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Friday, Sep. 4, 2015

"Wooden" it be nice

The author believes that his version of the hobby horse with a highly stylized paint scheme was made in later years by Thomas Gallivan as a gift to his grand-daughter Emily LaValle. [Photo courtesy of Emily LaValle]
In 1944 there were three companies manufacturing wooden toys in New Madrid. Today, it is difficult to imagine the town as a manufacturing hub of anything other than aluminum at the nearby Noranda plant, but the legacy of making wooden toys in the 1940s is interesting commercial history.

That year the novelty of having three toy manufactures in New Madrid caught the attention of the editor of the New Madrid Weekly Record who commented that the only other known manufacturing to have occurred in the city in its first 150 years were several barrel stave mills that operated around the turn of the century in the southeast corner of the city. Today's "Mill Street" is the only reminder of that era.

The three toy companies were Shelby Novelty Company, the Semo Woodcraft Company and Bates Cabinet Shop. In the summer of 1944 they employed a total of 35 people and were working at full capacity.

Thomas Gallivan in about 1958. [Author's collection]
This level of activity easily likens the furious pace of toy elves in Santa's workshop at the North Pole--except, it was in New Madrid.

Shelby Novelty Company

The Shelby Novelty Company's entry into wooden toy manufacturing had its origin with two local entrepenures and woodworkers, Thomas Gallivan and Clay Broughton. The pair designed a wooden hobby horse and began selling them locally during the Christmas season in 1943. Their production could not meet the demand for the popular rocking horse that season. Gallivan left shortly after for service in the Army Engineers and Bill Shelby purchased the pair's interest and expanded the horse's production in April 1944.

Shelby had big plans. To ramp up manufacture of the popular hobby horse, he purchased a blacksmith shop on Waters Street and rented a nearby building from the L. A. Lewis Estate. With $10,000 worth of equipment, he had 25 workers producing the Gallivan & Broughton rocking horse and a newly designed stick horse. Several more toys were under development. His company, as its name would imply, was already involved in the distribution of novelty products such as playing cards. George Clay Broughton says the "Novelty" part of the business operated for a number of years from the small building that still stands at the rear of the Methodist Church.

This 1943 deck of playing cards featuring the American Eagle was made by Brown & Bigelo of St. Paul, Minnesota and distributed by Shelby Novelty Co. in New Madrid during Christmas that year. The two-deck box was stamped "Season's Greetings from SHELEY (sic) NOVELTY CO. NEW MADRID, MO." [Author's collection.]
By July 1944, Shelby was producing 100 hobby horses per day, still, not enough to fill orders.

But just as things seemed to be going well for the company, disaster struck.


It began in the section of the building where the horses were painted. Thanks to a quick response from the fire department, most of the building was saved, and two nearby buildings, the H. C. Riley Law Office and a lumber company, had no damage. However, the damage to the toy facility was enough to halt production and cause Shelby to lay off his workers.

Shelby estimated his loss at around $4,500; unfortunately his insurance was not enough. The damaged building, which belonged to the Lewis Estate, had no insurance and its owners were reluctant to repair it.

It looked like the end to the manufacture of the hobby horse.

Three local businessmen came to the company's rescue and purchased it several weeks after the fire. They were Vincent H. "Red" Rost Jr., Norvill L. Reddick, and C. E. "Mutt" Freedman. It was a smooth transition as Freedman had been the superintendent in the Shelby plant. Construction of a new addition was immediately commenced, and by the end of August they were back in production under the new name as the Trojan Manufacturing Company.

Larry Rost recalls going with his father to the factory. It only operated a couple of more years making toys and bed posts; then the building was converted into a weekend movie theater.

Larry says his father used the unsold bed posts to frame up several rent houses still in use on Mott Street.

A promotional photograph of the Broughton & Gallivan hobby horse was distributed to retail customers. The photo was produced by the Tenn. Photo Service, Memphis. [Photo courtesy of Ella Broughton LaValle, daughter of Clay Broughton]
Semo Woodcraft Company

Also in early 1944, Julius Frankle of New Madrid and Julius Wigdor of Charleston opened the Semo Woodcraft Company in the Montague building on South Main Street. With $3,000 worth of equipment and 10 employees, the company began manufacturing a wooden child's rocking chair.

Distribution for both the Shelby and Semo companies was handled by J. W. Jackson of New Madrid.

By July, Frankle told the newspaper, the new company was filling its orders and he was satisfied with its progress. Jake Kimball was in charge of manufacturing.

How long this company lasted is not knownj, nor has one of the chairs been located.

Bates Cabinet Shop

The smallest of the New Madrid toy manufactures had the most unique product--a woodenTommy Gun.

Claude Bates began making these in his shop in the fall of 1943.

Popularized by the war, the real Thompson Submachine Gun was an infantry weapon used in the Army and Marine Corps. The automatic weapon was capable of firing a single volley of 30 shots from a standard clip. Ist sound of "rat-a-tat-tat" was a real thriller. Bates' toy mimicked the rapid fire sound by spinning a toothed wooden gear against a wooden reed mounted in the body of the toy. A child need only crank the wooden handle to produce the Tommy Gun's rapid-fire sound.

Bates kept his production operation small, employing little help outside of family members. By the summer of 1944 he was producing about 500 of the toy guns a week which were being distributed through Jake Shainberg's Wood Products Company. Shainberg reported to the Weekly Record he was selling more guns than Bates could produce.

By July 1944 Claude Bates was turning out 500 of these Tommy Guns a week from his New Madrid woodworking shop, which was located behind his home on the northeast corner of Kingshighway and Mill Streets. [Courtesy of the New Madrid Historical Museum]
It is the child's imagination that turns a simple wooden horse, a rocking chair, or "Tommy Gun" into hours of creative play and delight. Perhaps, in our modern world with technology, electronics and plastics, we tend to overlook the capacity of a child to create wonder and awe out of plainly fashioned objects made from wood. Fortunately, children's wooden toys still enjoy some popularity--only they are no longer made in New Madrid. What a shame.

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