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Emily Clark [email protected] @emilyOCM
Jan 30, 2020 at 10: 00 AM
These were the most innovative toys back in the day, and the hand-hewn charm of them calls to mind a simpler time.
Roll the duck along and the wooden egg on its back rotates around, over and over again. Pull on the wooden train, and car after car follows, a Noah’s Arc of animals behind it, all equipped with the same wooden wheels. If you spin the red ball at the top of a carousel of little white ducks, the strings connecting it to the base spin round it. Let go, and the toy spins of its own accord, the ducks whirling around and around in circles.These were the most innovative toys back in the day, and the hand-hewn charm of them calls to mind a simpler time. Imagination fueled them, as children reaped the joys of having to fill in the blanks in their minds. Like abstracts of the actual image, these wooden toys represent art, really, the art of play.But the Woodchucks who made these toys have chucked all the wood their going to chuck – together at least. The club is dissolving after 25 years, and is donating the $1,500 left in the kitty from membership dues and sales to Fragile Footprints, a part of the Massachusetts Pediatric Care Network.“It has been decided to fold the Woodchucks,” Woodchuck Ben Brewster wrote. “The interest has been light and attendance poor.”Brewster and Woodchuck President Paul Mueller met Monday morning to discuss the club’s history and its many members, like the late Charlie Stasinos, Bill George, Lenny Barbieri, Everett Lannman, Herb Balboni, Harold Strassel, Leon Atti, Hector Patenaud and Ruiz Gallerani, to name a few.“The purpose of the club was to teach each other about woodworking and visit facilities in the woodworking business,” Brewster said. “We have been to ships wheel makers, the North Bennett Street School, violin makers, bed post turners.”The group began its life in members’ shops – the man caves in cellars where the careful and precise cutting and molding was done. Wooden toy making manuals were consulted, and the Woodchucks made toy tractors, tugboats, doll furniture, tic-tac-toe boards, games, crayon trucks and steam shovels. They made toys with wheels, like the fabulous elephant, giraffe, hippo and lion, all linked with little hooks, so they made an animal train. The Woodchucks could have called themselves Santa’s Elves – it would have been every bit as accurate – because thousands of these toys found their way into the tiny hands of terminal and ill children at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, Jordan Hospital before it became BID-Plymouth, and other wards. In those early days, the Woodchucks could hand deliver the toys, before medical staff had to prevent this contact due to the threat of infection in these children with compromised immune systems.The Woodchucks loved it. Brewster and Mueller said the fellowship of club members was wonderful, as they would all work side by side on the toys, sometimes making dozens of the same type, so children that liked that particular toy could all get one. As the group expanded, Plymouth South High School allowed Woodchucks to use the wood shop after school hours. This was an incredible boon for them, as there was enough space to spread out.“Out of the goodness of their hearts, Goodrich Lumber gives us a $500 credit for wood, and we go pick it up,” Brewster said. “When the $500 runs out, they give us another $500 credit.”The Woodchucks went on trips together, as Brewster noted, with everyone converging at sites like the North Bennett Street School, a premier craft, trade and artisan school. They’d have lunch afterward and share in their love of woodworking. The Woodchucks had an annual picnic, with Bill George or another member doing the honors. Ru Gallerani held a picnic one year at his home on Micajah Pond.“He was a sweetheart,” Brewster added.Mueller said it’s a shame that wooden toys are now no longer valued by most children. He said his grand-daughters don’t really play with them. Some say toys have become far too sophisticated, lulling imaginations to sleep amid the new technology and gadgets.They said it was too bad as well, when the high school opted to de-emphasize the trades, shrinking the size of the wood shop in the new high school considerably. It’s now too small really to accommodate the Woodchucks, who must lug their heavy equipment in and out in order to use the space at all. They can no longer leave it there; there’s isn’t enough room.“The trades aren’t popular,” Brewster explained. “Everybody has to go to college, which I think is a crying shame. You try to find an electrician, or a carpenter or a painter and you can’t find one now.”The money will go to a wonderful cause, they said, but what they’re going to do with all the wooden wheels and dowels they still have remains to be seen. They held out a little hope that enough interest in the Woodchucks might actually rekindle the club, which has lost many members over the years. Mueller and Brewster said they’re going to miss it, but will continue to work with wood in their own homes. It won’t be the same, however.“It gives you something to do,” Brewster said. “All of us liked to work with wood. It gives us an excuse to work with wood. It was just a fun thing to do and an excuse to get together.”
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