NORTH CHARLEROI – Wood salvaged from an old-growth tree that was likely planted during Thomas Jefferson’s time at Monticello is being given new life at a Mon Valley toy factory.
Workers at Channel Craft in North Charleroi are turning out a limited edition of hand- and machine-made hobby horses from the tulip poplar tree, souvenirs that are being sold at the Charlottesville, Va., landmark built by the nation’s third president, said factory founder and President Dean Helfer Jr.
“I wanted to create something different and create an heirloom,” Helfer said Friday as his crews sanded, stained and sealed a line of a toy that became popular in the United States before the auto age.
Monticello already had been selling Channel Craft’s vintage toys when its staff approached Helfer about giving him the tree to use its wood to build the house’s gift shop more games. The tree couldn’t be saved, he said, and was cut down last year over fears it would fall on Monticello during a storm.
The tree, because of its giant size, would have been able to provide the wood for more games than Monticello could ever sell, said Helfer, whose factory in a former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plant along the Mononogahela River employs about 35 workers.
He founded the business in 1983 while still in college, using his grandfather’s tools to make boomerangs and selling them on weekends at craft festivals out of an old rusty Chevy van. They became so popular that by the time he graduated in 1985 from West Virginia University, he was netting $65,000 a year in sales. Today, while the boomerang is still his best-selling toy, Channel Craft’s extensive, authentic American line has grown to include Civil War jigsaw puzzles and replica newspapers from that time, juggling sticks, wooden riverboat whistles, jacks and board games.
Helfer’s orders this time of year are booming because of the tourism season and his toys are sold at such destinations as national parks, amusement parks, museums and even Cracker Barrel restaurants.
“We’re buried this time of year,” he said. “That’s a good problem to have.”
Monticello spent decades using experts in attempts to save the tree, Helfer said.
“Arborists did everything they could,” Helfer said.
It was one of two tulip poplars Monticello eliminated on the grounds, said Lisa Stites, spokeswoman for the historic site. Other sections of the trees are being used to create bowls and guitars, she said.
One of the trees was sent away for an analysis that determined it dated to the early 1800s, and it is undergoing a second test to verify its age, Stites said.
“They do believe it was there during Jefferson’s time,” she said.
Jefferson’s log books also mention the planting of tulip poplars on the property, Stites added.
The tree trunk given to Helfer was 4 1/2 feet in diameter. Helfer said he used it to create 2,000 board feet of hardwood, which has beautiful dark striations.
The horse heads are cut out and etched by a computerized pneumatic router before they are turned over to employees using sanders to smooth out their rough spots.
“I like Monticello. It has a lot of history,” said Val Johnson of Webster, while sanding the wood.
“It’s kind of like an honor working on them,” Johnson said.
“Each one is unique. We use an all water-based finish so if a kid chews on one it’s not toxic,” Helfer added.
He just finished the first batch last month of the only line of 1,000 Monticello hobby horses ever to be made and delivered them to Charlottsville, as well as Colonial Williamsburg. They are selling quickly for retail prices between $50 and $75 apiece.
“I couldn’t pass up one of Thomas Jefferson’s trees,” Helfer said.
Visit the following web address for information on purchasing the hobby horses from Monticello: www.monticellocatalog.org/120208.html