Crafting Heirloom Toys

Hometown Heroes, Made in America, People, Traditions
on April 15, 2001

Gordon Connors gnarled fingers slide the light-colored pine through the band saw. A twist here, a turn there, and the wood pieces slowly take on the shape of an airplane manned by a pilot dressed in a painted-on flight suit. The only thing missing is the grinning freckle-faced child wholl play with the handcrafted toya toy powered by imagination and one mans love of children.

Theres nothing hard about it, insists the retired carpenter, except when you get your finger in the saw blades.

The buzzing saw blade gnaws at the wood as the 72-year-old Connors loses himself amid a heap of wood scraps waiting to be crafted into treasures durable enough to be passed down through generations. A one-eyed dog named Outback Dundee keeps Connors company inside his toyshop near Crawford (pop. 257) in the heart of the West Elk Mountains.

Hes an Australian blue heeler, so we had to give him a proper name, Connors says, his eyes twinkling from behind bifocals.

Connors moved from his native Minnesota to Colorado in 1965 and married Betty, his wife of more than 30 years. A carpenter by trade, Connors delivered mail and ran a locksmith shop on the side in the early days to make ends meet.

But his real passion was toymaking.

At night, hed retreat to his wood shop to make playthings for his grandchildren. It was cheaper to make them than to buy them, Connors says, holding up a wooden front-end loader with moving bucket. Most of the grandkids liked them better than the bought ones.

His perpetual puttering led to the creation of G&J Toys, a small business venture he runs with his wife, who paints the wooden Humpty Dumpty-like block people that ride in all the toys. The couple sells the toys at craft shows to supplement their retirement income.

After living for years on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide, Connors and his wife opted for a quieter life and moved to a ranch tucked amongst the bluffs and vistas near Crawford. Connors tinkers around his toyshop from sunup to sundown, cutting, carving, sanding, and assembling toys for tiny fingers to play with.

His woodshop is nothing elaborate. A file cabinet sits off to the side, the drawers stuffed with paper patterns for making toys. The center of the room is the working area. Tables are filled with tools. Some whirl while others cut and sand, sending sawdust plumes into the air. Shelves line the walls where wooden toys of every shape and color stand at attention.

Im making this plane, Connors says, diverting his attention to an open book. All I got is the dimensions, and I make the patterns. They give you a little thing down here telling you and it should look like this when its done: The Spirit of St. Louis.

No detail is overlooked. The cement trucks churn, the planes have twirling propellers, and the road grader has a moving bladeall made of wood.

And the toys come with a guarantee.

If it breaks, Ill fix it, Connors says, predicting hell be carving for 20 more years.

That adds up to a lot of toys for a man wholl be pushing 100.