Sunday, September 6, 2015

Toy Town Junction at Luray Caverns in Virginia

Somewhere inside a box full of other boxes full of photos is a picture of my younger brother and I on a trip from way back in the day to Luray Caverns. I remember being a grumpy pill on the trip because I had to wear shorts. (In retrospect, I probably didn't have too much to complain about in my childhood.) Even though I had to wear shorts, I still had fond memories of the trip and always wanted to go back for another visit.

Anyway, with summer winding down I decided that little one and I could do a father/daughter day trip and revisit the amazing caverns. In looking up the cost and directions, I saw that your ticket also gets you admission to two museums on the premises, namely The Luray Valley Museum and a collection of antique vehicles in The Car and Carriage Caravan. Okay, sounded good...but what's this? An onsite toy collection to visit for free - Toy Town Junction! Not a minute to lose - To the Toy Making Dad Mobile! 

Okay - We drove out and took the tour of the caverns. In a word - Spectacular. I'd share more pictures but this isn't a travel site, it is a toy making site (well, at least theoretically.) I do want to share a thought though, but I'll wait to the end to hop on my soap box.

So after a mile and a half of caverns and a quick stop at the gift shop, it was time for Toy Town Junction! The building that houses Town Town is right next to the Luray Caverns entrance and it has its own cafe and gift shop attached to the display area. Don't expect some giant warehouse though. It is more a very large room - several hundred square feet and hundreds (mmm maybe thousands) of toys displayed in themed areas around the walls with the center taken up by large working train sets.

It is a very eclectic collection and it all belongs to Richard Worden, a retired Methodist minister from Kentucky. There is a lot to see and you'd be hard pressed to not spot at least one toy from your childhood if not dozens. The collection covers a wide spread of American history. Unfortunately, most of the toys are not labeled and there isn't a guide or description for them. There is the large train collection, a lot of Playmobil and Playskool Little People as well as dolls, but seeing as I am basically still a 12 year old boy... my attention was drawn to to the airplanes and tanks.

So this guy is hanging from the ceiling and a couple of things stood out - It's metal and my guess is that it is pre-war or very early WW2 since the US Army Air Corps/Air Force roundels on the plane are the ones where there is a red dot in the center of the star. (We stopped using the red dot early in WW2 because it was too easy to confuse with the markings on Japanese aircraft.) I found pictures of similar toys on the web when I got home and these were made by Marx Toys. They were windup toys that would roll across the floor and many had spots for sparks to come out where the machine guns were on the aircraft.

One bummer for me though is that while this plane is super cool... it really isn't intended to evoke a particular aircraft. It just has a sleek bomber look, but nothing the US was flying at the time really looked like this. There were some twin tailed typed out there but not like this. It still has an amazing 30's vibe to it though.

This plane sort of has the opposite issue for me. You can tell it was post war because of the markings (and metal was so precious during the war, they weren't using it to make toys.) These were made by a company called Hubley in the 60's and it looks like they made gazillions of them is all sorts of different forms and colors. Here's the deal though - they sold this as a "P-47." It does have the general shape of the immortal Thunderbolt/Jug but it has folding wings. Folding wings are for Navy aircraft so that they will fit on the elevators and take up less room below deck on an aircraft carrier. I know... relax! Lighten up Francis, It's a toy! I still think it is neat and would love to have one. I just think that's it a little odd to go through the trouble of matching the general shape of one aircraft and then have it do something else. Couldn't they have made it a Corsair? Just saying...

So, to wrap up the airplane part for me is this gem. WOW. It is a toy, not a detailed model and it is clearly made to look like a massive flying boat from the 1920's called the Dornier Do X.  At the time the plane was second in size but first in weight in the world. Only three were ever built but it was really out there in the public conscious. The toy is really big as well, at least 18" or 24" long and made from wood. I wonder if it was a one off toy made by some 1930's toy making dad?

Source -
Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-12963
CC-BY-SA 3.0

I really like that you can tell at a glance that this is the plane it is supposed to be. However there wasn't someone counting rivets to make it super accurate and probably more expensive and fragile for no added playability. It really struck me that you can capture the general sense of the subject without having to make a "model." It is something I struggle with at times while making historically themed toys.

This is a Marx windup tin tank. As it runs along the floor, sparks come flying out from the main gun and the soldier pops out of the back and then goes back into the hull. Super cool and super classy. One thing I noticed about this toy and some of the other similar Marx toys is that the pattern on the side representing the tracks is made to look the same if it is used on either the right or left hand side of the toy. It saves having to make different left and right hand pieces. Pretty clever.

Marx also made a ton of these "Turn Over Tanks" (mmmmm turnovers....) They are wind up and they roll across the floor and then a bar extends from beneath the tank and flips it on its back. The shape of the tank and its momentum cause it to do a full flip.It then goes a few inches and flips again. There was one version that had a little Superman instead of the bar flip out from under the tank so it looked like Superman was actually flipping the tank.

Not sure what the tanks are doing at that circus. Maybe they are guarding the blue port-a-potties in the background?

I also spotted these tanks in with the train sets. Well, one tank, one armored car, a truck and what I think is a truck with a searchlight mounted on it. The train is the real toy and the vehicles are just accessories but it is interesting that the tank is sort of M4 Sherman in shape but a bit generic. The armored car looks to be closer to the sorts of armored cars that the British used during WW2, some of which were actually built by the US.

I also enjoyed the fantastic amazing cool toys... that would probably be illegal to sell now.

Here is "The Boys Favorite Tool Chest." Now besides that fact the folks over at "Overly Sensitive Parenting Quarterly" would flip their lids at the lack of "inclusiveness" in the name, the box is full of real tools! Sharp metal stuff... that is all a little rusty now. Throw in a box of strike anywhere matches and you might have the ultimate toy for young boys (in their minds at least.)

Erector sets were the Legos of their day. Make anything you want and make it out of metal. I remember my brothers making a rubber band powered catapult that came down with such force that I'm sure it could have been used as a deli meat slicer. Anyway, what I like about this kit is that you can launch a rocket. From the cover art I thought the rocket was metal and even I was like... maybe not such a great idea. Upon further review of other internet resources, the launcher was metal. The rocket was plastic.

I had heard about this toy but never seen one. This is Marx's famous "Shop King." It is an all in one shop toy for future toy making moms and dads. You use Styrofoam as the raw material and the toy has a lathe, jig saw, table saw, sabre saw, grinder, sander, polisher, borer, and router built in. GIMME, GIMME, GIMME!!! (The blades are plastic.)

So all in all a fun little side stop on our visit to the caverns. Little one was tired but pretty patient with me and I'd say we were though the collection in maybe 20 or 30 minutes. I don't honestly know that it would warrant a cross country trip to go and just see the collection, but it is definitely fun. If you are ever in the area, its worth stopping by for sure. Remember, if you don't have time for the caverns, Toy Town Junction is free .There is  a lot of love and lot of fun on display. I enjoyed soaking some of it up.

And now my two cents - Thank God the caverns were discovered 140 years ago.

If they were discovered now, I can only assume they would be sealed off so that the public couldn't go into them. They would have to be preserved in their untouched state. While I appreciate that sentiment, I can't get past the fact that around 500,000 people a year visit the caverns and get to enjoy it in ways that no website or magazine spread could ever hope to. The picture at left doesn't begin to give justice to "Dream Lake." Shallow still water creates a perfect mirror image of what is above and it is the closest I've ever felt to looking at an alien landscape. Amazing. How many people have been inspired by the site over the years? How many future geologists and scientists got started there? If you ask me, the trade-off of lighting the place and creating the walkways was worth it.

  1 comment:

  1. Very cool! Excellent post.

    So, on the Dornier, I can excuse the rivet thing. But I noticed there are only 4 engines right away. You'd think the builder had a photo of the prototype to work from, yes? Six engines is pretty obvious. Still, a very cool and rare piece.

    I also notice the Pennsy E2b (or c...) behind the tanks on the flatcar. Another oddball piece of equipment. Hate that brown color scheme - the earlier Brunswick green was much classier.


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While we don’t necessarily need more objects, we just might benefit from more making.
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Regular guy who likes to make stuff who lives with a very patient wife, three daughters and three cats.