Put Tryon resident in a time machine, and he wouldn’t waste time hemming and hawing about which past date to visit. “I’d go back to 1924,” he says assuredly. It was before the Great Depression and WWII limited supplies, the date he believes was “the golden year” for Tryon Toymakers and Wood Carvers, a children’s toy and wooden art-craft company established in Tryon 100 years ago.
To be more precise, he’d go back to 1924 with $2,000 in his pocket.
“I couldn’t take anybody with me, because I’d just leave them to bring back as much as I could from the Toymakers. Now that’s selfish, but I’m just being honest,” he quips.
Since 2000, Dunn has been seriously collecting toys and carved pieces made by the legendary cottage business. While he collects items from any period in the company’s history — it changed ownership two times over the decades, and operated from 1915 until the early 1990s — those created when founders Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale were at the helm have a special place in his heart.
“I’m in the construction business, and I’ve always enjoyed wood of any caliber,” he shares. Dunn thinks that items made under the tutelage of the founding women, renowned artists, are as high caliber as they come — despite the fact that they weren’t actually made by Vance’s or Yale’s own hands.
Vance trained in Cincinnati’s art academy under famed carvers, and was later educated in England. Between 1901 and 1915, she and Yale lived in Asheville’s Biltmore Village, where they ran what would become Biltmore Industries. They trained young artisans to produce carved accessories such as bookends, as well as small furnishings. According to cultural historian Michael McCue, who authored Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers: A History 1915-1940, the woodwork was, in fact, the most sophisticated and finest crafted in America at the time.
After the death of Biltmore Estate owner George Vanderbilt, in 1914, Vance and her partner relocated to Tryon and founded their new company. The nonprofit operation trained young people to handcraft the toys, which were inspired, perhaps surprisingly, not by Southern Appalachian but European precedents.
“The carvings were all so detailed that it took master craftsmen, in my opinion — regardless of their age — to duplicate the different patterns,” remarks Dunn. “And the toys, the colors, are absolutely brilliant.”
It’s also the craftsmanship that got James Blanton collecting 10 years ago. But it’s the stories, which connect him to the company’s history, that keep him searching and buying.
He’s had folks from across the country contact him about their toys. They come and see his collection and share stories of how and when their parents acquired their items (usually on a family trip to the retail space in Tryon) — before ultimately leaving them in his thoughtful hands, knowing he’ll care for the time capsules of times past.
“I can’t quit,” he shares. “It’s addictive, I’ll tell you that.”
Dunn feels the same way. He, too, has gathered his collection from distant points on the map — as far away as Washington State — a testament that Tryon Toymakers’ legacy reaches way beyond the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Over the years, not only has he learned a great deal about Miss Vance and Miss Yale, as he refers to them, but he’s also learned a valuable lesson in collecting: hang on to every piece.
“One of the first things I bought was a serving tray. And like an idiot, at some point in time, I sold the thing, which I’ve always regretted,” he says. “Since then I haven’t sold anything I’ve purchased that is related to Tryon Toymakers.” (The company ceased production in the early 1990s.)
Ultimately, it’s his wish to leave his impressive collection to the town of Tryon so that residents and visitors alike can enjoy and learn about the simultaneously serious and whimsical facet of its artisan history.
“I’ve had wonderful years of my life in Tryon,” he shares. “Everyone in this town is accepted, and that’s what I like about it — the warmth and friendless of it.” No doubt that’s why Vance and Yale stepped off the Southern Railway in the small town a century ago.
Visit www.tryontoymakers.org to learn more about the history of Tryon Toy Makers