The Tryon toymakers and woodcarvers
By Missy Schenck
I love Christmas! It also drives me crazy. I love the music, baking, creating, decorating, family gatherings, the story of the Christ child and the messages of generosity, love, joy and peace. I am also frustrated with how commercialized the holiday has become. For me, Christmas is all about “out of hand, out of heart” — that which is made with our hands comes straight from our heart. It has been my holiday mantra for decades and redefined the meaning of Christmas for me and my family.
Christmas is my favorite season next to summer. In searching for that perfect subject for a holiday story, I ran across the Tryon Toymakers and Woodcarvers, an arts and crafts workshop with a history of more than 100 years. Very much like Santa’s elves, these craftsmen of the Blue Ridge and their little factory have produced beautiful toys for generations. Ironically, in researching this cottage industry, I discovered I owned toys made by the toymakers and the story became personal on several levels.
The beginning …
In 1915 Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale, co-founders of Biltmore Estate Industries, left Asheville, N.C. and resettled in Tryon, a small mountain community just 40 miles southeast on the South Carolina border. Already a center for arts and crafts, Tryon became the new home for Vance and Yale’s little non-profit business, the famous Tryon Toy Makers and Wood Carvers. The company focused on two operations; the toy makers created small, painted wooden figurines based on classic nursery rhymes, while the carvers created mantles, furniture, church altars and other specialized wooden pieces.
The ladies purchased a cottage in Tryon and were soon training young boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 15 to handcraft finely designed and beautifully crafted toys inspired by European precedents and made for centuries in the Toy Valley of the South Tyrol. The outbreak of World War I made these types of toys unavailable in America and the ladies were motivated by a desire to train young people in rewarding, artistic work. Spinning tops, animal figures, doll furniture, fairy tale characters and Noah’s Arks were some of the products made with proceeds from the toy sales being of economic benefit to the makers. Wood carving executed by the woodcarvers represented some of the finest art craft in wood ever done in the United States. The youths learned practical skills and more importantly absorbed life lessons imparted by their instructors — part of the overarching moral and spiritual vision of the two founders.
The Toy House — 1925
Shortly after buying Hillcote cottage on Grady Avenue in 1915, Miss Vance and Miss Yale opened a retail showroom in a wing of their home. As the operation grew, the local community of Tryon supported Vance and Yale in their efforts to publicize and distribute their products nationally. First ladies, Grace Coolidge, Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt all visited Tryon Toys. In 1923 Vogue magazine ran an article about the flourishing enterprise: “They are truly toys with souls … charming, unique and have already made their debut on Fifth Avenue. They have an air that immediately sets them apart as something unusual.”
It was not long before visitors to Hillcote’s Toy Shop began to interfere with the private lives of the ladies and numerous automobiles and people were disturbing the character of their residential neighborhood. More space was needed for the production of the toys. In October 1924, Miss Vance wrote her friend Fred Seely at Biltmore Industries in Asheville, which by now was their principal outlet for fine wood carving, that a commercial lot had been acquired to build a new retail showroom and office. Located on East Howard Street near the principal thoroughfare, North Trade Street, the lot was carved out of “Strawberry Hill,” the estate of Miss Mary Beach, heiress to a newspaper fortune in Indiana and a public-spirited leader in the community. Where the money came from to build the Toy House on this lot has never been documented.
J. Foster Searles, a highly creative New York architect who had settled in Tryon was the architect for the new Toy House. His design for the house was in keeping with the origins and inspirations of Vance and Yale’s enterprise in favor of a European cottage. After the completion of the Toy House in 1925, a second stucco structure was built adjacent to it to provide a place for the Tryon Craft School, an exhibition workshop where apprentice youths could be seen learning the craft of wood working and toy painting.
Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance retired in the 1930s and finally sold the operation in 1949 to Mr. and Mrs. H. Moss Guilbert. Under their ownership, The Tryon Toymakers was admitted to the Southern Highlands Craft Guild. The Guilberts continued to use the principal showroom as their retail outlet and converted the craft school building into living quarters. When the Guilberts sold the business in the late 1970s, the retail showroom closed for good, and the structure thereafter was used entirely as a dwelling.
The earliest painted toys from the period 1915 through 1922 are marked “Tryon Toy-Makers and Weavers.” During that early period the enterprise also had looms that wove local cotton. After 1922 the toys are marked “Tryon Toy-Makers & Wood-Carvers.” Tryon painted toys after 1949 are simpler in design and not so delicately painted; they are usually marked with a paper label that says Tryon Toy House. The Guilberts shortened the name to Tryon Toymakers (one word) and made the decision to drop the production of the finely carved wood pieces. When the business was sold to Chuck and Nancy Hearon in the late 1970s, they kept the name Tryon Toymakers; their enterprise continued until the early 1990s. The Hearon period pieces are finely crafted and beautifully painted; their renowned design is a delightful rabbit somersaulting on parallel bars.
Julia Warren Calhoun is a Tryon native and the fourth owner of Tryon Toymakers. Calhoun bought the business in 2015 and operates it along with a bookstore and confectionary out of the newly restored Missildine’s building located downtown on Trade Street across from Morris, the larger-than-life Tryon mascot horse. Recreating the beloved wooden toys in that historic space keeps Calhoun busy. She sells the hand-cut and hand-painted figures, made from original patterns, as fast as she and her team of workers can make them. Plans are also in the works to bring back the furniture and woodcarving divisions of the business. “It’s really an honor to be carrying on an enterprise Tryon is nationally known for,” she says. “And it’s a heck of a lot of fun, too.”
The Tryon Horse
Of all the delightful hand-painted objects crafted by the toymakers is the white toy horse on a platform with four wheels. Animals on wheels were popular for centuries in Europe, made in such toy-making villages as Sonnenberg in Germany and St. Ulrich in the South Tyrol. The latter village, now in Italy but before World War I part of Austria, is the direct source for many of the Tryon Toys.
In 1928, two boys, Odell Parker and Meredith Lankford, built a gigantic version of the little toy horse for the Tryon Horse Show parade to advertise the Tryon Toy Makers. Their creation was so big that overhead wires along Trade Street had to be lifted out of the way so the horse could proceed in the procession. The toymakers also made miniature wheeled horse souvenirs to sell at the horse show. The giant horse was disassembled after the parade and stored in the basement at Hillcote. Eventually, the Tryon Toy Makers donated it to the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club, sponsors of the parade.
Its annual appearance was eagerly anticipated, and it became a mascot-like symbol for Tryon. Miniature versions of the horse continued to be made and sold annually as souvenirs of the spring horse show. The original parade horse was destroyed by fire in 1939. Since then, smaller versions have been constructed and the present version was made of fiberglass in 1983. It has been displayed for decades at the town center where Pacolet Street intersects Trade Street.
During the 1970s a group of neighbors on Wilderness Road began making a horse collar wreath annually to put on the horse as part of the Christmas season. In the wee hours of Christmas morning, the “Wilderness Road Gang” would go out to stealthily place their wreath around the horse’s neck. In the early 1980s it occurred to the Gang to name the horse and it is remembered that Mary Flynn Moore came up spontaneously with the name “Morris.” Like many creative inspirations, “Morris the Horse” simply sounded fun, and the name stuck.
The toymaker I knew
Velton A. Searcy made wooden toys, sling shots and Gee Haw Whimmy Diddles, a simple Appalachian stick toy made of native Rhododendron. Known as the “toy maker” Velton specialized in making old timey wooden toys. In addition to the Toy House, Velton sold his toys at the Henderson County Curb Market. It was there that I discovered his work and began purchasing his doll furniture, wooden trucks, and eventually his arks. On a recent visit to the Tryon Museum, I discovered duplicates of these pieces in the museum and labeled as made by the Tryon Toymakers. As an avid toy and doll collector, Velton’s pieces spoke to me and over the years I acquired several pieces. I was so excited to connect them to the Tryon Toymaker legacy.
When I first met Julia Calhoun, it was evident she has a passion for continuing the legacy of the Tryon Toymakers and telling their story. Much like Santa’s Workshop with handcrafted toys, delicious sweets and goodies harking back to the North Pole, Tryon Toymakers is a place where gifts are made by hand with love from the heart.
Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina where her family runs a summer camp.