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Ernest Raines’ house is full of toys.This is not an exaggeration. There are toys in the corner, toys on the table, toys on the shelves. Every flat surface holds a clutch of wooden toys, and Raines has made every last one.
His shirt says it all: “Toys by Ernest, 713-858-1439.”
Raines, who lives in Rosharon, south of Houston, sells his toys at the Sienna Plantation farmer’s market near Sugar Land every Sunday afternoon until Christmas. (His van is full of toys, too.) “I’ve got something to catch anybody’s eye,” he says.At 85, Raines is retired. He spent his working life building houses and then building churches around the country. For 35 years, he preached in the Church of Christ. Raines and his wife, Margaret, who died in 2011, raised nine children, four biological and five adopted. “We have 13 living grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren,” he says, a bit wryly, “but that could have changed.”
The nine children are why he started making toys.
A Model T delivery truck is based on Raines’ memories of growing up in the ’30s. When the back was loaded with ice, the
real-life truck would travel neighborhoods, ringing its bell, and selling
milk, butter and eggs.Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
Christmas was coming. Money was tight at the Raines house in Tennessee — so tight that store-bought Christmas presents were impossible. “It was a tough road to travel,” Raines says now.
He dug through the county dumpsters to find bicycles that could be given new life. “I reworked them and painted them,” Raines says.
In his garage, Raines shows off a toy train. Growing up, he watching trains at the station.Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
But what about the children who were too little for bikes? For them, Raines taught himself to fashion wooden toys.
ERNEST AND Margaret married in 1953. Shortly thereafter, they adopted an 11-year-old boy.Soon they added four biological children, a girl and three boys. One day, Margaret told Ernest it wasn’t right for their little girl not to have a sister. “Let’s see if I can find one,” he told her.Raines was doing some remodeling work at a local children’s home. The superintendent told Raines he was going to pick up four little girls who had been surrendered, but he had no home to send them to.
The next week Raines encountered the superintendent walking down the hall. “I still haven’t found anybody,” he said.
“I’m going to take them all,” Raines told him. And all at once, the family added a six-month-old baby and little girls 3, 5 and 6.The toys Raines made for his children are much like the ones he sells now. Many tell the story of his Tennessee childhood in the 1930s and of a way of life long gone.
Here, in the living room, is a locomotive with a coal car and caboose, because little Ernest loved watching the trains at the station.
Here, on the back porch, is a covered wagon. “I grew up riding in a wagon more than I rode in a car,” Raines says. “Some people had money to buy a seat. We didn’t have a seat.” He pauses. “We came up hard.”
Here’s a Model T delivery truck. When the back was loaded with ice, the real-life truck would travel neighborhoods, ringing its bell, and sell milk, butter and eggs out the front. “Back yonder years ago,” he says, “people didn’t drive much.”
Raines builds a tiny car. “A toy a day keeps the doctor away,” he says.Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
Raines built his house in Rosharon himself. He fasted on Fridays and used the money he would have spent on lunch and dinner to buy supplies on Saturdays.
Raines’ sons Paul and Tim bought land in Rosharon, too, when they were working alongside their dad there. Paul remembers the wooden toys from his childhood. “It was his dream, when he retired, to set up a little shop to make toys,” he says. “It’s what he loves to do.”
RAINES HAS a motto: “A toy a day keeps the doctor away.”
Sometimes it works imperfectly. He has had, in addition to two operations on his face for cancer, a back operation, a heart operation and kidney trouble. In May, he fell in his living room and shattered his femur. After two weeks in a rehabilitation hospital, he declared himself able to take care of himself and went home.
When Raines enters his workshop, though, the years fall away from him. He handles his tools and saws with the confidence of decades of practice. A basic toy comes together in minutes.
Very little is wasted; he keeps scraps and bits and figures out how to use them. He works with oak, pine, cedar, poplar, and he travels north of Conroe to get the cedar. (The air in the shop smells like cedar.) Often, the cost of materials is more than he charges — they range from $3 to $45 — for a toy. No two are quite alike.
“I didn’t have many toys when I was growing up, so I know how to appreciate them,” Raines says.
That small child is always in the front of Raines’ mind. When he sells his toys, he sets some aside for children whose parents can’t afford any.
“If some child wants one,” he says, “I can say, ‘Here, take this.’ ”
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