Herschell-Spillman Company is no more, but the Tonawandas’ Council on the Arts, under the leadership of executive director Rae Tyson and Diane Raines Keim, chairman of its board of directors, seems determined to recapture some of the magic. What the council wants to do, specifically, is purchase a still-operable Herschell-Spillman carousel of 1913 that it has tracked down and house it in a suitable building as part of a carousel museum that would, in the words of Rae Tyson, go a long way toward “preserving the heritage of the carousel industry and provide North Tonawanda with a viable tourist attraction. …” What is more, the council has found a suitable building, one of the few remaining structures of the Herschell-Spillman Company, which Mrs. Keim describes as “a dream. I don’t know how many wood-frame factory buildings are left, but I don’t believe there are any other industrial sites left of the grand old carousel manufacturers.”

All of this will take time, energy, and, of course, money, but with wide community support the council seems well on its way to something rather remarkable: a heritage preserved, as it were, in the round.

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