Laughter, Joy and Play
by Phaedra Greenwood
On a clear fall day, as you drive up the narrow dirt road to the Long house, bright sunflowers wave beside the fence, framed by a long stretch of piñon, juniper and sagebrush, and soft, blue mountains on the horizon.
You turn into the driveway and might be startled to see fruit trees and a broad, carefully mowed lawn. Connie may be out in the yard watering the plants. As you walk toward the house, you notice they actually have apples on some of their trees—surprising because the blossoms survived the frost at 8,000 feet. Tim, a gentle man with a friendly smile, shows me around the yard. He says they have no water rights, but the soil is good and the water table is not far below the surface.
Connie leads me inside and I stand admiring the shining oak floor of the kitchen and the adjoining, raised living room. They built the house themselves, and Tim’s skilled wood crafting is evident in counters and cabinets all around. Connie puts on water for tea and the three of us sit in rocking chairs in the morning sunshine and chat.
When the Longs first bought their five acres of land over 30 years ago and settled into a quiet rural life, they began to search for some way to make a living in Taos County where there are so few jobs. At first Connie worked at a preschool and then as a teacher’s aide. Tim, who is a musician and plays percussion with a band, became a music teacher and divided his time between three surrounding schools: Questa, Costilla and Red River. Later he helped found Taos Youth Music School, a free, after-school music education and performance program for Taos County youth.
In their early days in Taos, the Longs spent many hours driving back and forth to town on snowy roads in the dead of winter. But their dream persisted; they wanted to have a small family business that would allow them to stay home more. They began making simple wooden toys for their niece and nephew, who tested the toys and told them which ones worked and which ones didn’t. The Longs began selling their handmade toys at arts and crafts fairs, and North Star Toys was born. Tim says, “Our daughters, Claire and Joan, grew up playing with the toys we made for them.”
We finish our tea and the Longs lead me to a workshop where North Star Toys are manufactured. I’m impressed by how orderly and serene the shop is—though I can imagine a cloud of sawdust during the countdown just before Christmas as the Longs rush to fill toy orders.
Their website, www.northstartoys.com, which displays up to 60 items, includes classics such as a 26-inch-long, five-piece train, the North Star Express, with a tanker, an open car with three passengers and a car that carries a horse. Fairytale-type toys include a dragon, a set of three gnomes, a Pegasus, a unicorn, and a magic wand with a star at the end, which is one of their more popular items.
“More boys than girls are buying wands because of Harry Potter,” Connie says. “Once when we were at a craft fair, a cowboy and his son came up to our booth. They were both wearing scuffed cowboy boots and battered hats.” The dad invited his son to pick out any toy he wanted. When the boy picked the wand, Connie held her breath. “The wand has ribbons and glitter on it. It could be considered a girly toy. But the dad didn’t try to talk him out of it. I was so proud of him. I wanted to say, ‘You’re a good parent!’”
Many of the toys are geared to younger children. Connie pulls out drawer-like cardboard boxes to show me dozens of little “rollies,” toys with wheels. There is a roadster with a spare tire on the trunk, a semi-truck, a school bus, a bug car, a helicopter, an elephant, a giraffe, a whale, a horse, a rabbit, dinosaurs, and even a roadrunner with its crest blowing in the wind.
North Star Toys also sells sets of wooden farm animals and a whole standing family. Many of these beautiful and durable toys have moveable parts such as the rotor on the helicopter, which is made from walnut. “Basically, the toys don’t ‘do’ anything. They are simple and old-fashioned to encourage the child’s imagination,” Connie says.
She opens a drawer full of rainbow-colored peg people that ride in various vehicles like the Happy Hybrid and the People Mover, which are some of their most popular items. A woman named Sarah wrote, “I ordered your People Mover and little rollie helicopter for my son for Christmas and they have become his favorite toys! They are so simple, yet he finds something new to do with the People Mover every day. My son crawls right past the plastic noise makers that his grandparents gave him to get to your high quality toys!”
When their toys sold out at craft fairs, Tim began to think about the safest and most efficient way to mass-produce toys. “We’ve found the best size wood is two inches thick,” he says. The boards are cut into three or four-foot lengths. The toys are made from sustainably managed American hardwoods such as walnut, cedar, red oak, poplar, birch, and alder.
They designed the animal toys so that each one would express the essence of “giraffness” or “elephantness” or whatever the animal is. “We have experimented with hundreds of patterns. Some were big flops and some we are still honing. They have evolved and morphed over the years,” Tim says.
Using pre-cut patterns, they draw a series of shapes along a piece of wood, utilizing as much of the board as possible. They cut out the shapes using a band saw, round the edges with a router and smooth the pieces on the belt sander. Then it’s time for the details. Connie sits down with a cardboard box full of wooden animals to drill eyeholes on each side of the heads. Tim drills larger holes for the dowels that hold the wheels.
To streamline production, using an old drill press and bicycle parts, a friend helped them design what they call the “wheelie machine.” This machine is operated by a presser foot because legs tire less easily than arms, Connie explains. The “rollies” are secured in place by a board designed to hold them. Connie adds a dab of glue to the wheel holes and exerts enough pressure with her feet to secure the wheels on the dowels. In seconds the toys are ready to roll.
Safety is a top priority at North Star Toys, so the Longs did a lot of research on acceptable shapes without points or small, loose parts. They also thoroughly researched finishes and lead-free paints. North Star Toys conforms to or exceeds all code standards for toy safety in both America and Europe. Connie says, “We rub them with non-toxic oil to allow the natural beauty to shine.” Tim adds, “We’ve found that food-grade mineral oil is the safest substance to bring out the color and protect the surface.” The finished wooden toys have a diffused, satiny glow.
With all the loving care they lavish on their toys, how do the Longs compete in today’s market? “We have practically no marketing budget,” Tim says. But their website has attracted international attention; they have turned down mass production offers from China and options for computerized production. They believe the longevity of their small, family business is due to perseverance and their debt-free, “cookie-jar” approach.
Connie says, “We try to let people know that we make the toys ourselves. We don’t have any employees. From start to finish, we’ve handled each toy with the right ingredients and care.” The Long’s dedication to perfection is a key ingredient. Amanda from Ohio wrote, “I just want to tell you how pleased I am with your service. I do my best to find goods that are made in the United States… . I ordered two rollies for my little boy, and not only are they adorable, but I was impressed by the personal note card that was included… .”
Connie says with a wistful smile, “We’re hoping that American handmade, imaginative toys will keep us going.” “It has so far,” Tim says, “though we took a hit with the recession. It’s been tough for the past couple of years. But there’s been something of a rebound. Our website is getting a lot more popular and I’m really grateful for that. We really want people to know that we make all our toys in Questa with our own hands. And we’ve been doing it for 30 plus years.”
Tim and Connie Long are proud to give the top priority in their business to environmental sustainability. They recycle their paper and use recycled packaging whenever possible. Sawdust becomes litter for chickens or supplements the compost. Wood scraps are donated to schools for art projects and used in the shop for kindling. All the electricity that runs the shop comes from wind and/or solar energy. “Toys are for kids, not just this generation, but for generations to come. We want to protect our planet for this and future generations,” Connie says.
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