Surrounded by shelves stocked with 180 different wooden train cars, Sandy Oliver boxes orders at Whittle Shortline Railroad in New London, Mo. (pop. 1,001). Then she stops and picks up a bright blue replica of The Little Engine That Could.
"This is my favorite. I think it has personality," says Oliver, 48, about the beloved storybook character whose positive attitude and "I think I can" spirit help him conquer a mighty hill.
Owner Mike Whitworth, 61, likewise has a soft spot for The Little Engine That Could. The engine powered his little company into the national toy market in 2007 after more than a million Thomas the Tank Engine trains, made in China, were recalled because they were coated with lead-based paint. When parents began shopping for safe wooden trains made in the United States, they found Whittle Shortline Railroad.
"Our sales tripled in 30 days," says Whitworth, recalling how demand for his wooden trains skyrocketed. "We sold out. We had nothing left."
Since then, Whittle Shortline Railroad has steadily chugged ahead, even after the Mississippi River flooded its manufacturing plant in Louisiana, Mo. (pop. 3,863), in June 2008, prompting the company to relocate 30 miles north to New London. When production was suspended for a month, Whitworth continued to pay his employees.
But nothing about the little toy company is as surprising as its accidental origin. In 1994, Whitworth's wife, Pat, 61, gave him a Sears miter saw for a Christmas gift in hopes that he would make crown molding for their house. When the box sat unopened for two years and she threatened to return the saw, Whitworth set it up in his garage and began building wooden trains.
"The neighborhood kids would come by and I'd give them away," he recalls.
Word soon spread about Whitworth's handmade hardwood trains, and orders began rolling in from merchants and companies, including Amtrak. In 1999, Whitworth bought the 1880 Frisco Hotel in Valley Park, Mo. (pop. 6,518), and opened a retail store and offices for his toy company.
Like The Little Engine That Could, the former U.S. Air Force pilot and designer of mail-sorting machines for the U.S. Postal Service embarked on another challenge earlier this year. He invested more than $1 million in equipment to manufacture wooden puzzles, including a line of multi-layered puzzles.
"Nobody wanted to give me a loan, and I had to go to literally nine different banks to get small loans," Whitworth says.
His American Puzzle Co. now produces its own designs, plus George Luck Puzzles that previously were manufactured in China. "We're actually bringing jobs back here," Whitworth says.
Today, 30 employees craft the wooden puzzles, trains and truckscutting, sanding, painting, printing and applying decals to make the American-made toys, which are sold at 500 stores nationwide. The company has licensing agreements with nearly every major railroad, including Burlington Northern and Union Pacific. Employees gather around tables for "buffing parties" to hand sand each vehicle.
"Mike doesn't mind the investment of time," says Eric Brown, 43, who especially enjoys creating the colorful, finely detailed puzzles, which include up to seven layers of pieces.
One multi-dimensional puzzle depicts a toy box with layers of vintage trucks and planes, and another reveals a child's tea party behind a garden gate. The birch wood puzzles are laser cut, polished, sealed and printed in
"We call them puzzles, but they're really works of art that come apart," Whitworth says. "They're simply the
best there is."
His little toy company's sales are projected to total $1.5 million this year, and Whitworth hopes to double his work force by spring.
Like The Little Engine That Could, Whitworth remains optimistic about the future and his company's American-made toys.
"I've never lost sight of our customer," he says in explaining his company's success. "It's a little kid who's going to chew on the toy."