Couple's wooden toys featured at holiday festival
Most of Santa's elves are located at the North Pole, but two of them live and work in Indiana County.
The workshop of Jim and Dorothy Burkett of Home is full of lumber, woodworking tools, sawdust and toys in all stages of construction waiting to be loved by a child.
No batteries are required for the couple's old-fashioned wooden toys. They have become a mainstay among items offered for sale each holiday season in the gift shop at Indiana County Parks and Trails' Festival of Lights drive-through display at Blue Spruce Park.
Jim Burkett makes wooden trucks in all sizes, types and price ranges. The largest are available as dump trucks with a bed that actually dumps and logging trucks complete with scaled-down logs. There are also trailer trucks, tankers, tow trucks and pickups. All of the trucks have moveable wheels.
Burkett also makes toy trains in two sizes. Each features a locomotive and a caboose while the larger model has wooden circus animals riding in each of its three cars.
According to Burkett, the prevalence of technological toys for today's youngsters hasn't diminished their interest in his simple wooden ones. “They're fascinated with the wooden toys,” he said. “They especially like the ones that move.”
Burkett also makes helicopters, planes and games of all sorts for children. His most popular item at the craft shows he and his wife frequent is a miniature basketball game. They sell 150 to 200 of them every year. Each comes with an attached spoon that is used in an attempt to throw a ball through a hoop.
Burkett also makes a game in which a ball has to be caught in a hand-held cup, another that requires a child to land a ring around an elephant's trunk and some traditional wooden games such as tic-tac-toe. In yet another of his games, golf tees are jumped and removed until only one remains.
Jacob's ladder, or “tumbling blocks” — an old-fashioned toy that has entertained children and adults for centuries — is another item Burkett makes that is very popular at craft shows.
His wife said, “You never know what we'll sell a lot of. One year we ran out of Jacob's ladders, so the next year we made extra and hardly sold any of them.”
For very small children, there is a wooden outline of a shoe with laces that can be used to teach how to tie bows. There are also pull toys including a dog and a cricket with legs that move.
Acknowledging that children everywhere love to catch bugs, Jim Burkett makes a screened wooden cage for housing lightning bugs, spiders or whatever a child wants to put in it.
None of the toys he makes specifically for children are stained, painted or varnished. “I leave them natural so I know they're safe,” he said. “Some people paint or varnish them themselves after they buy them.”
One item that is equally popular with children and adults is a bank Burkett makes using old brass post office boxes. The banks are made of wood with the door of the post office box in the front. There is a brass slot in the top for inserting money, and the combination for the door is on the bottom.
“I don't know how much longer I'll be able to make those,” he noted. “It's getting harder and harder to find anyone selling the old post office boxes.”
Burkett also makes a Nativity set intended for decorative use.
Most of Burkett's toys are made from either oak or cherry, but he also uses poplar, maple, ash, aspen and pine. He cuts and processes most of his lumber on the couple's farm, but occasionally buys material from a local Amish saw mill.
Burkett has been making wooden toys for 15 years. It was a natural outgrowth of the 48 years he spent working as a carpenter before he retired from Indiana University of Pennsylvania eight years ago.
Previously, he made stained-glass items as a hobby and sold them at the 18 to 20 crafts shows he and his wife attended every year. He noted he was always fascinated by the wooden toys other vendors were selling and started making them when a young man from New York gave him some patterns. When the popularity of stained glass waned, he switched to selling toys.
Burkett still uses patterns for many of his toys, but some, like the log and dump trucks, are strictly his own creations.
Dorothy Burkett explained she has no part in actually making the toys. Her job is filling out applications for craft shows, taking inventory, pricing items, packing them and helping to sell them at shows.
The couple has cut the number of craft shows they attend to three or four a year. “We mostly go to shows in the fall because that is when people buy the most,” Jim Burkett noted. “They're starting to think about Christmas.”
Burkett said he makes toys in his wood shop primarily for fun rather than profit. “I don't really like to read, and when I sit down to watch TV I go to sleep, so I come out here in my spare time and make toys. I like anything that involves working with my hands,” he said.
Burkett is usually looking ahead to a new project he would like to undertake. One of his future toys will be a fire truck.
In addition to making toys, the Burketts have 31 beef cattle on their farm and raise all the corn, oats and hay required to feed them.
The Festival of Lights, a two-mile driving tour featuring more than 80 light displays, is now in its 22nd season at Blue Spruce Park near Ernest.
“The Burketts are the vendors we have had the longest,” said Ed Patterson, the director of Indiana County Parks and Trails. “They've been with us almost from the beginning.”
The Festival of Lights will continue from 5:30 to 10 p.m. nightly through Jan. 1. The cost of admission is $8 per standard passenger car.
In addition to the Burketts, the festival gift shop features 19 other vendors — selling such items as homemade candy and ornaments. The shop will be open from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. through Dec. 23. Santa will be at the shop from 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from now until Christmas.
Dorothy Burkett explained the vendors take turns manning the gift shop. She and her husband are usually there three evenings per week. After the festival, Jim Burkett noted, “We won't have any more craft shows until next fall.”
That's understandable. Elves deserve a rest when Christmas is over.
Jeanette Wolff is a freelance writer.