Remember Christmases and birthdays back in the 1960s or 1970s? I sure do. Simpler times, more local patronage of businesses, and a genuine appreciation for the things we received.
And as a part of that, I often wonder how many children from those days unwrapped a new Tonka Toy on that special morning!
But this story isn’t necessarily about the toy. It’s also about Tonka Corporation, the business behind the popular toy line, and how Tonka Toys was a major factor in so many area families for many years.
The Tonka Toys name is still around, but that type of craftsmanship and quality are disappearing. Enough so, that it is part of “Our Changing Americana”.
Tonka Corporation started out as a garden implement manufacturer in Mound, Minnesota, a small town about twenty miles west of Minneapolis. It was 1946, the war was over, and many people had a strong hope for a prosperous economy, including three local residents who formed Mound Metalcraft.
Shortly afterward, thinking it might be a good sideline for their business, they acquired the rights to a toy line from a former occupant of their building. That decision put them in the toy business!
The toy manufacturing did very well and by 1955, the company name was changed to Tonka Toys. The word “Tonka” was, and still is an abbreviation used locally by many businesses because of a popular lake just west of Minneapolis named Lake Minnetonka. The first Tonka Toy factory and subsequent plants were only blocks from that lake.
Tonka Toys flourished in the fifties and sixties! My earliest memories developed during those years, and, as I was growing up eight miles away in a neighboring town. Tonka Toys had become a major part of the lives of all the residents in a large area, directly or indirectly. Everyone knew at least someone who worked for Tonka and many had one or more family members that were employed there! It was not at all uncommon to see carloads of five or six people driving thirty or forty miles, or more, to work either first or second shift at the plant.
In 1964, Tonka Corporation, as an attempt to gain other lines to market, added to its acquisitions, Mell Manufacturing, a company from Chicago allowing it to produce a barbecue grille that soon after would be marketed as Tonka “Firebowl” grilles. It was evidently not a successful venture, for as quick as they appeared in local stores, they were gone with little or no notice.
Tonka Toys built a reputation for making a quality toy at a good value. As sales increased and demand spread around the country and the globe, trucks were added to their private fleet, railroad cars were often hand-stacked to the roof, and additional space was sought for warehousing. It was at a point in time much transition was occurring. Urban sprawl. The new Interstate Highway System was being built and Twin Cities suburbs were rapidly changing from farm land to housing developments. Many “closer in” farms were being divided and sold off as hobby farms. Horses once again probably outnumbered tractors as young families moved to the country and wanted their own horse ranches. Area infrastructure was strained and warehouse space was scarce. I recall as a child, listening to a conversation between my father and a neighboring farmer. They spoke of another local farmer, who had sold his cattle and no longer used his barn, being approached by Tonka Toys. They would apparently give the barn a new roof and make it all weather-tight as part of a contract to store new toys in the barn. Memories from my young mind aren’t clear as to whether this was a proposal, or, if it had happened already. Warehousing isn’t typically a subject on the mind of a nine or ten-year-old boy!
Toy models were continuously added through the 60s and 70s. When visiting another home, a kid would always know that someone there, or a relative, was a Tonka employee because that home often had a large assortment of the toys, purchased from the employee’s store! Even today, some of those same Tonka Toys are still a part of the toy box at the homes of grandparents and even great-grandparents!
One of the challenges of a manufacturer is to always be aware of the market and adjust to current trends. Over the years, Tonka had added smaller series toys and the “Mighty Tonka” line, both with great success. But, times were changing, and the company was looking to be more diversified in their toy line. By the mid- 1980s, more TV inspired toys were popular with kids, and the early computerized games were beginning to appear.
It’s not public information as to when Tonka Corporation set its sights on Kenner- Parker. Or, if there was any interest in the company because of any personal connections between Tonka executives and General Mills, another Minneapolis-based company who owned both Parker Brothers and Kenner. Parker Bros. was well known for their games including Clue, Monopoly, Sorry, and Risk, to name a few. Kenner had produced Lionel Trains, Easy Bake Oven, Play-Doh, Spirograph, and many others. They also held the rights to produce Star Wars and other TV and movie figures. It had every indication of a great acquisition for Tonka, but may have been its downfall.
Tonka Corporation purchased Kenner-Parker in 1987 for over $500 million. But they borrowed heavily to make the purchase. Debt service on the heavily leveraged acquisition forced Tonka to seek a buyer for itself. Locally, the writing was on the wall with employees. Toy making in Mound, Minnesota was winding down and much of the production was being shifted to El Paso, Texas and into a facility in Mexico. Employees were offered positions in El Paso with results you would expect. Very few workers took the offer. An agreement to sell was finalized in 1991 with another large toy concern, Hasbro, and the long-time manufacturing plant in Mound soon stood empty.
It was the end of an era. A large, local company that offered employment to two or three generations was now gone. But with that, a quality product also disappeared like so many others of the era. Sadly, I suppose, just another part of our changing Americana.