The chance gift of a Tonka truck for a Yankton man nearly three decades ago developed into a lifetime hobby and a dazzling collection.
Micah James has been an avid collector of Tonka Toys since 1993 when his wife, Patsy, gave him a Tonka Toy she bought at an auction.
“She wanted something for my office shelf,” he said. “I took it apart and cleaned it, and she noticed how much I enjoyed it. She said I needed a hobby, so that’s where it all started.”
It is more than just fun now. Recently, James and his friend Darcy Snyder published a “Collectors Guide to Tiny Tonka Toys 1968-1982.”
“I’ve got all the ‘Tinys’ collected, and since I had all the toys, I took the pictures and we published the book this spring,” James said. “There are almost 300 pages — over 1,300 pictures — of toys from my collection and there are a few toy pictures that I had to borrow from other people.”
The book rose to No. 24 on Amazon for antiques and collectibles and stayed there for some time, he noted.
“There are a lot of collectors,” James said. “We threw in other chapters that they didn’t have, like private labels — I’ve got over 30 prototype toys — and some of my cranes. Nobody’s ever put this stuff together before.”
The private labels were limited editions made to order for specific customers to buy and then sell or give out as gifts. Prototype toys were made of wood and were used to create the box art, he said.
“The model makers would sit and draw up designs and try to make something close in scale to what they wanted (out of wood),” James said. “Then, they would send it to management, and management would decide whether it would be produced or not.”
The hobby has involved a lot of research into the details of each toy, the decals, boxes and where they were made.
James said he began collecting items from the “Mighty” line that he played with as a child.
“But I knew I was going to be so into this hobby that I was going to have to focus more on the smaller toys, the ‘Tinys’ the ‘Minis,’ and then the private labels and the regular size Tonka Toys,” he said.
Until 2005, James said his Tonka collection was much smaller, with maybe two toys on each of the display shelves lining the walls of his basement collection room.
Now the display shelves are filled from floor to ceiling along with a glass display cabinet. Also, the collection fills the shelves in an adjacent hallway that leads to a two-car garage full of Tonka items that are not yet ready to be shown.
The collection includes all types of vehicles, including firetrucks, ambulances, campers and boats, as well as signs, doll’s hospital beds and lavish corporate gifts commissioned in the U.S. and from buyers abroad.
One private-edition pickup truck had a box in its bed that contained whiskey, two decks of cards and shot glasses, while a private-edition mini car was plated with 24 carat gold, he said.
Originally produced in Mound, Minnesota, the Tonka Corporation became a division of Hasbro, Inc., in 1991.
“In ‘82 or early ’83, they shut down the plant in Mound, Minnesota, and moved it to Juarez, Mexico,” James said. “That didn’t last long, and they moved it to El Paso, Texas. That’s when they started changing everything over to plastic for cost-effectiveness.”
Over the years, Tonkas have been made in the U.S., Canada, Japan and New Zealand. Today, they are being made in China, he said.
Though his first Tonka Toy came from an auction, James said he rarely shops those sales anymore.
“You could say, (auctioneers) don’t understand that Tonka made millions of toys — especially the yellow toys, the ‘Mightys,” James said. “You don’t see any of those in my collection because they’re just so common, and they won’t hold their value.”
James’ collection focuses on the limited-edition “Mini” line of Tonka started in 1963.
“What’s really unique is to find the toys that we didn’t have in the U.S.,” James said.
Tonka never kept detailed records, and research today can be stymie by the troubled history of the corporation itself.
“When they shut the plant down in (Mound) in 1982 and early 83, the employees were so upset, they just threw everything in the dump — file cabinets, papers, boxes, toys — they just got rid of it,” he said. “There were actually people digging through the city dump to pull that stuff out, which is amazing.”
James describes his hobby as an investment that hasn’t turned into an addiction, but something else.
His online presence includes a Facebook page called Tonka Toy Collectors Club, which he started more than 11 years ago and has 9,000 collectors worldwide following it. Also, he purchased the URL www.tonkatoys.com from a friend three years ago with the intention of turning it into a museum to display his collection and set the record straight on a lot of the Tonka Toy misinformation currently online.
“I spend a lot of time researching,” he said. “I’ve come to love the history.”
James’ collection even includes some South Dakota Tonka Toys, including a 1956 Tonka Morrell Meats truck and a 1956 Wilson Trailer he bought in Menno.
“This came out of the Menno Hardware Store,” he said. “My wife is from Menno, so it’s got a special connection to us.”