Reading comic books, playing with die-cast toys and being scolded for playing with matches are common pastimes and experiences shared by many youngsters.
These experiences are anything but child’s play for three Perry men — Bob Danger, who has most of the comics books from his childhood and hundreds more he has collected as an adult; Dick Shoesmith, who builds trains, planes and buildings from matchsticks; and Chuck Morris, who collects antique and reproduction cast iron toys, in some cases repairing broken toys and giving them new life.
Learning to read
Bob Danger picked up his first comic book about the time he was beginning to read. “That’s how I taught myself to read, even before I went into the school,” he says.
His mother would read to him from books, but it was the comic books he turned to most often.
“There was no social media, not as many cartoons on TV,” Danger says. “I think the color and watching Marvel’s superheroes in the stories first drew me to comics.”
His mother had a small hair salon when he was little, and included on the tables in her salon was a stack of comic books. The first one he ever looked at was Spiderman.
“All of a sudden, without any intention of reading, I was reading,” he says.
As he grew older, his interest subsided for a while. He thought about the comic books now and again but figured they were long gone.
“One day when we were doing some things at my folks’ place, I came across my stash of comic books. I was very surprised,” Danger says.
Over the years he has added to his collection, focusing on Marvel comics, particularly the Spiderman series, but also Avengers, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four. He also has a smattering of comic books from independent publishers and DC comics.
The longest stretch he has gone without actively collecting is about 10 years, he says.
“I don’t just buy comics to be buying comics. I keep my eyes open and if I see something I like, I’ll pick it up,” Danger says. “But things have changed. Comic books are much more expensive than they used to be.”
He recalls as a youngster at 8 or 9 years old, he and his buddies would have some change and go to the drug store or local five and dime to pick up the latest comic. Today, a comic can cost several dollars for one issue, and many of the older ones are worth several thousand dollars. The distribution of comics has also changed. Now people go to comic book stores or go online to purchase comic books.
“My dream comic would be to the original first edition of the ‘Amazing Spiderman,’ ” he says.
Just a couple of years ago, he began to catalog his comics, plugging the names and editions into a spreadsheet.
“I don’t know if my kids will ever be interested in the comics, but when the time comes, they will know what I have and what they were worth,” Danger says.
He has twin sons and a daughter. Not so long ago, he bought his son, Jack, the first edition of “Spawn,” a more recent cartoon series. He wasn’t sure how much he would like the comic or appreciate it. Jack framed the comic, and it now hangs in his room.
When his children were small, he used comic books to help them read as well.
For Danger, looking over the comics brings back memories.
“It is not so much what you have in hand today, but the flash back to 20, 30, 40 years ago,” he says.
Playing with matches
Dick Shoesmith may have been scolded about playing with matches when he was a kid, but that hasn’t kept him from playing with matchsticks as an adult.
“I like to make things with my hands, and I need things to keep me occupied,” he says.
A number of years ago, he visited a friend in Gladbrook who has been making match stick creations for years.
“He has work all over the world. I liked what I saw, and I decided to give it a try as well,” Shoesmith says.
Four or five years later, Shoesmith has numerous matchstick creations he’s sold, given away and has on display at his home such as the Eifel Tower, a biplane, a train engine pulling a train car, fire trucks and more.
“I have done several Eifel Towers, and there are fire engines in a number of fire stations across Iowa,” he says.
He gives some of his creations away, while others are sold for as much as $300 or more.
“I bought a matchstick building kit and got a lot of the plans I needed, so now I just buy the matchsticks,” Shoesmith says. He’s also made his own plans for various types of bicycle models.
He buys the matchsticks in batches of 1,000 from a Chicago company via the Internet. His tools include small one-sided razors to split and cut the matchsticks into varying sizes.
He said there’s no danger of causing a fire. The matchsticks come without the fire-starting match head.
Even though Shoesmith has sold some of his works, the money is not the reason he spends as much as 38 hours on one creation. That number of hours and approximately 2,500 matchsticks is what it took to build the train engine and the car it pulls.
“It is the self-satisfaction of seeing something you have created yourself take shape,” he says.
Cast iron toys come to life
Chuck Morris’ link to cast iron toys goes back to his childhood.
“I didn’t have much in the way of toys when I was a kid,” he says. Nearly all the toys he and his siblings had as children were homemade. But he had been given a cast iron tractor with a farmer sitting in the seat.
“My parents moved when I was at school, and our neighbor took me over to the new house after I was out of school that day. My little tractor was in the sand pile at the house we moved from, and I never saw it again,” Morris says. “But I have one now.”
The tractor was an Arcade 10-20, he says, as he pulls one off a shelf with many other tractors, wagons drawn by horses and other motor and horse-drawn vehicle models.
The tractor was painted gray with red wheels, and the farmer on the seat was silver. Many of his vehicles are displayed in cases in his basement. However, Morris also has a work area and several tables with parts and pieces of wagons, miniature manure spreaders, hay wagons, horses and farmers shaped to sit on seats.
“I buy a box of things at an auction, and a lot of times I don’t even know what all is in the box until I get it home and sort it out,” Morris says. “I use the various parts and pieces to fix broken cast iron toys.”
One box holds rows of toy horses posed and waiting to pull wagons or other antique farm machinery.
“Sometimes, even if a toy looks like it needs to be painted, it is best to leave it alone. In those cases, putting a new coat of paint on the toy can reduce its value. If a toy is too rusty, I take it into my garage to sandblast it, then I repaint the toy,” he says.
“I’ve been collecting for years, but it has just been the last two years that I’ve begun sandblasting the cast iron myself,” he says. While he has a workshop in his basement where he puts together the final touches, the restoration work begins in a big garage behind his house.
He sits on a stool in front of his enclosed sandblasting equipment with his hands in thick rubber gloves attached to the sandblasting box. This allows him to handle the work inside the box without inhaling the resulting particles. On nearby shelves, various cast iron pieces that can be used to repair broken toys wait to be sandblasted and then repainted.
Before he bought his own sand blasting equipment, he would take the toys to an outside shop to get the work done.
Even as his display cases remain lined with his collections, he sorts and plans what he will sell. He sold a large number of items at an auction last year. Morris also plans to sell more this year.
He explains that while some of his pieces are worth a great deal, others he purchased in the 1980s aren’t worth as much as they used to be. That’s in part due to the active collectors growing older and not as many of them are left around to purchase the toys.
Still, he says he can make money on the toys he repairs.
“I used to say I wouldn’t sell some of my collection, but honestly, I’m not that sentimental about them,” he says.
“Well,” he adds, “I might not sell the 10-20 Arcade.”