This holiday season, millions of children will soon open presents containing the latest computer chip-operated gadgets and gizmos, but lucky children in the Finger Lakes region of New York will be thrilled to find timeless classics under the tree—wooden toys.
Woodworking has been a lifelong hobby for 81-year-old Norman Riley. But it wasn’t until he had children that he really developed a passion for making wooden toys.
“It started about 58 years ago,” said Margaret Riley, Norman’s high-school sweetheart and wife of more than 61 years. “We were dairy farmers, and money wasn’t too plentiful in those days. Norm began making toys for our kids and just kept right on making them.”
Riley, a farmer for about four decades, uses maple, walnut, cherry, pine, and basswood for the toys in his collection that includes tractors, trucks, boats, airplanes, trains, doll cribs, highchairs, and pull toys.
“I’ve also made quite a few rocking horses, rocking cows, and even a rocking goat with a tin can in his mouth,” he said.
The woodworker’s heirloom-quality creations have stood the test of time and benefited more than just his now-grown children and grandchildren.
“Mr. Riley made my brother John a rocking horse for his fourth birthday,” recalls Nancy Potter Lewis, 52, whose father used to farm alongside Riley and who attends the same church as the woodworker and his wife. “It was painted white and had black ears made from rubber inner-tubing. It was my brother’s favorite toy at the time, and he used to ride it in his full cowboy getup. We have a lot of pictures of him on that horse.”
That was 45 years ago. Three generations of Potters, from John and Nancy to their children and now John’s grandchildren, have enjoyed the rocking horse. “It’s very special to us,” Lewis said. “They don’t make toys like this anymore.”
Once a gift-giving staple, wooden toys have been scarce since the introduction of more sophisticated, high-tech gadgets, but the popularity of wooden toys appears to be making a comeback.
Betsy Komes, associate publisher of Playthings magazine, a 105-year-old trade publication serving all aspects of the toy industry, is unaware of any group that specifically tracks the popularity of wooden toys, yet she and her associates have seen an increase in demand for these timeless classics.
Traditional wooden toys are among the top themes her company will focus on in 2009 as part of their move toward more eco-friendly toys to appeal to the environmentally conscious consumer. But Komes speculates the environment isn’t the only reason for the increased demand. Many parents are looking for toys that stimulate more creative play.
“In today’s market where toys are often computerized with a lot of lights and sounds, many parents feel the traditional wooden toys encourage children to be creative and imaginative,” Komes said. “And sometimes there’s a fear with electronic games that play is often too individualized and doesn’t encourage interaction with other children. Parents don’t want their kids sitting in front of a computer all day and are looking for toys—like wooden blocks, for example—that encourage group play.”
There is also a nostalgia factor: “Given everything going on in the world, there a lot of parents and grandparents right now who want toys for their children that are reminiscent of their own childhoods,” she said. “I think it’s their way of sharing the memories they have of a time when the world seemed less complicated.”
For whatever reason, Riley’s toys are in demand.
Gordon Tripp, 65, is co-owner of Owen Orchards, a 90-acre, family-run farm adjacent to Riley’s property that grows apples as well as a variety of fall vegetables. For nearly a decade, the woodworker has acted as a tour guide to school groups that visit the orchard and sells his wares in its roadside shop.
Tripp has known Riley his entire life and used to work for Riley and his brother Douglas at the farm the brothers operated together.
“He’s been a woodworker for as long as I can remember, and he does beautiful work,” Tripp said. “Last fall Norm brought in a six-foot-long train complete with tracks. It was so nice, we had two people come in on the same day wanting to buy it.”
Tripp said they sold the one in stock and then sent the other interested buyer to Riley, who made a second train.
“He sells out of the shop, but he also sells out of his home because everyone knows him and the work he does,” Tripp said.
One of the special aspects of Riley’s work is that it’s done mostly without using a pattern.
“A few years back, they were grading Norman’s road, and every time the grader went past his house, Norm went out and studied it. By the end of the day, he had produced an exact replica of it,” Tripp said. “He’s amazing.”
Although Riley enjoys making toys, his primary business is antique furniture repair. He also creates intricate collectible wooden replicas of tractors and other farm machinery.
“Farming has been such a big part of our lives,” Margaret Riley said.
Riley and his wife are often busy with the Ward W. O’Hara Agricultural Museum of Cayuga County. The museum features farm and home implements that revolutionized the American way of life. Riley’s been a commissioner there for more than 15 years and chaired the commission for ten. He’s been so instrumental at the museum that a section of it was named the Norman B. Riley Exhibit Hall.
When he’s not volunteering, he often can be found among the sawdust and wood shavings of his year-round home-away-from-home, which is adjacent to the couple’s house. The workshop is outfitted with a propane heater for cold New York winters and an air conditioner for summer.
“He’s always been someone who had to keep himself busy, and the word retirement is not in our vocabulary,” said Riley’s wife. “You keep active, you keep going. So usually—unless there’s something we have to do, he’s in there from about 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Sundays. As a farmer he always took Sundays off. Sunday was church day, and we didn’t work no matter what—if there was hay ready to work or not. But he does take time off to eat because we’ve always sat down at meals together. That’s something we’ve always done as a family.”
And that’s not the only thing they do together. The couple has collaborated on some creations.
“When our children and grandchildren were young, Norm would make the doll furniture, and I got the dolls,” Margaret Riley said.
She still fondly remembers a canopy bed her husband made for one of their daughter’s dolls. It was one of her favorites.
“We kept it and when the grandchildren came along, they played with it, too,” she said. “What my husband makes aren’t like a lot of today’s toys. His toys aren’t plastic and breakable: they’re keepers, heirlooms.”
Her husband has a little different perspective on his pastime.
“Woodworking is something I’ve always enjoyed doing, and I’ll do it for as long as I can,” Riley said. “I enjoy seeing the enjoyment people get out of my work. That makes it all worth it.”
“Woodworking is something I’ve always enjoyed doing, and I’ll do it for as long as I can.”