If not for a small sign near the curb, most people passing by 154 White Street south of downtown Hendersonville would not know the house at that location is also home to an extensive toy collection featuring antique amusements made between 1880 and World War II.
Inside the 1,200 square-foot residence are five retrofitted rooms displaying decades of vintage toys, including an ornate dollhouse acquired by Shirley Roth while on vacation in Switzerland and the first train her husband Donald received as a gift 75 years ago.
“It’s mostly 1920s and 1930s toys, the toys of our era,” Donald explains. “Our idea is to show the toys we played with back when we were growing up. That includes dollhouses, trains, wind-up toys, dolls, miniatures and some things you might not see anywhere else. There are other places that have older or higher-priced antique toys, but what you see here are the toys of Depression-era children.”
Once inside, visitors are greeted by shelves of dolls and miniature homes on display near a selection of smaller wind-up toys the married couple has acquired over the years.
“We started collecting when we lived in Illinois, about 1975,” Shirley says. “He specialized in trains and I specialized in dollhouses. If we couldn’t find something in one of those categories, we would try to find something else unique for the collection.”
That collection began with trips to antique stores and toy shows, but those excursions quickly filled all available space at home. The toys later took over a three-bedroom apartment in a building the family owned, but that location was up a steep set of stairs and insurance costs kept the Roths from taking their private collection public.
After Donald retired from his career as an accountant, the couple moved to Hendersonville in 2000 but the collection stayed in Illinois until the White Street residence reopened as the Antique Toy Museum in 2006.
“It was either that or sell the toys and that would have been an even bigger job,” says Shirley. “I don’t like to see these things put away. I would rather have them out where people can see them and enjoy them.”
The Roths have almost as good a time telling stories about their collecting as they would have had playing with those toys when they were children.
Shirley eagerly points out details on the more than 40 dollhouses and tiny store fronts she has preserved under glass, with special attention given to accessories such as the tiny Frank Sinatra record albums in one or the ornate earring that serves as a chandelier in another.
At the same time, Donald is quick to share any available information about special items in the collection.
“We have one piece from Tryon Toys made in Tryon, North Carolina,” he proudly says pointing at a small wood desk made for a dollhouse sometime between 1915 and 1932. “They carved it and painted it here, but we found it years ago in Indiana.”
The couple has spent many hours researching these cherished keepsakes, but detailed information is often simply obscured by the passage of time.
“Some of these items may have been made anytime from 1880 to 1940, but there is no way to know how old they are for certain unless you know the history of when they were given to someone,” Donald says. “Sometimes the only way you can tell about the age is to look through old catalogs. The company may have sold the item for four, five or six years, but when you see ‘new this year’ in the catalog that gives a better idea of when the product first came out.”
Row after row of small vehicles and even a miniature plastic circus have taken over what was once the building’s kitchen. One bedroom has been remodeled to make room for collectable dolls such as Shirley Temple and Charlie McCarthy, as well as a sentimental favorite.
“This doll was mine when I was 10,” Shirley proudly says of the perfectly preserved Alice doll dating back to the late 1930s. “She’s not a really fine example of the type of jointed doll that was being made at the time, but she means a lot to me.”
Another personal connection to the collection is the original 1932 Lionel Train set Donald kept from his youth that he says still holds up in comparison to the electronic toys now more popular with today’s children.
“Some of the toys today are very good, but I don’t know if they create much imagination,” he says surrounded by vintage train sets in another bedroom of the house. “We would play with our toys from the point of view that you could create a whole world that was of your own making. I had a friend who also had a train set and we would create newspapers with stories about what happened in the towns our trains ran in. If things were bad in real life, I could always go back and play with my trains to make everything good again.”
The Roths plan to expand their toy museum later this year with more trains running in the garage and agree the most enjoyment comes not in the size of the collection but in sharing it with others.
“Most people are surprised by the quantity of what we have to show and it is lots of fun when people are really interested and spend several hours looking at what we have out on display,” Shirley says. “If another collector shows, we might as well give them the rest of the afternoon to look around, but we understand because we are the same way.”
“We probably get more fun out of it than the visitors,” Donald says. “Both of us have had a good time doing this together and a lot of families don’t have hobbies that they can share. She has toys that she collects and I have the ones that I collect, but no matter where we go we are always looking together.”