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.
7 thoughts on “The Merry Toymaker: A Retired Toymaker’s Story and His Beautiful, Handmade Wooden Toys for Children”
To my dear, Merry Toy Maker,
I am packing up my children’s most valued and treasured toys today- to keep them for when they have children of their own someday. I bought a toy or two each year at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, as their Christmas presents from Santa. It was THE REASON I kept going back to that fair every year. I met you many times over those years, and enjoyed seeing you interact with the children there. Meeting THE toy maker and seeing what new toys you came up with each year, brought real meaning and true value to these very unique, hand-made toys. And I have not found a toy maker I liked better! Alas, my children are in their mid- 20’s, and are living out of the area now. It’s the end of an era… Sigh…
Thought you might get a kick out of knowing that those toys have been prominently stored in a wicker basket in our living room all these years! Even as adults, my children and their childhood friends, have still played with them when they come visit! My children are not very sentimental (yet…). But THOSE toys brought so many happy years of play value for not just my children, but for all of their friends as well, that both of my children said with great conviction, that those toys HAVE TO BE SAVED- for their children! That is exactly what I am doing today. I am also going to print out this article about you and place it in the big toy box, so that they will always remember the man who made their most prized childhood toys.
So glad that I have this opportunity to thank you in writing. (As I was just packing them up for safe keeping, I thought I would look for “The Merry Toy Maker” online to see if you were still doing your craft. And there you were. I didn’t think that you advertised or had a store and didn’t think I would find anything online about you because of that. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that you had been celebrated in this article. I am happy that you got that recognition. I will be sending this article to both of my kids today.
With much love, affection, and many thanks from our entire family-for being such a special, and creative person who spread many hours (and years) of enjoyment across our living room floor, with the toys that will last into the next generation,
Lucetta Tuttle and Family
Lucetta, Thank you for writing such a heartfelt message. I will be sure that Jack gets it.
I happen to have a prized collection of these fine wooden toys. I may be prejudiced, yet, happen to believe with all of my heart that they are the finest toys my children ever owned. My grandchildren loved them as well. I happen to proudly know Jack personally, as he is my brother. I not only think, I KNOW he is the best wooden toy maker in all the world! Rosemary Wells
I can only imagine the generations of children your brother’s toys will be passed on to with love. 🙂 Thank you for your comment, Rosemary.
I don’t know weather his blog still exists.
By cleaning up I had the letters from Jack in my hand and wondered weather he is still around. Instead I found your blog but also the message that Jack passed away in 2019. He was such a wonderful person as well as his wife winston.
I met him at a Fair in Berkeley, Ca., in 1986 when I was an Au Pair in a family, spending one year in the bay area. He spoke German to me, as I am from Germany, and invited me to join him at the Dickens Fair at Fishermans wharf. Then I could also join him at the Renaissance Fair the next spring, selling toys to merry children and experinecing the wonderful atmosphere there. Of course I bought some of his wonderful toys. and when my first son was born he sent him one of hos wonderful trains. Yes, they are part of our family treasure even though my four boys have moved out already and are students now.
In case you still got this message and you are still in contact with winston sent her my best regards!
Birgit from Germany
Thank you so much for your message. I will send it to Winston. I’m not sure if she checks her emails much, but we’ll see.