Note: This column was printed in the April 18, 2012 edition of the The Barrow Journal.
Sometimes it pays to have connections. At least, that’s what my boys thought when a friend of mine invited us over to meet her husband, a retired toymaker, and play with his handmade, wooden toys.
Jack Dohany worked in the electronics industry as a field engineer from 1962 to 1970, but after seeing the Vietnam War up close, he became a pacifist and eventually left his job. He met a craftswoman who took him to his first crafts fair, and he noticed that there weren’t many good toys there.
“I was looking for a way to support myself that was fun and peaceful, and it seemed like toymaking might be that way. It was.”
He ran his business from 1970 to 2009, and he called it The Merry Toymaker. It was located in his home or wherever he happened to be living, and he sold his toys chiefly at craft fairs. He did no advertising.
In California, there are huge craft fairs such as the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in the spring, a fair in Northern California in the fall, and the Dickens Christmas Fair and the KPFA Crafts Fair in Berkeley in December.
After Jack and his wife, Winston Stephens, moved to Georgia in 2001, his business shrank because there are few good craft fairs here. So at that time he sold to stores, and The Idea Factory in New Orleans was his best outlet.
The first toy Mr. Dohany made was of a train engine, and he still owns it. (See photo below.) All of his toys were circus-oriented. He says his favorite is the two-hand top, but the circus train and squeeze acrobat come in close seconds. He has wonderful memories of entertaining children at the craft fairs.
“I’d spin a top on a plate, flip the top high in the air and then catch it still spinning on the plate. Then I’d put the plate on top of my head and do my silly toymaker dance while the top was still spinning. Kids (and their parents) loved it. One of my fondest memories is of a kid here in Georgia who managed to do this trick perfectly on his first try!”
My boys loved playing with the wooden toys. For me, these handmade toys are much more special than the plastic toys the boys receive for their birthdays with all the bells and whistles. I asked Mr. Dohany what he thought about that.
“Handmade wooden toys have some human warmth built into them which is lacking in factory-made toys,” he told me. “They also encourage the development of manual dexterity, and in my humble opinion, they are just more fun to play with than plastic toys are.”
If you want to buy one of Mr. Dohany’s toys, you’re out of luck because he retired in 2009. He gave his entire workshop to John Thomas who was one of his helpers in California and good friend. John stays home with his young children, and he’s planning to sell his toys over the Internet. When it’s complete, the website will be at http://www.merrytoymakers.com/.
Until then, Mr. Dohany likes to tell everyone, “I’m not the only toymaker in the world. If you Google handmade, wooden toys, you’ll find lots and lots.” He also added, “Next to meeting and marrying up with Winston Stephens, toymaking is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
To see more photos of Mr. Dohany and his toys, you can go to my photography blog by clicking here.