Small Talk Tag: Transportation Toys

The Motor Car Man with a Big Heart

“If you want happiness, there is only one way in the world to get it. You’ve got to give it.” –Jerry Smith

T/m’s newest special exhibit, Going Places: The Toy Collection of Jerry Smith, features toys collected by Jerry Smith (1917-1984), a Kansas City automotive dealer and philanthropist whose generous heart and fabulous toy collection left a lasting impact on the community.

It was the Christmas of 1924 that would later inspire Smith to start collecting toys. The holiday was a big event for six-year-old Smith, who circled the toys he longed for in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. As the youngest of six, the Kansas farm boy was depending on Santa to fulfill his dreams. However, there was only one present waiting for him under the tree: a cast iron Arcade Fordson toy tractor.

tractor

An Arcade Fordson tractor similar to the one Smith received

Disappointed, Smith called Santa a “tightwad” and said it was “the skinniest Christmas I’d ever had.” He would never forget those feelings of longing, frustration, and dashed hope, and that memory compelled him to help others in need. Smith grew up and moved to Kansas City, where he opened a Buick dealership at 5835 Troost in 1952. Smith ran his dealership with the philosophy, “You don’t get ahead, you give ahead.” He became a supporter of many local charities, especially those that served children. He also founded Operation Friendship, an initiative dedicated to providing for the community. In 1965, the Kansas City Times referred to Smith as “…a motor car man with a ready smile and . . . a heart that figuratively is as big as all outdoors. This particular man never seeks praise for his work. If you meet him on the street, he will just say . . . ‘We’ve taken care of that last case you referred to us…tell us about some more folks who need a lift.’”

One Christmas, Smith’s sister-in-law gifted him an identical version of his now long-lost Arcade Fordson tractor. He was overjoyed and realized there were more toys in the Arcade series. He set out to collect the entire set, and soon moved on to other toys that reminded him of his childhood: planes, trains, automobiles, farm toys, mechanical banks, fire engines, and transportation toys of all kinds. Eventually, Smith collected over 11,000 toys.

A selection of Smith’s toys from a 1968 Hallmark calendar

Following his philosophy of helping others, Smith used his collection to benefit the community. Whenever his collection was put on display, he would request that a fee be donated to a Kansas City charitable organization, usually Children’s Mercy Hospital. During the holiday season in 1965, Smith’s collection was exhibited at the Hallmark Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Over 130,000 visitors attended, and all the proceeds went to a youth organization. Smith even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to promote the exhibit; the entire video is available to view in the exhibit.

Jerry Smith with a 1968 toy exhibit at the Hallmark Gallery. Image courtesy of the Hallmark Archives.

Back home in Kansas City, Smith’s collection was exhibited at the Wornall-Majors House and the Kansas City Museum. Smith also created the Christmas Village, which featured festive holiday dioramas in the Long-Bell Lumberyard at Gregory and Wornall. Smith requested that admission proceeds go to Children’s Mercy Hospital. By 1967, Children’s Mercy had received over $25,000 from displays of Smith’s toys.

Jerry Smith in one room of his Christmas Village

Smith’s philanthropy continues to influence the Kansas City community. His charitable contributions reached organizations including the Kansas City Museum, the Boy Scouts Area Council, Avila College, the Rehabilitation Institute, Children’s Therapeutic Learning Center, and more. In 1976, Smith donated his 360-acre farm to the Kansas City parks system, which is still used as a park today. Last but certainly not least, Smith helped T/m founders Mary Harris Francis and Barbara Marshall assemble some of their earliest exhibits. Many of the cast iron and transportation toys T/m has on display in the permanent exhibits today came from Jerry Smith’s collection.

Mary Harris Francis, Barbara Marshall, and Jerry Smith celebrating Christmas at T/m in 1982

For Jerry Smith, a disappointing Christmas turned into a lifetime of giving. As the Kansas City Star remarked in 1966, “Perhaps none of this would have happened if Santa Claus had come through with the entire list submitted by Jerry back in 1924. Maybe Santa knew what he was doing after all.” During your next visit to T/m, be sure to stop by Going Places to learn more about the incredible toy collection and lasting impact of Jerry Smith.

— Written by Katherine Mercier

 

Tonka Tough

Tonka Truck

Before trucks were built Ford tough, Tonka toy trucks were strong enough for an elephant to stand on (we’re not kidding… it was the focus of a 1970s advertising campaign for the company founded on the idea that “a toy shouldn’t break just because a child plays with it”). Originally named Mound Metalcraft for the company’s home in Mound, Minnesota, the name was changed in 1955 to Tonka Trucks (“tanka” meaning big in Sioux) when the company shifted from tie racks and garden tools to metal construction toys.

And their first toy wasn’t even a dump truck! The manufacturing lines first turned out cranes and steam shovels, selling 37,000. By 1955, demand for the realistic, durable, and heavy, automobile-grade, 20-gauge steel trucks took off with baby boomer parents, and the excess of postwar steel made them cheap to produce.

When the Mighty Dump Truck did come along, it weighed in at 11 pounds, complete with solid rubber tires. Since then, an estimated 15 million have been sold. While T/m’s circa 1955 version isn’t yellow, it was still the go-to for dumping and hauling sand in the neighborhood sandbox.

Pedal Up to Nebraska

Museum of American Speed

Pedal to the Metal: Pedal Cars and American Car Culture is racing to the finish line; the exhibit closes August 28, 2016. If you hustle to T/m before then, you can see several cars from the collection of the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed. If not, you may be able to catch the 1937 Ford Deluxe, 1930 Steelcraft Chrysler, 1953 Torpedo, 1950 Mercedes Benz 190SL, 1965 Ford Mustang, 1950 Tri-ang Flying Squad Police Cruiser, 1960 Deluxe “Flat Face” Fire Truck, or 1967 Skipper Run-a-Bout on view in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The 135,000 square foot museum was founded in 1992 by “Speedy” Bill and Joyce Smith to preserve, interpret, and display items significant in racing and automotive history. Pedal cars are just the starting line of their extensive collection of vehicles (early dirt- and board-track racecars, midget cars, Indy cars, street rods, and restored classics). And for those of you who fondly remember Soap Box Derby, they’ve got a great collection of those too!
Photo: Antigone Jackson, Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed.

LACMA’s Miniature Metropolis

Metropolis II

We’re obviously huge fans of kinetic sculptures that incorporate toys, hence T/m’s two-story Toytisserie. Although it’s not in a museum of toys or miniatures, artist Chris Burden’s large installation Metropolis II has been amazing visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) since 2011. Metropolis II is a fury of 1,100 matchbox cars whirring by at a scale speed of 230 miles per hour on a complex system of tracks around a futuristic miniature skyline.

Witnessing the sculpture in person in the LACMA galleries evokes feelings of wonder and awe, but with a tinge of anxiety, similar to driving on a real-life multi-lane freeway in heavy traffic (after all, toys are teaching tools for life, you know!). It took Burden and his studio team over four years of research and design to get all the components exactly right—even so, a team of attendants is on hand in case a car derails or jams up the track. The sculpture runs intermittently for four hours every day at LACMA.
Photo: Chris Burden, Metropolis II, 2010, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, courtesy of the Nicolas Berggruen Charitable Foundation, © Chris Burden Estate

A Rare Bird

pedal car

Americans have been completely enamored of the automobile since the first ones rolled off the assembly lines and onto the streets. Both adults and children were captivated by the “horseless buggy,” as evidenced by this 1920s toy pedal car. Although wheeled mobility toys existed before this pedal car, Schmelzer’s Red Bird definitely came with all the modern stylishness of its motorized, full-scale counterparts.

Schmelzer’s Red Bird was manufactured by the Sidway Topliff Company of Washington, Pennsylvania for a department store here in Kansas City named Schmelzer’s Arms Co. Some of the features on this bad boy include yellow pinstripes, a winged hood ornament, and a hand brake that operates a stop sign in the rear above the license plate. The Red Bird is on view with other classic pedal cars in our temporary exhibit Pedal to the Metal: Pedal Cars and American Car Culture through August 28, 2016.

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