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Big, Mighty Tonka
Written by Tom Hoepf   

Rugged, hard-working trucks and equipment log 60th anniversary

Peace in 1945 brought an end to destruction in Europe and Asia, and a surge of new development in the United States. Buildings and roads were under construction everywhere. Airplanes and ships, which had captured children’s imaginations in wartime, were replaced with real-life images of trucks, cranes and other heavy equipment. The toy industry, all but idled by a shift to wartime manufacturing, geared up for oncoming demand triggered by prosperity.

While established names like Buddy ‘L’, Structo, Marx and Wyandotte had been in business for many years, newcomer Mound Metalcraft Inc. of Mound, Minn., dug out a niche in the toy industry. Founded in September 1946, the company initially manufactured steel gardening tools and tie racks, but within a year had introduced two toys, the No. 100 Steam Shovel and No. 150 Crane and Clam, at the New York Toy Fair.

Production of pressed-steel toys quickly moved from a sideline to the company’s main line. Company founders Lynn E. Baker, Avery F. Crounse and Alvin F. Tesch named the toys Tonka, which means “great” or “big” in the language of the Dakota Sioux, who considered the Lake Minnetonka area sacred. Mound, a former lakeside resort town 20 miles west of Minneapolis, is named for the prehistoric Indian mounds there.

Located in a former schoolhouse, Mound Metalcraft employed about 25 workers at the start. With sales topping 79,000 units in 1948, the company grew quickly and increased its workforce. Mound Metalcraft introduced the first Tonka dump truck in 1949 and gradually added to its fleet of heavy-duty vehicles. With a reputation for manufacturing rugged toys firmly established, Mound Manufacturing increased the Tonka line to 14 models in 1953.

Russell L. Wenkstern, a former industrial arts and mathematics teacher, joined Mound Metalcraft in 1952 as production manager, and in nine years became the company’s chief executive. Mound Metalcraft changed its name to Tonka Toys Inc. in November 1955. Under Wenkstern’s leadership Tonka became a worldwide company, with annual sales rising from $400,000 to $80 million. Long before Wenkstern retired in 1971, employees referred to him as Mr. Tonka. Wenkstern died Jan. 21, 2000 at age 87.

Wenkstern is credited with helping develop Tonka’s most popular truck, the Mighty Dump, in 1964. Measuring 18 1/2 inches long, the Mighty Dump was considerably larger than the 1/18th scale vehicles the company had produced to that point. By itself, the giant yellow dump truck accounted for nearly $15 million in sales for the company. The toy maker created a series of oversize toys, making the 1960s and ’70s Tonka’s Mighty Age.

“I like the bulk and massiveness of the Mighty series—they’re so typically Tonka,” said George T. Kitchen of El Paso, Texas, where Tonka Toys Inc. moved to in 1983. Kitchen spent 12 years with Tonka, as production control manager and later materials manager, until 1997 when Hasbro Inc. (owners of Tonka since) 1991, moved production to China.

Realizing he was witnessing the end of an era, Kitchen began collecting Tonka toys shortly before operations in El Paso closed.

“We loved making the toys here in El Paso just as much I’m sure as they did up in Minnesota,” said Kitchen. “When I was there, the biggest line was the Mighty series. We were making up to a million Mighty Dumps a year here in El Paso.” After completing his collection of the Mighty series, Kitchen focused on Tonka trucks of the mid-1950s and ’60s.

“In the early years they were based on real-life production trucks. The early pickups starting in 1955 resembled the Ford F100s of the time. They continued to look like Fords until about 1962 or so. Then they changed and didn’t look like any particular model. Starting around 1969 they suddenly looked like Dodge trucks,” said Kitchen.

“My interest in pickup trucks is what started my Web site,” said Kitchen, referring to neatoldtoys.com, a comprehensive Web site devoted to vintage Tonka toys. The site is loaded with photos, including a category on private label Tonka trucks, which are scarce.

“There as a Midwest Milk Metro Van on eBay a year or so ago that sold for more than $6,000,” said Kitchen, noting that the numbers of Tonka private label trucks were either not recorded or have been lost. “We don’t know how many private label trucks are floating around out there, but I would say there are very few.”

Kitchen said he is downsizing his Tonka collection to a manageable level. “If you look under my bed, in the spare room, in the garage and in the storage building, you will find Mighties, you’ll find the regular series … about any shape, size and year I was able to pick up,” he said. “My wife wishes I had taken up Tiny Tonka collecting—those puppies are only about 3 inches long. When you have 5- and 6-pound bulky things sitting around they take up a lot of room.”

Dave Montana, a longtime toy collector who also has a Tonka-related Web site (tonkadave.com), concurs with Kitchen about space requirements. “You need a lot of space to be a big Tonka collector. In the same space you can store about 30 Matchbox cars, you can only store three or four Tonka trucks,” said Montana, who resides in Aston, Pa.

Montana said collectors are drawn to his Web site mainly to view the photographs. “They want to compare what they have to what’s on the Web site. They want to see their toy and learn how much it’s worth.

“People want to buy the toys they had as a kid,” Montana continued, “but they will also collect toys from before and after their era. Like, if you collect 1960s Tonkas, you will have some ’50s even though you didn’t grow up in the ’50s. Then you move on to the ’70s and ’80s,” said Montana.

Tonka’s attention to realism helped make their toys popular from the start. Though they lacked the detail of competing Smith-Miller trucks, Tonka trucks looked real to the youngsters who played with them.

“When a kid saw a real quarry dump truck, Tonka made one just as tough. A kid would ride by a construction site and see a front-end loader, and Tonka made one. It looked just like it,” said Montana. “All their toys did something. They had mechanisms that moved, like the hydraulic cylinder that operated the dump bed.”

Another classic truck that reflected the realism that embodied Tonka toys was the No. 950 Pumper fire truck that sprayed a stream of water.

“I had that truck. You hooked a garden hose to the fire hydrant, then hooked the suction hose from the truck to the fire hydrant and sprayed water out of the deluge gun or hose reel on the top of the fire engine. That was a lot of fun. Everyone was interested in seeing that,” said Montana.

Just such exposure to moisture and harsh elements of outdoor play has greatly reduced the number of vintage Tonka toys that have survived in top condition.

“On eBay right now there might be 2,000 Tonka trucks listed, but there might be only a hundred nice enough that a collector would be interested in,” said Montana.

While Tonka collectors put a premium on toys in original, mint condition, Montana said the presence of the original box does not add greatly to the value, as is the case with some toy vehicles. Tonka boxes are not highly decorated, and require an inordinate amount of space to display.

Montana claims demand for vintage Tonka toys has never been greater than it is now. “Like any mass-produced toys, it has a value range. It’s usually 30 to 60 years to when it reaches top value. Before that it’s not as valuable, and after that it’s not as valuable. So right now is the sweet spot where most of the Tonka toys are becoming very valuable,” he said.