On a sunny day along the Mississippi River in Onalaska this past fall, a group of guys got together to make wooden toys. They call themselves woodworking elves and for nearly two decades, they’ve made about fifty toys a year to hand out to kids around the holidays.
The project was founded by UW-La Crosse biology professor Scott Cooper and UW-La Crosse radiation safety officer Kurt Grunwald.
“We were helping out at the Salvation Army giving out food baskets at Christmas and we noticed they had leftover toys from the Toys for Tots program,” said Cooper. “We noticed the kids were getting to pick through second-hand toys. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if they had some brand new toys?’”
“We were both into woodworking, so we thought maybe we could make some wooden toys,” added Grunwald.
That first year, the pair made about fifty wooden toy grasshoppers. Since then, they’ve created a fishing pole with magnetic fish, a step stool, and a farm and horse corral. Then, there are Grunwald’s favorites, vehicles like tractors and trains.
“I grew up on a farm so farm toys are a favorite of mine, like the horse drawn wagon,” said Grunwald.
The duo has added more woodworking elves, other La Crosse community members, over the years. UWL students pitch in to help decorate and paint the toys. There are also accessorizing elves who help package the wooden toys with complimentary gifts.
This year, the group of woodworking elves are making toy toboggans. They processed wooden boards from a dead ash tree that was on Grunwald’s property. The thin slats soaked in boiling water over a fire in Cooper’s yard, which makes the wood pliable and easier to work with. The group curled and clamped the boards over a PVC pipe, shaping the front end of the sled. Once the wood dries and cools, it’ll hold the classic toboggan shape.
And soon, the accessorizing elf will get to work.
“They’ll probably get some sort of teddy bear or something to drive the sled, then a bag of other accessories to go with it,” said Cooper. “That’ll be like Santa bear delivering toys.”
The toys will be distributed at the beginning of December, just in time for the holidays. Most of the wooden toboggans will be handed out through the Family & Children’s Center in La Crosse. A handful will also go to UW-La Crosse’s Child Care Center.
“You know, we could just donate money and it would be well used I’m sure,” said Grunwald. “But it’s the camaraderie and the feeling we get from doing it. When you donate money, you don’t see what happens to it.”
“I think it’s become a bit of a tradition,” said Cooper. “It’s fun to see all the people get involved. You can tell someone put time into it. We didn’t just go buy a bunch of stuff at Walmart to hand out. I think the kids appreciate wood toys. I don’t know what it is about them…maybe they can use a bit more imagination playing with a wooden toy versus something that comes in a kit.”