‘Mrs. Santa’ Keeps it Simple, Safe

By Beacon Staff

This holiday season, trendy, mindless and noisy gadgets – especially those made for computers and television – tend to top children’s wish lists and the shelves of area box stores. But Evergreen resident Gloria Lehmann prefers “timeless toys,” making wooden trucks, airplanes, cars and hobbyhorses, instead.

Her toys may not have the “bells and whistles” of their modern counterparts, she says, but they still hold universal appeal.

“I grew up in a farm in Colorado,” she said. “We weren’t rolling in money, so we only got toys on Christmas, Easter and our birthday. You made your own toys with sticks or rocks or whatever and used your imagination.”

“I think kids still like things that let them use their imagination,” she added.

Lehman sticks to a few simple designs: There’s a truck that holds three small cars on its bed and another that carries logs; an airplane complete with spinning propeller, pilot and co-pilot; and hobbyhorses, with stick bodies and wooden heads. After several requests, Lehmann plans to add fire trucks and trains soon.

During the summer, she sells her toys at the Kalispell Farmer’s Market and during the winter at the annual Christmas arts and craft fair under the moniker “Mrs. Santa’s Workshop.” Prices range from $6 for a small car to $34 for the truck with cars or a plane.

“I try to keep prices low so a little kid can come with his own money and still afford a car,” she said.

Lehmann’s first attempt at toy-making was almost 30 years ago at the behest of a Columbia Falls bank. As part of a holiday charity event, the bank gave away toy kits and asked community members to assemble and return the toys so they could be donated.

Lehmann enjoyed the process so much that she bought a saw, intent on making her own toys. But first, a renter had to teach her how to use it.

“I was afraid of the saw when I got it,” she said. “I really didn’t know what I was doing.”

That fear and uncertainty has turned to adeptness: Lehmann now works from a large shop in her backyard – constructed specifically for her woodworking – amid half a dozen power saws. She works in assembly-line fashion, carving duplicates of one piece of one toy before moving on to the next piece and, finally, assembling and painting them all at once.

Rather than buying new materials, Lehmann works mostly from scraps, using leftovers from construction sites for the bulk of her work. To make the handles of her hobbyhorses, she scavenges broom handles from dumpsites.

“People throw away brooms all the time,” she said, “and they’re oak or maple. I could pay $4 for a dowel and it would just be pine.”

To finish the toys, Lehmann uses a combination of bright paints and vinyl stickers.

Amid stories of lead paint, dangerous magnets and “poison” plastics in toys, Lehmann’s quick to assure one that her toys are safe. She even called the paint manufacturers to learn more about the ingredients. And wood, of course, is a safe and natural product.

Lehmann retired this fall, and hopes to makes toys full time.

“I tried retiring once before and it didn’t work out too well – not enough to do,” she said. “This time, I plan on taking a break for a bit, then spending as much time on the toys as I spent at my job.”