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Out of the attic

Out of the attic

Blockraft: a Cedar Springs toy company

By Judy Reed

Recently, reader Steve Hegedus sent us two photos of old construction toys up for sale on ebay—and the box said they were made in Cedar Springs, Michigan. 

“I’ve never heard of anything like this existing in Cedar before,” he wrote. Neither had we, so we decided to try to find out what the story was.

According to information from the Henry Ford Museum website, Blockraft toys were made in Grand Rapids from 1937-1946, and the materials were made from wood and cardboard. Here is their summary: “Children love to build things—whether they create imaginative worlds or smaller versions of the real one. Construction toys are quite literally and figuratively ‘the building blocks of childhood.’ Playing with them builds physical and intellectual skills—and encourages creativity. This set of colorful blocks used pegs to help secure a child’s creation together.”

The photo on their website looked liked one we were sent, but we couldn’t see the part that said where they were made. Why did they say they were made in Grand Rapids? We sent the Henry Ford Museum an email but did not hear back. At the same time, we contacted the Cedar Springs Historical Society to see if they had any info, which they did, along with some of the toys. In fact, they have a whole page about Blockraft in their book, The Making of Town, a historical journey through Cedar Springs, Michigan.

According to Sharon Jett, director of the Cedar Springs Historical Museum, the company had its start in Grand Rapids, and the owners were Frank and Russell Van Dore. They created a wooden set of shapes, with holes drilled on each side, to be connected with wooden dowels. Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, which were created in the early 1900s, were popular construction toys at the time.

Sometime in the 1930s, local resident Ray Oppeneer was hired as a production manager. Then, in about 1945, the operation was moved to 142 W. Cherry Street, in Cedar Springs, on the north side of Cherry and Fifth Streets. Oppeneer’s family told Jett that in the 1950s, Raymond bought shares in the company and became the owner. 

“Many different products were designed to meet the growth and educational needs of children and schools,” Jett wrote in the book. It said that the sorting and packaging were done on an assembly line, with about 30 area women assembling the toy set, and about eight men operating the machines that manufactured the toys. The company reportedly sold its products to schools in the U.S. and Canada. April through October was their busier time, with many employees laid off November through March.

Eventually, American toy manufacturers found it difficult to compete with overseas competition, and the introduction of plastic toys as well. The book reports that Oppeneer retired in 1964 and sold the assets of the company and retired the Blockraft name.

Jett said they have several examples of the toys in their exhibit, but the museum is not currently open. Those wishing to see the toys can visit when they reopen, tentatively in April. You can also see photos of them in the book. If you’d like to learn more about the museum, visit their website at www.cedarspringsmuseum.org. To contact them, send an email to cedarspringsmuseum@gmail.com.

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