NORTH TONAWANDA – Woodcarving is an art that could easily be lost – but not in North Tonawanda.
Here the beauty and intricacies of great carving are preserved at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum and passed along to others by museum trustee Douglas A. Bathke, one of the founders of the museum. He teaches the art of woodcarving to both beginners and those with intermediate and advanced skills.
Doug Bathke has been carving for 51 years and teaching for 38. Although many people consider it a “dying art,” he said, there are about 400 woodcarvers who live in Western New York and carry on the tradition. Their group, the Niagara Frontier Woodcarvers, brings professionals into the area, he said, but many of them have not been doing it as long as he has.
Spring carving classes will be held March 1, 8, 15 and 22 at the museum, and registration is required by this Thursday by calling the museum at 693-1885. Class sizes are limited, and the minimum age for students is 18.
The beginner woodcarving class is held from 9 a.m. to noon, and the cost is $100 ($95 for museum members), which includes instruction, a tool kit to keep and materials for a project. The class is for those who have no carving experience or who are self-taught and want specialized instruction.
The intermediate class is $85 ($80 for members) and is designed for those who have a minimum of three years of experience. Participants will carve a cherub face or may work on their own pattern. Students must have their own tools, including gouges, a carving arm, a carving screw and two 6-inch or larger C-clamps.
Bathke, 65, a retired North Tonawanda history teacher, teaches carving classes at the museum inside the Allan Herschell Co. factory building at 180 Thompson St., which is a combination showcase for the carved carrousel animals, as well as an homage to the factory, with a full-size display of what it might have looked like 100 years ago.
But he also remembers what the building was like in 1979 when it was a neglected dry storage space.
What was this building like back then?
It looked like a good wind would knock this building over. It really had been abandoned. You had to walk sideways through junk to get to each room. The only item left in this building from the factory was this paint can closer (he said, pointing out some metal hardware on the wall). Well, we think it’s a closer.
You must be pretty proud of what you have accomplished.
It was a lot of hard work, time and money.
Why is a museum like this important for North Tonawanda?
The rides went from here to all over the world. They never stayed in North Tonawanda.
How did you get involved?
A Niagara Gazette reporter realized that the complex was here and in rough condition, and we called a meeting at the Carnegie Art Center to discuss saving the old complex. I was teaching a carving class in the basement at the Carnegie Center, and as I came up from the class to go home at night, a person at the desk asked if I had any time because “there was this place in town that used to make old carrousel horses; you should probably stay and listen.” I was born in central Wisconsin and was certainly aware of carrousels and rode on them as a youth, but I never put two and two together with the carving aspect of it. We created the Carrousel Society of the Niagara Frontier and applied to the state for an official educational charter.
Tell us about the carrousel that is the centerpiece of the museum.
The one we ended up getting came from Canada. It is one of the first out of this factory. It’s from 1916, and this building opened up in 1915.
Are these carrousels important to you because they are made of wood and are hand-carved?
That was my first interest. But I am also a retired history teacher. I just love the history of it. Since I’ve been here, I have evolved. I teach all of our carving classes, and I also am a volunteer curator and have been doing more and more research in our archives to find out information.
How long have you lived in North Tonawanda?
I moved here in 1972.
Were you even aware of this history here?
I knew nothing about North Tonawanda. I couldn’t find a teaching job, so I had taught some classes in carving. Eventually, I did go back to teaching. I could never decide what I wanted to do, so I have certifications in five different areas. For a while, I taught industrial arts and was teaching industrial arts technology at North Tonawanda. I then switched from technology to history and taught history for 28 years. I retired in 2006.
But you still were carving?
I carve. I’ve made pieces of furniture, and in the years here, it’s been a mixture of carving and historical research, and I help design exhibits and research exhibits.
How did you get started?
A woman who lived about a mile from me; I was in my freshman year in high school in Wisconsin: Anna Hitzig. She said that if I was interested, she would teach me how to carve. So every Saturday afternoon through high school, I would visit her for two or three hours. She taught me how to regrain and handle the tools, and I just took off from there.
Do you think there’s more interest in handcrafting?
Just about everybody who takes this course thinks it’s a dying art, and yet, between woodcarving clubs in Western New York, there are probably over 400 carvers in Western New York. A winter like this is just wonderful for woodcarvers. You can stay in the warm shop and chop away all winter and not care about how much snow falls.
I think with all the electronics out there, people don’t think they can work with their hands.
I think anybody can carve. When I started carving, I didn’t have a lot of drawing skills, but I had dexterity skills, and I learned how to use the tools over the years. Some years, I’d carve a lot, and other years, just a few because of college and work. I’ve traveled, and when I do, I look for carving. In Germany, they still have an apprenticeship program in carving or sculpture. In our schools, most of the art programs look at abstract or wire sculpture or clay work at the most. I have a lot of art teachers take my class to learn about woodcarving. (Clay and wire) is easier to teach because it’s an additive-type thing. It’s a lot harder to teach subtractive. If you subtract from a block of wood or stone, you have to be careful how and where you do it.
Here at the carrousel, you must appreciate some of the skill.
I went to Italy this past summer and saw some of Michelangelo and Bernini, and my jaw just dropped because of some of the skill. Getting movement out a chunk or rock or wood is pretty unique.
You don’t have to go to Italy. You can come to North Tonawanda.
They had master woodcarvers here as part of the workforce at the Herschell factory, didn’t they?
There were skill levels. Beginning carvers were taught how to carve legs and only legs, and they had to do six a day, enough for a horse and a half. The next level would be body workers, and they would have to carve in all the detail of the saddle and trim. The master carvers, those with advanced skills, could do the heads and necks and put all those pieces together and send them on to the paint shop.
You have quite a few pieces here at the museum.
Some have been donated, and some have been purchased. I did work on some of them. We built a frog, Mr. Hop Toad from “The Wind and the Willows.” We thought it would be nice to have a frog in our collection, and when it came up for auction, it was $77,000. We didn’t have that kind of money, so I said let’s get a bunch of basswood and carve our own. We wrote to Dearborn, Mich., which has a Herschell Carrousel with two frogs on it, and explained what we wanted to do, and I asked for measurements for our pattern, and we made our frog with our group of volunteer carvers. It’s the only carrousel animal with clothes and the only carrousel animal in which the clothes make up the saddle.
It seems like the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum is the perfect place for you.
It’s ideal. On our website, I answer inquires, and it seems like every time I do research, I find out something new.
More information on the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum is available at www.carrouselmuseum.org. Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. email: email@example.com