Leaning over the trussed steel girders of his model merry-go-round, L. Andrew Jugle, 64, smiles like a kid on Christmas Day as he watches red, white and yellow toy horses prance to carousel music under blinking lights.
Jugle assembled the 1963 miniature carousel at his home in Elmhurst, Ill. (pop. 45,349), from the nuts, bolts, gears and motor of an Erector set, one of the best presents that an engineer-minded boy like Jugle could find under the Christmas tree in the days of Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys and other early toy construction sets.
"Erector sets weren't something that built just one toy; they could make thousands," says Jugle, citing model-size cranes, derricks, elevators, skyscrapers, steam shovels, towers and windmills.
"There was nothing like them. Kids saw buildings and bridges being built outside their windows, and suddenly they could make the same thing," adds the retired high school science teacher, whose collection of more than 200 Erector sets line floor-to-ceiling shelves in his garage.
Invented in 1911 by American toy visionary A.C. Gilbert, the Erector revolutionized toy construction sets by including 3-inch to 12-inch steel girders with lipped, interlocking edges, enabling kids to build models as large at their budgets allowed.
"That guaranteed him immortality," Jugle says of Gilbert. "He patented the girders and cornered the market."
Manufactured in New Haven, Conn., Erector sets originally were packaged in sturdy wooden boxes that also included rods, screws, axles, wheels and pulleys. The product was backed by the first national advertising campaign for a toy. Over five decades until the company's bankruptcy in 1967, Gilbert sold more than 30 million sets through Sears, J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward and independent toy stores.
Through creative play, the toy inspired several generations of children to become architects, engineers and tinkerers during a century when America significantly expanded its infrastructure of roads, bridges, pipelines and dams.
"All of Gilbert's toys—the Erector, chemistry and microscope sets—created a scientific and building culture that some boys used later in their careers. More importantly, even if they didn't become mechanical engineers, they learned how things were built," says Bruce Watson, author of The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys were Made, referring to the generations in which construction toys typically were marketed for boys.
Jugle received his first Erector set as a toddler growing up in Elmhurst and began collecting them in the 1950s with older brother Pete. They also sought out American Flyer toy trains, which were manufactured by Gilbert's company beginning in 1938, as well as historical papers of the A.C. Gilbert Co.
"When hobby stores went out of business, we'd buy the entire inventory," says Jugle, who continued to build the collection after his brother's death in 1992. "I've got almost everything that's considered remarkable."
From his garage inventory, Jugle has built a model of the 1929 Zeppelin airship; a 4-foot replica of a 1931 Hudson Locomotive; and an early 20th-century conception of a walking robot. His 1959 version of Erector's famed Amusement Park set includes the components to build an airplane, parachute jump, Ferris wheel and carousel. And though he hasn't acquired one of the rare Climax of Erector Glory sets from 1939—which weighs 150 pounds and is valued at about $25,000—he treasures a 1917 No. 4 set owned by his father and a pristine 1949 Junior Erector that replaced the one he wore out at age 2.
Jugle displays his Erector and American Flyer rarities at model train shows and during the annual A.C. Gilbert Heritage Society convention. "Hobbyists are shocked the public can play with them," he says.
Considered the nation's premier historian on Gilbert, Jugle has amassed 2,400 A.C Gilbert Co. documents, memos, brochures and other memorabilia—much of which came from a Gilbert employee who rescued them from destruction when the business closed.
"Andy's the guru of paper," says Bill Bean, author of Greenberg's Guide to Gilbert Erector Sets. "His collection is the best in the world."