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Couple pieces together collection of a lifetime

January 04, 1998

by Ric Dugan / staff photographer

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Couple pieces together collection of a lifetime


Staff Writer

Their eyes twinkle with child-like glee as they pull their toys off the shelves and demonstrate how they work.

Even minus the roughly 120 toy steam engines, related accessories and a few dozen other items they lent for a new exhibit at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, there are hundreds from which to choose.


In the last two decades, collecting toys has become a passion for Russell E. and Darlene Snyder, who have tastefully integrated their precious finds into the decor of their Black Rock Road home.

But they didn't realize the magnitude of their collection, Darlene said, until they started getting together pieces for the museum show, which opened Sunday.

"It kind of really snuck up on us," she said.

The couple began collecting things together when, newly married, they moved into their own home 35 years ago, said Russell, 55, who grew up in walking distance of the home.

It started with two hand-crank telephones he had rescued earlier from his mother's trash bin, he said.

"We farmed and had a lot of farm-related stuff," said Darlene, 53, who grew up in Wolfsville, "across the mountain" in Frederick County, Md.

They collected on a large-scale - literally - accumulating old tractors, other farm equipment and antique cars as well as various household items, she said.

Their interests shifted and became more specialized after their five children left the nest and there was a little more money to spend and time for longer buying trips, Darlene said.

"When you get too old, you can't handle that stuff. You find out you like smaller things that when it's cold you can bring into the house and play with," Russell said.

They had some toys saved from Russell's own childhood, including a chemistry and erector sets, to start with, he said.

Dolls were their first toy speciality. Over time, they focused on other specialities as they became exposed to things that tickled their fancies.

They bought their first steam toy for $50 at a show in Berryville, Va., around 1975, Russell said

Building gas engines at the time, he found the novel toy-scale steam engines interesting, he said.

"Even when I was a kid, you didn't see those things," said Russell, who said the steam toys, popular in the 19th century and early 20th century, weren't being made by the time he would have played with them.

The wide variety of steam engine toys - including boats, trains, cars, tractors and stationary engines powering various miniature accessories - stimulated their interest in acquiring new pieces, he said.

"It's like opening a bag of chips and eating just one of them. You can't stop," Russell said.

In an effort to build his own collection on a working couple's budget, he said, he started making skillful reproductions of extremely rare, in-demand pieces that he could trade for pieces they wanted.

He also does repair and restoration work for other collectors in exchange for pieces, he said.

The toy steam engine collection numbers about 250 pieces at this point, Russell said.

Darlene said she favors the steam engine-powered accessories, like the ferris wheel on display at the museum.

"To me, that's the fascinating thing. Watching something in action," she said.

Their next passion was sparked by an offer from a steam toy collector in Nashville, who asked them if they were interested in a magic lantern and box of slides, he said.

They didn't even know what a magic lantern was at the time, said Russell, who became fascinated with the early slide projectors, usually powered by a kerosene lamp.

"Same darn thing. I'm up to 110 now and over 3,000 slides," he said.

Last summer, Russell got the bug for air rifles, now numbering about 50 in his collection.

Recently, they said, they've gotten into old and odd musical items.

Their already impressive collection includes several large music boxes, a portable jukebox of sorts called a barrel piano and a few Rolmonicas, a harmonica version of a player piano made in Baltimore in 1928.

"We just like anything old and unusual," Russell said. "It doesn't have to be anything in particular. If we see it and we like it and we can afford it, why, we drag it home."

Darlene likens a neat acquisition to an addict's fix.

"You just experience a high. It's like chocolate. You get that taste," she said.

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