Yesterday’s toy box a priceless gift

An 89-year-old woman donated her vintage toy collection to the museum in La Center, Wash.

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LA CENTER — What’s an antique toy worth?

An “Antiques Roadshow” expert would huddle with colleagues and come up with a likely auction price or insurance value. Dollars, that is.

But visit the La Center Historical Museum with Delora Green McMenomy, 89, and there’s no question about the real value of her vintage toy collection: priceless.

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Flash Gordon rocket

Tea parties with her girlfriends on tiny china plates from Japan, and Flash Gordon rocket adventures for brother Buddy and his buddies.

Dolls that came special delivery from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs, and dolly tables and chairs handmade of leftover wood by guys who worked at the Weyerhaeuser lumber mill.

The toys now belong to the museum, since McMenomy donated them.

The happy memories of a simple La Center childhood in the early 20th century remain her own.

“It was a different sort of childhood,” McMenomy said. “We were free to run back and forth. There was no danger. We were just kids, and we had a lot of fun.”

There was an essential quartet, she said: brother Bud and herself — Delora Green in those days -- and two neighbor kids, Mildred and George Kangas.

Plenty of others also turned out to splash around the local swimming hole — under the supervision of one father who came around to keep an eye on things.

That father happened to be the father of Barbara Barnhart, who is now the president of the La Center Museum Association’s board of directors. Barnhart said the museum, which launched in July 2010 in a small former private home, relies on donations and loans from local folks such as McMenomy to keep La Center in touch with its past — a time when everybody knew everybody.

“It was a village of 419 people, and there was no museum then,” McMenomy said. For that matter, it had no fire department or police force, either.

“It was just a tiny place with a rural mail carrier,” she said.

McMenomy’s own father came to La Center after World War I for a lucrative letter-carrying job. Her mother grew up here and worked for a while as a telephone operator in Portland, she said while contemplating a little toy telephone — a black “candlestick” style with the ear piece hanging off its side. The phone used to say hello when you picked it up, McMenomy remembered.

Just like the party lines of old, she said. “You’d lift up the receiver and there might easily be four or five people on the line already,” she said.

Many of the toys came not from local stores but from those mail-order Christmas catalogs, she said. The catalogs were great entertainment in themselves, and she and her friends would pore over the descriptions and pictures intoning “I want that. I want that.”

Unlike today, though, children in those days had no idea what they would ever actually get. Parents did the ordering and the gifts arrived in secrecy. Only at Christmas would all be revealed.

Eventually, her family moved to Kelso and then McMenomy married and moved to California, where she raised a family of her own. One reason most of her dolls and plates and irons remain intact, she said, is that she had boys, not girls. Not many of brother Buddy’s things are left, she said, but she always preserved what she had. “We took good care of our things. Nothing got damaged.” Some still have their original boxes, she said.

After a lifetime in California, McMenomy returned just last year to the family acreage that was settled by her German-immigrant great grandparents.

Today it’s the home of McMenomy’s Highland Tree Farm, northeast of town. She still loves La Center, she said, but she found that she barely recognized this place of restaurants and sidewalks, shops and — most amazing of all — casinos.

So she called her old friend Barbara Barnhart to offer the museum the gift of most — not all — of her old toys.

Not the couple of the truly antique dolls that belonged to her grandmother.

“I just can’t quite give them up yet,” she said.

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