As a cold wind whipped outside his heated shop, inside Edwin Toren put the finishing touches on a dozen doll cribs and reminisced about growing up on a farm on the Rocky Mountain Front.
“Christmas didn’t happen a lot for us back then because times were tough,” Toren said, recalling his years growing up near Valier in the 1950s. “If we were lucky, we’d usually get one present — always something useful like clothing or socks — and maybe an orange or some hard candy.”
The thought of those meager Christmases sends Toren, 70, into the shop behind his house in Columbia Falls almost every day.
“I just can’t stand the thought of a kid not getting a toy on Christmas morning,” he said.
But thanks to his efforts, many kids in the Flathead Valley will receive a new toy this holiday season. Every year, Toren and another local woodworker, Bob Redinger, toil away in their shops making hundreds of toys that they donate to the local Toys for Tots drive. Their annual effort to fill the coffers with wooden toys is a throwback to the very first item Toys for Tots collected back in 1947: a handmade doll.
U.S. Marine Corps Major Bill Hendricks organized the first toy drive in Los Angeles and collected more than 5,000 toys that year. The following year, the Marine Corps Reserve adopted the program and expanded it across the country. Today, Toys for Tots annually collects more than 16 million toys for 7 million children. Locally, the Toys for Tots program gathers about 10,000 toys every holiday season that are distributed to more than 2,400 children in Flathead and Lincoln counties.
Many of those toys are born in Toren’s shop. Toren spent 30 years working at a sawmill before getting into construction. He also worked as a volunteer firefighter and was mayor of Columbia Falls for a few years. Toward the end of his busy career, Toren realized he needed to find a hobby to stay busy in retirement, so he picked up woodworking.
At first, Toren made toys for his grandchildren, but he soon realized he had a knack for it and started making more. For a few years, Toren sold the toys and other items at the local farmers market, but then he decided to start donating them to Toys for Tots. The first year, he made about 40 toys. Now, more than a decade later, he averages more than 800 wooden toys annually, all of which will go to needy children in the Flathead.
In his shop last week, Toren had to gingerly tiptoe around the dozens of toys spread out on the shop floor. There were boxes full of wooden cars, a crate of tic-tac-toe games and multiple airplanes with spinning propellers waiting to be piloted by little hands. Toren estimates he has made 50 different types of toys over the years, most of them of his own design, inspired by woodworking magazines or from his own ideas.
“It’s really become my passion,” he said. “I just love doing it.”
Toren starts working on a new batch of toys almost immediately after the Marines pick up the previous load to distribute to children a few weeks before Christmas. He said he will often build 20 or 30 of the same type of toy at the same time because it is much more efficient. Some toys, like the wooden cars, take only a few pieces of wood to construct. But others, like the doll cribs, can take upwards of 30 different pieces.
Toren said he works on the toys every day, except Sunday, when he and his wife go to church. He rarely takes a day off either, even after he sliced off part of his index finger earlier this year while making a batch of yo-yos.
“That taught me to be a little more careful,” he said, showing off his chopped finger. “But growing up on a farm on the east side makes you tough.”
One of the only times Toren stops making toys is when he makes caskets, which he sells to cover the cost of toy making.
What Toren loves most about his wooden toys is their longevity. He said the toys he made for his grandchildren have lasted years and have been used by multiple siblings.
“I like that these toys can been handed down from generation to generation,” he said. “It’s not like some of these plastic toys you see these days that won’t even last until tomorrow.”
Sean Weeks, campaign coordinator for Toys for Tots in Flathead County, said that the handmade wooden toys are always among the first to go when people come for presents.
“Toys like that are rare now,” he said. “There are just not a lot of people out there making things by hand anymore, especially wooden toys.”
Redinger, 89, of Kalispell has been making wooden toys for more than a decade. Redinger, who was a chemist for the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. and retired in the 1980s, picked up woodworking as a way to stay busy. Thirteen years ago, Redinger learned about a local man who made toys for the Toys for Tots effort. He reached out and offered to cut pieces to help, but before he knew it he was making toys on his own.
Redinger keeps one of every type of toy he makes so that he has a pattern to follow in the future. In his basement, there is a shelf bulging with toys from past years, everything from wooden turtles to trains.
“Every January I start making toys again and I keep picking away at them all year long,” he said.
This year, Redinger made a total of 437 toys, including 25 little rocking chairs, 174 wooden trucks, 32 bulldozers and 32 block wagons. Redinger burns his name on to the bottom of each toy, and his wife Dorothy helps package them. He said two things have driven him to build thousands of toys over the years.
“This community has just been so good to us, so we just want to give back somehow,” he said. “I just want to help folks who don’t have the assets to give their kids a big Christmas.”
“And I want to stay busy,” he added. “If you just stop doing things and just sit and watch television, you’re not going to last long.”
Redinger and Toren said while they both love making toys every year, they’re not sure how much longer they’ll be able to do it. They both hope that other local woodworkers will step up to the plate to help Toys for Tots out in the future. Toren said while they don’t make money from it, the thanks they get from the people they help is priceless.
“If I can make people happy with the toys I make, then I’m happy,” he said.
Toren saw that happiness firsthand a few weeks ago. One of his neighbors was going door-to-door with her young daughter and infant son giving out homemade cookies. Toren invited the woman and her children into his shop and let the boy and girl each pick out a few toys for themselves. He said the little boy, who couldn’t even walk yet, got a wooden car and was so happy with it he wouldn’t let it out of his grip.
“When I see things like that, it just melts my heart,” he said.
After putting the finishing touches on his wooden doll cribs, Toren got them ready to be picked up along with the dozens of other toys scattered around his shop floor. Soon the wooden games, cars and airplanes would be replaced with a stack of fresh wood, ready to be turned into next year’s batch of joy.
“Once all the toys are gone, I’ll be back out here tomorrow and every day after that,” Toren said. “Every day except Sunday.”