Old toys a treasure to company owner

May 19, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - The photograph, circa 1930, shows a man with an apron standing at a table in Kane, Pa., doting over the toys spread in front of him.

On the wall behind him hangs an image of Santa Claus and his elves that was printed as the cover of a Saturday Evening Post.

"Santa did live in Kane and was designing toys for many, many years," said Richard Bly, owner of Holgate Toy Co.

That toy designer, Jarvis Rockwell, created wooden pieces known to generations. The Santa Claus artwork seen in that photograph, presented during a lecture Thursday through Renfrew Institute, wasn't a print, but an original from his only brother, Norman.


Jarvis Rockwell joined a company known as Holgate Brothers shortly after it launched its first toy line in 1929. The company had produced wooden handles since 1789, Bly said.

Holgate "started the same year we signed the Constitution and the same year we elected our first president," he said.

The company developed its first toys in response to needs presented by the emerging kindergarten system. The toys were developed in partnership with child psychologists and educators in the short time before Jarvis Rockwell joined operations, Bly said.

"They were looking for safe, educational play-value toys. They did some of their toy testing locally as well to see how kids would react," he said. "I'm convinced Jarvis steered them in the right direction."

In the 1950s, the toy operations of the company were acquired by Playskool, which then abandoned the name and trademarks in the 1980s. Bly obtained the rights for the company in 1989 because he "just always had a fascination with Holgate and restarting with the designs."

Today, with eight to 15 employees depending on season, the Holgate Toy Co. produces several of the wooden toys that were designed by Rockwell. Staple pieces include the bingo bed, where children hammer chunky shapes into a board; a rocky color cone with stackable colored rings; and the red trolley made famous on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

"Nowadays, most wooden toys are made overseas, but we've carved out a niche in a specialty market," Bly said.

He maintains a museum in Kane with antique toys, many of which he calls "great finds." The toys were obtained from people who had saved them from childhood or had relatives who worked for the company.

Bly displayed a number of those toys during his lecture "As Old as the Nation," which was the final lecture in a series on 19th-century entertainment sponsored by the institute's adult education committee.

"Macy's was selling this in 1931. It found its way back to our museum, which is great," he said, holding up an airplane.

He also displayed play sets such as a fort and replicas of Goldilocks and the Three Bears; pointed out one of his favorite toys, a rodeo train; and presented an authentic Neighborhood Trolley to Renfrew Institute.

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