Wooden toys are a timeless classic that have appeared under Christmas trees for generations. However, in today’s high-tech world of plastic gadgets, wooden toys are almost a thing of the past. Just don’t tell that to Scott Cooper, “I think people like wooden toys; there’s something kind of earthy about them.” And don’t tell it to Kurt Grunwald either, “I remember as a kid playing with some of my favorite toys and they were wooden toys.”
For Cooper and Grunwald, woodworking is a family tradition and for the past 20 years, it’s become a holiday tradition. The two friends were helping out at the Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving food drive. They were handing out food to families in need and noticed another need. The need for toys. Cooper said, “It just seemed natural that two wood workers would make wooden toys.”
And so the tradition began. The “elves” as they call themselves started making wooden toys. The first year it was little toy grasshoppers that you could pull and the legs would move. The tugboats were the second year. And with each new year came a new wooden toy. Twenty years later the elves are still at work and the ideas keep coming. For 2018, it’s a flatbed truck that can haul Matchbox cars.
Over the years, the number of elves has also grown. They now have five elves in the work shop and an accessorizing elf. In all, 50 wooden toys a year are built and everybody does their part sawing, hammering, gluing, drilling and accessorizing. Grunwald added, “I get to feel like I’m making life better for some kids out there. You feel like Santa Claus.”
It’s a kind-hearted tradition that has extended to the University Wisconsin – La Crosse where most of elves have day jobs. Cooper teaches biology and Grunwald oversees nuclear research. When the students learned of their project, well, the holiday spirit spread. Cooper said, “It’s kind of become a Christmas tradition. Towards the end of the semester, they all help paint toys. I think it helps them blow off steam around finals week.” The science of giving is a lesson taught right alongside medical research. Students and teachers working on life’s problems at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Along the Mississippi River as summer gives way to autumn, the sounds of the season can already be heard echoing into the night from Cooper’s wood shop. The sounds echo off the wood and into the hearts of young children. Kurt Grunwald added, “I hope they’re enjoying them as much as I did wooden toys when I was a kid. I just hope that they have a good Christmas really. We know it’s making a difference.”
(This story also aired on Wisconsin Public Radio on December 8, 2017.)
Scott Cooper and Kurt Grunwald Explain How the Toys Come to Life and Have a Lifetime Warranty