Wooden Wonders: Sheldon Museum showcases Vermont’s old-time toys
MIDDLEBURY — Look at a child’s holiday wish list this year and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an item that doesn’t need batteries or isn’t endowed with electronic circuitry. If it doesn’t whir, ring, text, conjure explosions, rack up points or play movies, it’s probably not going to find its way under a Christmas tree.
It hasn’t always been that way.
There was a time when Addison County kids lit up with excitement upon receiving a wagon, truck, baby carriage or train made by folks just down the street using an abundant product growing just outside their front door — wood.
The Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History has a new exhibit called “Wooden Wonders” that is rekindling in visitors that love of basic toys fashioned with unpretentious artistry and ingenuity. The exhibit — featuring a wide variety of novelty pianos, bowling pin games, animal figures, pull and push toys, wagons and other wooden items — also provides a snapshot in time when the region boasted multiple companies that essentially served as extensions of Santa’s workshop.
Many of the toys featured in “Wooden Wonders” have been culled from the private collection of Shoreham resident and longtime toy enthusiast Chuck Herrmann. Others come courtesy of the East Middlebury-based Brown Novelty Co., run by Jack Brown.
It was in 1936 that brothers Floyd and Roy Brown bought the old Bryant Box Factory in East Middlebury and made it the headquarters for the Brown Novelty Co. By 1940, the brothers had turned their venture into a thriving operation with 25 workers, churning out a wide variety of wooden toys.
The Brown brothers had honed their technical skills while working for the Newton & Thompson Toy Manufacturing Co. in Forestdale.
Current Brown Novelty Co. CEO Jack Brown — Floyd’s son — provided a copy of an article about the company that ran in a 1940 issue of the Middlebury Register newspaper. According to that article, Brown Novelty had received pre-Christmas orders for 250,000 of its “Popeye paddles,” each featuring a colorful image of the pipe smoking sailor of cartoon fame who summoned the strength of 10 men from a can of spinach in order to conquer his arch-nemesis, that criminal cad Bluto. Kids would see how many consecutive times they could smack the rubber ball tethered to the paddle with a rubber band.
Brown Novelty also made hundreds of toy pianos, all fashioned faithfully from Vermont wood. The Browns made those pianos in association with Louis Marx and Co., one of the largest toy makers in the country. Some of these pianos were tiny; others had as many as 49 keys.
They also made rocking horses for Nancy and Spencer Wright of the nearby (and now-defunct) Cornwall Crafts company.
The Sheldon Museum exhibit features some wonderful examples of these pianos, along with other toys proudly made by a workforce of 25: A “Crow Shoot” game, featuring a tiny rifle that would propel corks at a lineup of black crows waiting to be knocked off their perches; a toy soldier standing behind a cannon, ready to fire its payload of another hapless soldier stuffed inside; and a variety of checkers and Parcheesi board games.
Jack Brown began working for the company when he was a child, during the 1940s.
“I used to dye the (wooden) blocks,” Brown said with a smile as he looked at some of his handiwork. “I was in grade school and wasn’t old enough to work on the machines, but I could work in the dye room.”
Brown Novelty kept making toy pianos until 1990.
Brown, now 77, still cranks out some toys with a handful of helpers. “Lumber Jack,” a small wooden, jointed figure with flexible limbs, is one of the novelty company’s most popular offerings these days.
“I haven’t pushed production like I used to, and haven’t really pushed sales,” he said, smiling.
“I would, of course, like to retire.”
Asked how he would rate the plastic toys of today, Brown gave them low marks for durability but higher marks for ingenuity.
“It doesn’t last as long, but some of them are very clever,” he said. “My grandkids can’t get enough of Legos.”
Alexander Newton founded the Newton & Thompson Toy Manufacturing Co. in Forestdale in 1857. Born in Hubbardton, Newton possessed a brilliant mechanical mind. He invented an automatic lathe machine that allowed him to mass-produce small wooden parts for toys and various household products, such as pillboxes. With the lathe, hundreds of thousands of identical items — including toys — could be produced in a short time.
“Before Alexander Newton … everything was done by hand, one at a time,” Hermann said. “They didn’t concentrate on ‘high quality’ toys at the beginning. What they were always interested in was making large quantities for a very low price.”
That made the products affordable to the masses, as opposed to the lucky few in the Depression era with large disposable incomes.
“They had that natural, mechanical ability to visualize a product and invent a machine to make it,” Herrmann said of the Vermont toy makers of the 19th and 20th centuries. “That’s exactly what Alexander Newton did. He visualized the product, he built the mill, he designed and patented the machine and he sold the machine to other people. Why? Because the main natural resource in Vermont was wood, so it was all about wood.”
During the 1890s, Newton & Thompson began taking massive orders from New York-based toy enterprises. During the early 20th century, the company developed nickel and dime boxes filled with miniature toys, which it sold under its own name.
“Millions were sold,” said Herrmann.
Specific Newton & Thompson products on display at the Sheldon exhibit include several small tenpin bowling sets, one of which features pins as sailor characters clad in bright blue painted uniforms.
The company also made a wide variety of toys that children pulled or pushed. For example, a colorful clown named “Tom Turno” performs acrobatics on a bar when pulled in his cart. There’s also a child-size “grass cutter” with a front attachment filled with small blocks that flip around when pushed or pulled.
Sets of miniature toys — made by the millions and exported worldwide — was one of the company’s biggest hits, according to Hermann.
Newton & Thompson didn’t neglect the little girls. Several strings of brightly colored wooden beads are prominently displayed in the exhibit.
Herrmann — an accomplished wood carver and artisan in his own right — is particularly impressed with how Newton & Thompson cut and milled its own timber for its novelty products. The company became an early advocate and practitioner of sustainable forestry products.
“Newton and Thompson were forest conservationists as far back as the 1880s,” Herrmann said with admiration. “They were one of the first (companies) in Vermont, if not the first, to have a forest conservation program. They had 10,000 acres in Brandon, Forestdale and Sudbury that they were conserving.”
Older residents of Bristol might remember the explosively colorful animal figures lovingly produced by Gustave Kusch and his wife, Helen. Gustave — who worked several years for Kennedy Bros. in Vergennes — fashioned wooden figures and lawn ornaments from cast-off boxes stockpiled by local grocery stores. Helen would hand paint them. The Sheldon Museum features some wonderful examples of Kusch’s best work, including rhinos, cows, deer, elephants, tigers, dogs and moose.
The Kuschs made and sold their toys from their home workshop in Bristol’s Rocky Dale district off of East Street (Route 116). They beckoned passing vehicles with a sign that read, “Don’t Go By, Stop Buy.”
Gustave and Helen also caned hundreds of chairs during their almost half century in business.
“He was quite an interesting man, and I knew him quite well,” Herrmann said of Gustave. “Whatever the cultural nature of the toy business during the 1940s and 1950s, that was Gus.”
The Sheldon exhibit also boasts examples of wooden toys from other Vermont manufacturers of a bygone era, including “Grandpa’s Workshop” in Thetford, Joel Ellis of Springfield, H.C. White of Bennington, S.A. Smith of Brattleboro, and E. Larson of Proctor.
Other Vermont wood products are also featured in the Middlebury museum’s exhibit. Among them is a trapping boat made last year by students at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center. The student documented a boat originally built by Gerald Hatch of Panton in the 1960s and then replicated it.
Rounding out the exhibit is the current “heavyweight” of toy production in Addison County — Maple Landmark Woodcraft. Mike Rainville founded the company in Lincoln during the 1970s and eventually moved it to Middlebury, where it continues to prosper and grow. It is one of the largest manufacturers of wooden toys in the U.S., producing its “Name Train” and “My Train” wooden railroad systems, games, building blocks, trucks, rattles and pull toys. The Sheldon exhibit specifically features Maple Landmark’s Rockefeller Rocker and My First Train.
CHUCK HERMANN, LEFT, and Bill Brooks stand in part of the new wooden toy exhibit at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History in Middlebury. Brooks is the executive director of the museum and Hermann lent the museum many of the exhibit pieces from his extensive toy collection. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“The word ‘maple’ in the company name, paired with our location in Vermont, is valuable to the business,” Rainville said. “We live and make our products by the rules and wisdom that our society developed over 100 years.”
The “Wooden Wonders” exhibit will run through Jan. 14. For more information, call the museum at 388-2117 or visit www.HenrySheldonMuseum.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.