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Assembly line of love

Starting with a block of wood, the men saw, shape, and sand. With a little paint, the toy is off to a needy child. And the Toy Makers grind on, 152,000 toys and counting.

By MATTHEW WAITE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2000


HUDSON -- Step into Jim McGarr's back yard and be welcomed into a Florida-meets-Henry-Ford version of Santa's workshop.

By the thousands, beautiful, old-fashioned wooden toys are made here by hand. Regular cars, racecars, trucks, helicopters, trains, boats and the Batmobile. The kids love the Batmobile.

"That reminds me," McGarr said, holding a wood version of the Caped Crusader's car. "Got to make some more of these."

And then there's the others. Carousels that spin, semitrailer trucks that unload cars, and reindeer. There are hundreds of reindeer, in five different sizes, with Santa, too.

In the shop, under a cloud of sawdust, sit some 1,800 toys in one form or another, starting as blocks of oak, poplar, cypress or walnut waiting to be formed to cars needing wheels. On the east wall are jars of wooden headlights and hubcaps. In another room are hundreds of brightly painted wheels.

On shelves in the paint room are 12 boxes, each with 100 more cars needing a coat of paint. Not one of them has a piece of metal -- not one screw, nail, brad, staple or pin.

This is what the Toy Makers do. They make toys. Then they give them away.

The half-dozen men working now -- some veterans, some former carpenters, all retired -- have been making toys from less than a year to more than five years. The group itself has been around for 19 years, with members coming and going, and has made about 152,000 toys in that time.

On Monday, they will hit the road on one of their quarterly trips to the dozen agencies they give these handmade toys to.

They'll load up nearly 1,000 toys and give them away in two days to places like the Ronald McDonald houses in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Gainesville, hospitals in the bay area and paramedics in Pasco County. The toys they make by the thousands will be given to children. The more ornate toys they create by the hundreds will be sold for fundraisers.

To those agencies, the Toy Makers are a blessing.

Lynn Lippincott is a family coordinator for one of two St. Petersburg Ronald McDonald houses, for families with children in the hospital. She said the kids love the toys, and the gift marks a special time for them.

"It means everything," she said of seeing their smiles. "It's a little token of a milestone in their life, going home from whatever they went through."

The workers who make the toys know who they are working for. They say it takes away any feeling that making toys is work.

Harry Shallcross of Port Richey said he likes the work, likes the company, and it all keeps him out of the house.

"I get more out of it than I put into it," he said.

What they put into it combines the work of Santa's elves and the love of children with the style of an assembly line.

The wood is donated to the group, planed to clean it up and get it to the right thickness. McGarr said he cuts so much wood he takes chips out by the barrel.

The wood is then cut into preset sized blocks on a table saw. Then, with one of 40 guides traced on the block, the first form of the toy is cut out with a band saw. Then, axle holes and windows are cut with the drill press.

On Wednesday, Bruce Pahl was working the sander, smoothing the rough edges. After sanding off 100 cars of one style, he handed them to Tom Loughlin on the router. Loughlin gave the cars a nice rounded edge and got them ready to be painted.

In the paint room sat Art Benner, his 79-year-old hands painting each car, one by one, two coats each of bright orange or green or blue. Each car he put on the drying rack behind him was one fewer in the 1,200 toy backlog, and by lunch at 11:30 a.m, he'll have put one coat on 60 cars.

"It's what you call job security," Benner joked.

Jokes about work and jobs come easily here. The Toy Makers tease each other about working slow, the "boss" McGarr and complaining to the union. It's all part of the camaraderie of men with a purpose and a room full of power tools.

"This is fun," McGarr said. "If I had to get paid for it, it wouldn't be any fun.

"For us, putting the time in that we do . . . when we see the smile on their face, that's our satisfaction. That makes it well worth it, believe me."

Local children aren't the only beneficiaries of their work.

In a shed behind the shop, nearly 18,000 toys, from the simple to the complex, sit waiting to be given away. McGarr calls it his "stock," ready for special occasions.

In 1993, when floods devastated the Midwest, McGarr loaded up 1,000 toys and delivered them to children there. Last year, when Hurricane Mitch wiped out coastal Honduras, McGarr sent another 1,000 toys there. The stock toys sit waiting for the next children in need.

But most of their work stays here in Tampa Bay.

Betsy Hanley, the house manager at the Tampa Ronald McDonald House, said they give the toys to kids when they leave the house. She said it always puts a smile on their face.

"It's like everyone in the house has a grandparent in the Toy Makers," she said. "They're like everybody's grandpa."

- Staff writer Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com.

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