|By Larry LeMasters
As every Baby Boomer knows, for any child growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s, there was only one toy company that made construction toys tough enough to stand up to the abuse children dish out — Tonka.
Lynn Everett Baker, Avery F. Crounse, and Alvin F. Tesch founded Mound Metalcraft in 1946 in an old schoolhouse in Mound, Minn. Founded to manufacture tie racks and garden tools and implements, Mound Metalcraft did a complete turn around when the Streater Company, a former occupant of Mound’s schoolhouse factory building, approached Mound Metalcraft offering to sell the firm patents on several metal toys that Streater once produced. Baker, Crounse, and Tesch thought metal toys might make a good sideline, but they did not envision where the toys would take them.
The three men chose the Dakota Sioux word “Tanka” (Americanized to “Tonka”) for the brand name of their toy line. Tanka means “great” or “big,” which the new Tonka trucks and construction equipment were sure to be.
Tonka may be the only toy company that benefited from World War II. The original Tonka toys were made from automotive-grade, 20-gauge steel, most of which was left over from World War II military production, so Tonka toys were truly the best built, toughest toys around.
Almost immediately, the owners of Mound Metalcraft saw the huge potential in Tonka toys, and in November 1955, they changed the company name to Tonka Toys Incorporated.
Tonka has produced a wide variety of toys over the years. Along with their famous sheet metal trucks and construction equipment, Tonka has produced several dolls (Bathing Beauties, Maple Town, Star Fairies, and Hollywoods), Govtos, Steel Monsters, Rock Lords, Pound Puppies, and many video games, including Sega Master.
Although famous for its dump trucks, Tonka did not begin by making dump trucks. The first two toys Tonka produced were a steam shovel and a crane with clam bucket, which were two of the original toys that Streater manufactured. In its first year of business, Tonka sold more than 37,000 steam shovels and cranes.
From 1955 through 1960 Tonka sales in America tripled, prompting Tonka to begin oversea sales in 1963. Tonka trucks and construction equipment were high-end products made of durable materials. If anything, the only problem with a Tonka truck was its cost. The earliest Tonka toys retailed for about $30, which is equivalent to $140 in 2019 money. Although Tonka advertised, “no boy should be without one,” Tonka prices kept many poor boys from owning one.
While Tonka started with a steam shovel, the company has always been known for its Mighty Dump Truck, which was not offered for sale until 1964. Although it took 18 years before Tonka offered its dump truck, without a doubt, the Tonka Mighty Dump Truck became the company’s biggest seller with over 15 million Mighty Dump Trucks sold.
Original Mighty Dump Trucks came with solid rubber tires (these are highly sought after by collectors). To save money and make the trucks lighter for boys to play with, Tonka drilled into the tires, removing excess rubber and weight. Still, the Tonka Mighty Dump Truck weighed a staggering 11 pounds, which was nearly as heavy as some of the children who played with it.
Tonka said, “a toy shouldn’t break just because a child plays with it.” To prove this statement, for a television advertisement in the 1970s, Tonka had an elephant stand on one of its trucks. When the elephant stepped down, the truck rolled away, proving “it’s Tonka Tough” was truth in advertising!
Original Tonka trucks had, until about 1957, round fenders. In 1957 Tonka discontinued the round fender trucks and started producing square fender toys. And in 1964, Tonka stopped making toy trucks that looked like Ford trucks. Following 1964, Tonka trucks took on a rounded, generic look.
True Tonka lovers should plan a trip to the Winifred Museum in Winifred, Mon. This museum has a collection of more than 3,000 Tonka toy trucks and construction equipment, advertising its collection as “possibly the largest Tonka collection in the world!”