Nearly everyone can look back on their childhoods and vividly remember one thing — their favorite toys. It might have been that Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot range model air rifle that your dad was cool enough to let you have at age 8. Maybe if you’re a guy, it was Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots, He-Man figures, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Lincoln Logs, Lego bricks or any number of toys that have been popular throughout the years. Ladies might remember Rainbow Bright, Barbie, My Little Pony, Care Bears and Cabbage Patch Kids. No matter the toy, our favorites hold special memories that can transport us back to happy times and more carefree days. These Johnston men have held on to their treasures, displaying them or passing them along to their own children. But one thing’s for certain: They all agree toys are just plain old fun — even as an adult.
Lyle Kreps has been known to be a bit of a collector. His office is home to a few different collections, including some old farm toys he’s amassed over the years. One favorite is a John Deere with a front end loader on it, which is fairly rare and which he had restored a few years back.
Kreps says the tractors remind him of his days on the farm. He grew up watching his dad use a 1954 Ford 8N tractor, and Lyle held on to it after his passing in 1990. He would drive it on antique tractor drives, parades and such. It now resides with his brother-in-law in Illinois.
He has also held on to the electric train that he received when he was 9 or 10 years old. Even more interesting is what the train sits on — an antique baggage cart from a real railroad.
“Then after that all became obsolete, the people who owned gas stations would buy those from the railroad companies and put them out in front of their stations and have used tires for sale,” he says. “One day I’m driving along, and I see someone has one for sale, so I bought it.”
Kreps intended to fix the cart up and use it as a planter in their yard, but once it was restored, he decided he didn’t want it out in the elements again. He started looking around the house for a spot for it — much to his wife’s chagrin — and decided it could be housed in the basement as a table for his train. Now his grandkids come over and play with it.
“I’m kind of that way,” he says. “I have files and letters and documents and thank you notes, and it’s hard for me to throw things away that have sentimental value. My wife gets a little disgusted with me. She thinks I should throw it all away, but I don’t.”
George Eichhorn started playing chess as a kid in elementary school. In junior high, he received his first “fancy” chess set, and he’s been collecting them ever since. Now he has more than 40 sets, some fancy and some regular, meaning some are used to play the game while others are more decorative.
“I have about six or eight that are used for teaching scholastic chess which I’ve done in the past, and we’d use those sets and clocks to go to tournaments with the youth,” he says. “I play in an occasional tournament as well, so I use a few sets when I do play.”
Some of the more interesting sets include one from Africa that a friend sent as a gift. Another is a farm-themed one, where the pieces are different animals. One is from India, another from Greece. The one from Greece features pieces that are modeled on figures from Greek mythology, like King Midas. He also has one that is a replica of the 1972 World Championship match between American chess master Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky of the USSR. The match, held in Iceland, attracted more worldwide interest and publicity than any chess match before or since. It was also the last time America had a world chess champion.
“They’re fun to collect,” Eichhorn says. “When I find something unique or someone I know sends me one or tells me about one, we get another one.”
May the force be with you
When George Lucas’ “Star Wars” movies hit theaters in the late 1970s, they became an instant pop culture phenomena, kept alive by the release of another trilogy of prequels 16 years later, ushering in new generations of fans as well.
Brad Bowling is one of those fans. He started collecting “Star Wars” figures and other items as a child. He remembers when General Mills had cereal boxes that featured “Star Wars” pins. He still has those. Now he’s also added bobble heads, action figures and other collectibles.
“I think it was one of those movies that was so big when I was younger, and it’s also sort of grown as I’ve grown,” he says. “They came out with new ones as I was a teenager, so there’s more worlds to get into and things to collect.”
Bowling is a digital marketing specialist at ChildServe in Johnston. He says little trinkets like his “Star Wars” figurines are fun, and they can be inspirational. They’re also great conversation pieces, and kids who end up in his office are always excited to see them.
“The other day we had a little boy in here who asked someone on staff if we liked ‘Star Wars,’ so I got out all my stuff, and he started telling me about all his favorite characters,” he says. “I’m definitely going to keep adding to my collection.”
Pieces of the puzzle
For Dave McKenzie and his family, a tradition started with Dave’s father who started collecting unique wooden puzzles when Dave was a child. The puzzles had famous paintings or other scenes on them and were meticulously cut out by hand by an artist in Ohio. Over the years, the McKenzies have added to the collection, and now they have about 30 of the difficult puzzles.
He says each year at their family gatherings, they pull out the puzzles and the scene of frustration unfolds trying to solve the difficult puzzles. What’s unique about them is that the pieces are complicated in how the artist has cut them out in shapes. Every puzzle has the artist’s initials cut into it. There might be pieces shaped like frogs or a stalk of corn.
“It’s a fun tradition,” he says. “It’s like, ‘What do you mean we won’t have stuffing at Thanksgiving or cranberries that no one eats?’ It’s just our thing. It’s the nostalgia and attachment to it. We’re not doing them every single day, so it makes it special.”
Eric Williamson says he has always liked trains. As a kid, he played with Brio wooden trains, then graduated to HO scale until high school, when trains took a back seat to other things. But in college, a conversation with a friend reignited his interest.
“I went to school in Florida, and one of my roommates had a model railroad magazine laying on the floor,” he says. “We got to talking, and then we both had our parents send all our HO stuff down from when we were kids, and we built the train layout with scenery and everything in a one-bedroom apartment.”
Now Williamson is back in Iowa, and he has connected with a few friends who are also into trains. Between the four of them, they have more than 400 freight cars and a couple hundred locomotives. Now the foursome sets up realistic representations of real train routes in each of their homes, sending the train cars around to each other’s homes.
“Mine is in an 11×14-foot double-layer train layout, and I model the route from Kansas City to Minneapolis,” he says. “I make up a train here, then I box it up and send it to one of my friends. He takes it from North Platte to Chicago, and then Chicago, to Elk Hart, Ind., and then to Cleveland. We go over to each other’s houses and run them. It’s good guy bonding time.”
Right now, Williamson says he basically just has the tracks set up, but he hopes to create the scene with real industries that are represented on the route and include scenery pieces. Sometimes the guys get together and work on different pieces of their layouts.
“What I like about it is you can continue to expand however you want,” he says. “I’m thinking about building another layer up in the ceiling and making it go somewhere else. It’s constantly changing, but we keep it as realistic as we can. It’s a fun hobby.”